Due to a myriad of possible issues, licensed games in general were more miss than hit. Strict deadlines and requirements from rights owners often put developers at a major disadvantage. This was somewhat less of an issue when the level of fidelity expected was lower during the previous console generations. Even rushed games required to tie-in to the release of a blockbuster film had a chance of being great when handled by the right team. But during the 360/PS3 era, the balance of technology/expectations vs. time/budget seemed to hit a breaking point. At this point, the cost and time required to create games up to the expected standard of quality was no longer really seen as a good investment by the rights holders of many licenses. Most licensed games around this era were low-effort affairs that were aimed at younger audiences and destined to receive bad-to-middling reviews. There were rare exceptions to all of this, but for the most part, no one had much faith in licensed games, especially ones about superheroes.
On paper, Batman: Arkham Asylum should have been another one of those failures. Aside from the rare gem like Spider-Man 2 from 2004, there wasn’t really any precedent for a truly great superhero game. Plus, developer Rocksteady was unproven. The decently reviewed FPS Urban Chaos: Riot Response was the only title they had to their name. Outside of the diehard Batman fandom, reactions to pre-release footage of Arkham Asylum tended to range from disinterest to cautious optimism. But when people were finally able to get their hands on the finished game, gamers seemed to have a collective epiphany. This was not just a decent Batman game. It was the Batman game. Every aspect combined together to create something truly definitive. The voice actors poached directly from the animated series were perfect. The characterization was spot-on, especially that of Batman and Joker. The atmosphere leaned into the gothic fantasy of Batman’s world, not shying away from the more out-there abilities of characters like Bane and Poison Ivy. Rocksteady proved with every lovingly crafted character moment and riddle that their staff truly understood and cared about Batman and his world.
Not only did it nail the tone and characters, but it was also a fantastically-designed game on top of it all. The fully-explorable Arkham Island seemed to draw heavy inspiration from games like Metroid Prime, portraying a living world filled with lore, intrigue, and secrets to find. As Batman acquires new gadgets, more of the island becomes accessible. The stealth gameplay was simple compared to other series but was extremely effective at creating tense situations and encouraging you to put Batman’s utility belt of gadgets to use. Right out of the gate, the combat system was nearly perfect, striking a balance of simple controls and palm-sweating, split-second decision-making to keep your combo going. I will argue vehemently that anyone who called the combat system “button-mashy” or “too simple” did not fully engage with the mechanics. Sure, you can survive most encounters by mashing buttons; but to look stylish and score a good combo, you really must know what you’re doing.
Asylum went on to score rave reviews with both fans and critics and reach commercial success that expanded the Arkham name into its own franchise. Proving that this was no flash-in-the-pan, a string of acclaimed sequels continued the story and arguably made the formula even better (we may come back to talk about those in a future article). The franchise continuity still lives on with the upcoming release of Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League. Not only did Rocksteady manage to break the licensed game curse, but its success set a precedent for licensed games being able to stand amongst the all-time gaming greats. Despite everything stacked against it, Batman: Arkham Asylum became a modern classic, with its example ushering in future successes like Insomniac’s Spider-Man games. Old copies for the original platforms are widely available, and re-releases for modern PCs and consoles are often very affordable, so you owe it to yourself to try it out if you haven’t yet.