Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel, Same Bat Grappling Hook

Batman: Arkham Asylum is an outstanding game; my biggest problem with it is the same thing I’ve spent hours on here trying to defend.

Batman: Arkham Asylum deserves every bit of the praise it’s been getting. It’s a terrific game that gets so much right in the first thirty minutes, I was willing to take whatever it threw at me for the rest of the game. And I was compelled to keep playing until I’d finished the story mode, which is a rarity for me these days. Even after I’d been shouting “no fair!” and wanting to break my controller in frustration, I had to keep hitting the “retry” button.

What makes the game work so well is its focus. That may seem like a weird claim to anyone who’s played the game or the demo, since the game has so many disparate components. It’s got a ton of melee combat, but it’s not really a fighting game. It’s got sections where you have to take out a group of bad guys without being spotted, but it’s not really a stealth game. It’s got jumping and maneuvering sections, but it’s not a platformer. It has you tracking down evidence, but it’s not a detective or an adventure game. And it’s got tons of cutscenes and character histories and objectives, but it’s not really a story game, either. More than anything else, the game is a Batman simulator.

When I played the demo, I was put off at first by the camera angle: it hovered, Bat-Mite-like, just over Batman’s shoulder, a little too close to be convenient, but too far away to be as immersive as a first-person view. In retrospect, though, that’s the perfect set-up for this game: you’re almost The Batman. You see and do everything he does, but you can’t quite get inside his head. (And for the record, the camera work has the same level of polish as everything else in this game: it felt natural within minutes, and there was only one moment in the entire game where I even noticed the camera at all).

The usual tack for licensed games is to take a cool character and then drop him into an existing game type; for Arkham Asylum, it really feels like they built a game around being Batman. It seems that at every point during the game’s production, the developers asked, What Would Batman Do? They took each of the iconic aspects of the character (and the Rogue’s Gallery) and built a gameplay mechanic out of it.

I’ve read reviews that call out one part or another as being particularly under-developed, but they’re kind of missing the point. One review said that the combat was a little simplistic, the combo system unnecessary, and button-mashing would get you through most of the fights against common thugs. Which would be true, except: You’re Batman. There’s no question he’ll beat up common thugs; he says as much in the game. The only question is how much of a bad-ass he’ll look like as he’s doing it, and that’s where the combo system rewards you. The better your timing and response, the more acrobatic and sophisticated his animations get, until he’s swooping across the room from enemy to enemy, busting heads, doing backflips, pile-drivers, flinging bodies around, and expertly and causally blocking thugs trying to sneak up on him from behind.

You can say the same thing for the “detective” work in the game. The reason this game stands out is because the developers stayed true to the character and remembered that he’s not just a martial arts super-hero. So you spend at least half the game in their special “detective mode,” looking for clues and targets for all the gadgets on your utility belt. But Batman isn’t really a detective; he’s the World’s Greatest Detective. His suit can pick up any kind of evidence, his computer can analyze and synthesize any compound, and he makes wildly improbable deductions to move the story along, just as in the comics. It’s not even “gameplay” as much as character building. That character building is reinforced in the pacing, which always reminds you that Batman doesn’t win based on super powers, or his martial arts skills, or his gadgets; he wins by being smarter than everybody else. He doesn’t act until he’s surveyed the situation and figured out the best possible solution.

And that is exactly where the problems start to creep in. I enjoyed the hell out of the game, and I wouldn’t hesitate to call it the best videogame I’ve played this year. But there are a few pretty significant problems. First is the whole Killer Croc section, which didn’t work for me on any level. I respect the developers’ attempt to change up the gameplay and present something different, but it seems like a decent idea that fell apart during execution. Even if you get past the tedious and repetitive clue-gathering portion of it, it ends with an action sequence that just breaks all the rules of fair play: the villain springs up suddenly, you’re killed instantly if you make one mistake, and you’re forced to run along a fairly narrow platform towards a camera so that you can’t see where you’re going.

The “tedious and repetitive” complaint is my second biggest problem with the game: it belongs squarely in the Bowser school of game design, whose motto is “if it’s fun once, it’s super fun if you do it three times.” You spend almost all of the game traveling from one mini-boss to the next, which in itself isn’t a problem, since so much of the Batman story depends on his fantastic villains. But each of those boss fights requires you to do one semi-clever thing, and then repeat it two more times. And the game’s so obsessed with this structure that even when it does something really novel and interesting, like your first encounter with Scarecrow, it shoots itself in the foot by making you go through the same thing again twice. Three-shot boss fights are a standard structure in games for a reason: they take advantage of the 3-act play structure with a set-up, build-up, and climax built in to each confrontation; and they strike a decent balance between cleverness, skill, and challenge. So its repeated use here doesn’t ruin the game; it just keeps it feeling very gamey and prevents it from becoming a genuinely original experience. (Incidentally, I kept thinking that Batman could’ve avoided half the problems he ran into during this game if he’d just remembered to bring his gas mask).

But the “killed instantly if you make one mistake” complaint leads to my biggest problem with Arkham Asylum. I had a brief discussion about the game with someone on Twitter (Philip Kollar, assuming he doesn’t mind my calling him out), after he complained about the “trial and error” tedium in Arkham Asylum and stealth games in general. I responded that it wasn’t supposed to be a case of trial and error, because you weren’t supposed to die. Instead, it was reinforcing the idea that you should think before you act. If you play the game correctly, I said, then you would have completely surveyed the scene and figured out a plan of attack, before you even get into a situation where you could be killed. It shouldn’t be judged as a stealth game, but as a puzzle game.

