Batman: Arkham Asylum is a game that crawls inside your head and rearranges the furniture.

While other superheroes merely catch the crooks and then parade around with smug smirks, Batman goes out of his way to get inside the criminal mind and twist it into submission; that alone makes him one of my favourite comic book characters. Similarly, Batman: Arkham Asylum is a game that crawls inside your head and rearranges the furniture.

It's a triumph of mood and psychological tension, and devoted fans will find a great deal to excite them. But they're also bound to be disappointed by its reliance on repetitive combat and a shortage of villains worth the big man's attention.

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Batman: Arkham Asylum - Welcome to the Madhouse

Play begins as Batman escorts the bound Joker into the depths of Arkham Asylum's Intensive Treatment ward. It seems that our hero has foiled another of the Joker's bizarre plans, but Batman's suspicious of the ease with which the cackling wing-nut allowed himself to be captured. Of course, Batman's hardly a paragon of sanity himself. Anyone who runs around the filthy streets of Gotham in the dead of night in a cape and mask has some deep issues to sort out, so the howling mad world of Arkham Asylum could easily pose a dire threat to the dark knight's remaining marbles.

These early moments make a remarkably strong first impression. Batman's imposingly broad physique certainly calls to mind the exaggerated features of the comics more than any matinee idol, Mark Hamill's voice-over work breathes the full spirit of insanity into the toothy green-haired mastermind, and I cheered openly the first time I planted a boot straight into a rampaging inmate's kisser in slow-motion.

Oracle, Batman's disabled former partner, guides me through an introductory encounter with Victor Zsasz, and a little exploration earns me the first few of the Riddler's 240 simple puzzles and hidden collectibles. The stage is set, and my blood is pumping.

NEXT: the great outdoors >>

See also: LEGO Batman: The Videogame review

Batman: Arkham Asylum is a game that crawls inside your head and rearranges the furniture.

Batman: Arkham Asylum - The Great Outdoors

I learn to shimmy along ledges and grapple up to hidden nooks, and battle my way through to the outside. It's here that the world of Arkham Asylum really opens up. Okay, so you're not going to find a free-roaming world with the scale of a Grand Theft Auto, but there is a solid amount of space to explore all the same. You'll seldom have a choice of objectives to pursue, but the outdoor grounds do nicely complement the more restricted interiors that make up the lion's share of the game.

The presence of the Botanical Gardens notwithstanding, the hospital setting and grim tone don't lend themselves to a great deal of visual variety, but Batman: Arkham Asylum still excels when it comes to mood and audiovisual flourishes.

Whether you're stalking a deranged murderer in Arkham Mansion or piecing together the Joker's true purpose in the Medical Facility, the most memorable corners of the island feel lived-in, even haunted. An outstanding musical score helps keep the tension from flagging even when the corridors and ventilation ducts start to blend together, and I never saw any of the texture pop-in that's so often been an unfortunate calling card of the otherwise excellent Unreal Engine.

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Batman: Arkham Asylum - Multiple Personalities

As the hours pass, though, it seems more and more like Batman: Arkham Asylum is being pulled in opposing directions. The caped crusader's cowl is a vital piece of equipment you'll use more often than your unenhanced eyesight, since it takes a bright highlighter to the ventilation grates, destructible walls, security boxes, and simple forensic trails, but it also flattens the gritty high contrast world into a far less appealing film of blues and yellows.

Similarly, you can earn buckets of experience by lining up pieces of question marks or snapping shots of solutions to the Riddler's puzzles, but not all of the twenty upgrades are useful in practice. I loved the idea of the remote control Batarang, for instance, but never did find a moment when it was preferable to a straight toss.

Luckily, the better gadgets, like the Batclaw, open up cool strategic possibilities, and thus prove much more gratifying to use. One of my favourite tricks when facing heavily armed goons was to silently drop a thug from behind, leave some explosive gel near his carcass, hide on a nearby ledge, and then wait for his buddies to come running for a face full of kaboom.

Batman sometimes seems to take his sweet time climbing over obstacles or grappling out of the line of fire, and its tempting to simply abuse the gargoyles that hang high for no apparent reason in most large rooms, but the context-sensitive controls are responsive enough to allow you to craft some impressive ambush sequences that provide many of the game's most enjoyable moments.

NEXT: thug life >>

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Batman: Arkham Asylum is a game that crawls inside your head and rearranges the furniture.

Batman: Arkham Asylum - Thug Life

It's a shame that some of Batman's coolest gear and tactics are only accessible late in the game, no matter how quickly you earn your levels, but there's a bigger problem, and it's one that consistently holds back the joy of playing from start to finish: most of the unarmed enemies you face and the moves you use against them just aren't terribly interesting.

Timing your attacks, dodges, and takedowns to form combinations is certainly fun in a mechanical sort of way that beat-'em-up fans will surely enjoy, but when you've only got one attack button, there's little room for any personal style. What's more, one would think an asylum with Arkham's reputation for lunacy would have more than just thug, thug-with-a-knife, and thug-with-a-cattle-prod archetypes to throw in front of your punches, the occasional sniper or back-biter notwithstanding.

And where are the marquee villains? Why is almost every boss battle virtually identical? When I first met up with Bane, the ensuing clash was thrilling. When I later had to fight what is in essence the exact same creature with a different skin, my excitement took a gut punch. By the third, fourth, and fifth times, I had my attack pattern down to a science, and my expectations had taken a dive.

There are two memorable confrontations against famous foes towards the end, but they can't entirely make up for the tedious repetition that precedes them.

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Batman: Arkham Asylum - Inner Conflicts

There are two important mitigating factors that keep Batman: Arkham Asylum's flaws from crippling the entertainment value of the whole. The first is a truly fantastic collection of cinematic sequences that depict Scarecrow's attempts to break Batman's psyche over his knee. The actual gameplay involved in these brilliant interludes is a shade minimalistic, but the spectacle nevertheless inspires the sort of wide-eyed wonder that rarely survives the journey from comic book to video game.

The other saving grace is the collection of unlockable challenge maps. Stalking the island for the remaining riddles when no danger remains quickly becomes tiresome, but you'll persevere just so you can sink your teeth into all sixteen increasingly tough tests of your skill.

Brawling in this context suddenly feels like a performance worth practicing for the sake of leaderboard bragging rights, and stealthy set pieces reward you most for taking out goons in ever more challenging and elaborately stylish ways. (PlayStation 3 owners will even get to play as the Joker in free and exclusive downloadable levels that'll be available on release day.)

Batman: Arkham Asylum doesn't quite deliver on all of its big ideas, and thus dodges the highest of accolades, but its rousing peaks make its low points more than bearable. Its best moments of dazzling showmanship easily qualify as must-see entertainment, even if they're not sufficient to make the game as a whole a must-play.

NEXT: our expert verdict >>

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Batman: Arkham Asylum: Specs

  • Windows PC
  • Microsoft Xbox 360
  • Sony PlayStation 3
  • Windows PC
  • Microsoft Xbox 360
  • Sony PlayStation 3

OUR VERDICT

Finally, a Batman game worthy of the taking on the mantle. It's been a long time coming but they really hit one out of the park here. Stylish and wonderfully executed, Batman: Arkham Asylum is a visual marvel. Some of the battles got a bit repetitive and that there weren't enough major baddies but we still liked it a lot. So go check it out. You won't be disappointed.

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