Right behind The Dark Knight, Arkham Asylum is my second-favorite Batman experience of all time. Most people will often site the sequel—Arkham City—as the undisputed champion of Batman games, but for me, that title belongs to the first entry in Rocksteady’s esteemed franchise.
Critics and fans alike have sung the praises of these games for over a decade now, admiring the smooth combat system and tantalizing traversal mechanics, the brilliant voice performances and excellent array of villains.
All of that unfolds in Arkham Asylum, with an added bonus of an expertly crafted stage on which these players can perform to their highest degree.
And like a character in itself, that stage was employed oh-so carefully by the developers as a means to pander to plot and tone, while the sequel’s City appeared somewhat as a conformity to the open-world craze that had been gaining momentum in the preceding months.
From Fallout and Borderlands to Skyrim and Red Dead, open-world titles were taking the medium by storm when the new decade commenced. I’m not saying the City wasn’t a fantastic playground for players to utilize Batman’s gadgets in fun and interesting ways—just that it felt less-inspired than its predecessor.
Arkham City featured fantastic boss battles, and naturally the gameplay was more refined—albeit, only to an extent—but one thing that always stood out to me was the enemies. The goons you face in every alleyway and atop each building. Their dialogue both casual and mid-combat is wittier in the sequel, but they were almost never meaningful to fight.
See, if you ever felt overwhelmed, you could just traverse yourself out of the situation and into the open world at the drop of a hat, whereas in Asylum, you had to take out the goons to unlock the next door or save the next person. You were trapped with your enemies, more or less, rendering Batman more of an inhabitant of the madhouse than the actual patients themselves.
The plot of Arkham Asylum was straightforward from the start: Joker escapes custody soon after arriving, sets all of the patients free, and calls in his goons to help execute his plan.
This immediately releases a feeling of dread that looms throughout the entire campaign, with insanity lurking around every corner of each respective hallway, and that apprehension gradually only increases as you further explore the facilities—finding new gadgets and encountering fresh foes along the way.
The setting conveys an unabating sense of horror thanks to lunatics hiding above you in the ceiling or below you in the floor grates, longing to jump out and attack from the subjugation of an intense, rage-filled mania. However, the game doesn’t quite fall into the horror genre.
Built as a conduit for classic Metroidvania elements, the Asylum often keeps you confined in certain corridors, unable to leave until you rescue numerous people and find specific items, and you’ll keep that up until you save each innocent life and ultimately thwart Joker’s plans.
Architecturally speaking, the design of the estate as a whole is simply awe-inspiring, particularly with buildings like the Mansion and the Botanical Gardens. The latter acts as a fantastic change of pace with regard to aesthetic, with other atmospheres including a sewer system underneath the grounds—home to a tense and exciting Killer Croc battle—as well a system of caves which Batman uses as refuge in the form of, you guessed it: the Batcave.
Everything that transpires in the game is ultimately propelled by Batman’s desire to stop Joker—but he’s also inspired by a particular drive to restore order within the Asylum itself. He’s there to save the doctors and restrict the released inmates. He’s there to learn its history and unearth its many wonderful secrets.
And as he sets out on this ambitious quest, the setting’s change is palpable. The Asylum showcases its sundry environments naturally throughout the campaign, yes—but its rendered the perfect spot for a Batman title by dint of those environments shifting with the ebb of the plot, moving and developing as the game progresses, and they do so with a tangible fluidity that resonates with players to an inconspicuous degree.
When Poison Ivy’s plants are exposed to the Titan strain, they spread across the Asylum to specific locations that the player has already explored. Upon revisiting these spots, a physical change will skew their senses and key them into the fact that something is different. That much is obvious.
But when plants start attacking Batman with spores, growing exponentially to the point of blocking certain paths from travel, players go into game mode and solely focus on overcoming the obstacles at hand. They don’t often consider the physical change that the map itself had undergone.
Plus, there’s no way to predict these changes, as Rocksteady specifically utilized the Asylum to consistently divert the player’s attention and subvert their expectations.
Take the morgue scene, for instance. Even though we physically see his corpse lying on the floor, it’s obvious that Gordon is still alive, and it’s transparent that our minds are being tampered with as the doors inside the morgue begin opening and closing on their own, with voices forming in the room telling us to leave.
What players didn’t expect, however, was when they rush to the exit in an attempt to escape the voices in their head, the game immediately spits them back inside the morgue. Try to leave again—it will be to no avail.
They didn’t expect the scene of Thomas and Martha’s bodies coming to life before Scarecrow finally gets his claws on you. And what commences subsequently is one of the most brilliant shifts of both gameplay and plot that I’ve seen in all of gaming.
There’s nothing in this title that stands out quite as much as the intense and captivating Scarecrow missions—some of the most well-developed and perfectly executed levels in any video game. They’re aesthetically pleasing, they add new 2D platforming mechanics to the campaign, and their spontaneity truly conveys the game’s overarching theme of insanity.
And the map continues to shift until everything is said and done. When Joker is ready for him, a party is scheduled for Batman’s arrival at the final boss of the game. Decorations now sprawl throughout a familiar corridor of the Asylum, with a refined mural of Joker’s face poised above the entrance to the party, and inside, his goons are lined up along the walls, waiting for you—and now they’re donning party hats.
But they don’t attack you. They clap for you, in fact. They cheer your name and celebrate your arrival to this climactic celebration.
It’s an off-putting scene, but it works wonderfully thanks to the deranged nature of the antagonist in tandem with the dynamic nature of the setting. After an extent, the player begins to subconsciously expect this sort of change to both the plot and the environment.
Even the collectibles are strategically manufactured and placed throughout the game to feel exclusive to the setting—particularly with the interview tapes. Expanding on both characters and location in one fell swoop, those examinations from villains like Harley Quinn, Killer Croc, and even Jonathan Crane propelled the overall experience of the campaign to vast heights.
Like a well-oiled machine, the cogs of the Asylum inherently illuminate various elements of gameplay, they highlight the vast array of characters-gone-wrong and present scores of surprises waiting to be discovered.
Regarding gameplay, voice acting, technical prowess and more, the first entry in Rocksteady’s Batman trilogy is a masterpiece for a myriad of reasons, but perhaps it shines brightest under a lens that’s focused closely on setting—in this case, Arkham Asylum: a grand facility for creative storytelling and thoughtful level design that remains unmatched throughout the franchise even ten years down the line.