Unfortunately, I said all that when I was still early in the game. I’d just finished a section that had you defusing a hostage situation in a locked room. I had tried it once and failed, but then instantly realized where I’d made a mistake. I’d rushed in and tried the most obvious solution, instead of checking around for a better one. For me, it was one of those adventure game moments: I didn’t get the right answer on the first try, but I realized that the right answer was something that I should have been able to figure out, so I was encouraged to jump back in and try again.

The problem is that this situation gets more severe the farther you progress through the game. I still say that it’s a puzzle game, not a stealth game, because you’re never given adequate feedback as to how “stealthy” you’re being (like Thief‘s shadow gauge or the Metal Gear Solid series’s radar and exclamation points). You’re not maneuvering through a combat situation, but trying to figure out the one correct solution to a puzzle. And Arkham Asylum shows just how clumsy and limiting puzzles feel in open-world, free-movement games.

The puzzles here aren’t quite as pre-scripted as they are in an adventure game, since there’s still an underlying system that gives you a little bit of leeway in how you tackle a problem. But that leeway actually makes things worse, here, since it just makes it more glaring when the solution to a problem is use item A on character B. There is exactly one thing you do to take down Bane, just as there is one way to get past the Scarecrow, just as there is one thing that works against Poison Ivy, and so on. This creeps into the melee combat as you get into tougher battles, too: there’s one move that works against guys with knives, and one move that works against guys with tasers.

I’ve spent a good bit of time on this blog defending the concept of “puzzles with exactly one right answer” in games, but there are two aspects of Arkham Asylum that keep it from working well. First is that so much of the game is built on the interaction of different systems, so arbitrary puzzle solutions feel artificial and out of place. If I’m playing a traditional adventure game, my entire interaction with the world is limited to using one object on another object, so it’s implicit that I simply have to find the one key that fits this one lock. But in a game where you can freely roam the environment, and where you’re fighting guys with health bars that gradually get depleted, you’re encouraged to think in terms of systems and influences. It’s more jarring when I’m told that I can easily disarm this guy, but I have to use my “stun” move on this one, and my “backflip” move on this other one; why don’t they all work equally well? And why do I have to use a batarang here, when it seems like this grappling hook gun you just gave me should work just as well? Arkham Asylum does have situations where it sets up a clear cause and effect and leaves the player to make the right deduction: when a wall explodes, it has this effect on bad guys in this range, and here are two ways to take down walls. But it’s also got plenty of “you must use the grappling hook here” moments.

The more pervasive problem is that I hardly ever felt as if I’d made a clever deduction. Whenever I’ve made a defense of puzzles in games, it’s been based on the idea that a well-designed puzzle can feel like a collaboration between the player and the developer. There may be only one right answer, but the point isn’t to enable the player to do whatever he feels like (as in, for example, Scribblenauts); the point is to guide the player to discovering the most clever (or funniest, or most horrific, or most “meaningful”) solution. A system-based game would say: “This is Bane, this is what he does, these are all the tools you have at your disposal, this is the effect of each tool. Have at it; we’ll leave you guys alone for a few minutes and check back in when we notice his HP has dropped to zero.” A puzzle-based game would say: “This is Bane, and you know the absolute coolest way to get rid of him would be to jump on his back and pull out all those tubes. Let’s think of a sequence of arbitrary events that’ll result in a pretty bad-ass cutscene.” (And incidentally, a really cool game would say: “Bane was kind of a lame character, in retrospect. How about you fight Two-Face or the Penguin instead?”)

But the boss fights in Arkham Asylum — and many of the “stealth” sequences, for that matter — try for an uneasy hybrid of the two, and end up having the worst aspects of both with few of the advantages. You get the opening cutscene, you try whatever weapons you’ve been given, you get beaten up, and Batman dies. Over the death cutscene, the game tells you the solution to the puzzle. You hit the retry button, and you try what it told you to do until you get it right. You hardly ever get a chance to try different things (because you’re often in a confined environment and have no way to recharge your health), and even if you do, the most obvious thing might not work. You still get the cool ending cutscene, but you “earned” it not by being clever, but by being persistent enough to keep doing what the game told you to do until you got it right.

Again, Batman: Arkham Asylum is a hell of a lot of fun, even with these problems. I’m even enamored with the game enough to go back in for all the collectibles and “extra” levels, something I’m hardly ever compelled to do. But I couldn’t help thinking how much better it’d be if it’d been able to strike a more comfortable balance between puzzles and systems. I’ve already said that the first Half-Life promised to render the traditional adventure game obsolete, but a decade later, we still don’t have a great example of a game that balances deduction, storytelling, and action. And I’ve said that instead of treating adventure games as an evolutionary dead end, developers should be paying more attention to what adventure game developers have learned about puzzle design, and applying those lessons to games with more sophisticated and complex interfaces. Arkham Asylum shows that there’s still an audience for single-player games that have an emphasis on characterization and cinematic moments, and which don’t fall into any one specific genre like “shooter” or “brawler” or “stealth game.” Even if it doesn’t quite strike that perfect balance, it’s a step in the right direction, and I’ll have a good time just wailing on thugs until somebody manages to make the game that does strike that balance.