Batman Arkham Asylum – “Holy Similarities, Batman!”
Franchise adaptations into videogame terrain are usually characterized by a meaningless boxing of the original work’s aesthetic universe into a stereotyped gameplay genre. Rocksteady Studios nails the aesthetic translation requirement, by creating “Arkham Asylum”, an environment which faithfully replicates the comics’ narrative and aesthetic space. You will still find burly character models and limited colour palettes; let’s be honest, this game isn’t exactly profound in its aesthetic and narrative portrayals, but then again, neither are most of “Batman’s” comics. In this regard, a special mention must be made to the exquisite voice-work delivered by Mark Hammill (remember Luke Skywalker?) who, cast in the role of Joker, manages the exceptional task of transforming a poor script (penned by Paul Dini, of the animated series) into a delicious succession of black humor gags. His voice is so hypnotic and enthralling, one can almost forget how poorly expressive Unreal Engine’s facial animations are.
But the most surprising aspect of the new “Batman” game is precisely the renunciation of the typical logic behind franchise adaptations. “Arkham Asylum’s” game play mechanics are neither generic nor hollow, fitting perfectly with the dark knight: a mix of exploration, elegant and stylish brawler combat (somewhat evocative of “Assassin’s Creed” QTE style of battle) and stealth sequences. The game shows a meticulous characterization of Batman’s modus operandi, from the use of darkness, surprise and psychological mind games as weapons of choice for the caped crusader, to the employment of his iconic belt gadgets. Unfortunately, the different play styles are never blended organically, meaning that the experience tends to become a linear and predictable sequence of claustrophobic arenas, each enclosed by its own specific type of gameplay. Occasionally there are a few bosses, but not even these can serve as climax to a repetitive progression, which lacks crescendo and tension.
However, the biggest fault I sense within this “Batman” lies not in its gameplay. It’s something far more encompassing and subjective, and in all honesty, something which I must admit is not even a fair critique. “Arkham Asylum’s” greatest sin lies in how well it reminds us of how close the video game medium is to comic books and juvenile animation series, and how distant it is from cinema. Whether it is the aesthetic, the tone or plot of the game, you can always feel the similarities it bears with both comic books and the animation series. The translation is effective precisely because of the spiritual and artistic resemblances between these mediums. But inevitably, the powerful cinematic rendition of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” will remain ever looming, reminding anyone of how much more immature and poor our own medium is when compared to its older sibling – film. And most likely, should anyone in the video game medium even attempt to move in closer to “The Dark Knight’s” ascetic, realistic style and morally ambiguous tale, they would surely be critically and commercially unsuccessful. Game designers who stick to comic book aesthetics however, fare well, let us not forget that it’s always easier to translate muscular men in tights kicking villain’s butts, than address issues of moral ethics, law and justice.
Nevertheless, despite level design flaws and these quibbles of mine, “Arkham Asylum” must be commended for being, surprisingly, one of those rare cases of a successful translation into the video game medium. It’s not a great adaptation… but it’s not that great a medium to begin with.
[Part of this text was originally published in Portuguese, in Coimbra’s College Paper “ACabra”, dating 06/10/09]