Review: Batman: Arkham Asylum – A serious house on serious earth

I got the 15th anniversary edition of the classic graphic novel for a present, so I’d better say I like it! I’m not, generally, much of a DC fan – having preferred Marvel if it’s a choice between the two. Batman is one of the few, honourable, exceptions to that general rule and Arkham Asylum is one of those ‘must haves’ when it comes to Batman mythology.

The lunatics have taken over the asylum and want Batman in there with them. As well as the Joker and other madmen a few of the doctors have remained behind and the ‘ghost’ of Amadeus Arkham is at work through his long-lasting influence upon the asylum that carries his name, his own madness reaching down the years to exert its own influence upon the doctors and inmates many years later.

The setup is really a foil to examine Batman’s psychology through the mirror of the villains he puts away and to show that he’s not actually that much different to those that he foils, it’s just that Batman’s transformation an obsession is one that (arguably) is positive for society, a desire for order, where his enemies are chaotic and dangerous to the status quo.

Exploring the asylum and its inmates, talking with the remaining doctors, we follow along as we explore Batman’s psyche. This has been done before – and since – but this stands out as a particularly good example of that, perhaps now hackneyed, story.

Some of Morrison’s familiar obsessions are present here though his reinvention schtick is somewhat held in check. Magic is present though, something that – despite the DC background – doesn’t sit particularly well in Batman for me, a comic which I generally prefer when it’s on a grittier level. Of course, it’s not made clear either way in this whether the magic is truly working or whether it’s just the oppressive and insane atmosphere of the place working upon people. Of course, you could argue that that is magic anyway, of a sort.

The art is by Dave McKean who is an artist I greatly admire. He approaches this work less like a comic book and more as if each page is a collage or individual painting. This can be a little confusing and muddies the narrative a little here and there which makes reading the book a little bit of an ordeal. This is alright, given the nature of the work but it is tipped over the edge, occasionally into annoyance, by the choice of font when The Joker is speaking, a font which can be virtually indecipherable. Thematically appropriate perhaps, but unnecessarily hard work.

A hard book to read, due in most part – legitimately – to the subject matter and the denser, more intellectual approach to the characters. In some part however, it’s due to the presentation of the work and it’s not a book I’d read to relax and let my brain turn off for a while.

After fifteen years it loses a little bit of its edge as a lot of similar things have been done since. If you can cast your mind back fifteen years and appreciate the book as a cultural artefact of that time however, it doesn’t lose so much of its effectiveness and it’s still very much an essential part of any Batman library.

I can’t help feeling this would have been better – and easier to read – as an ‘Absolute Edition’.

On the Plus Side

  • Essential classic.
  • Perhaps the definitive delving into Batman’s psyche.
  • Interesting takes on classic Batman villains.

On the Minus Side

  • Hard to read.
  • Indecipherable Joker font.
  • Somewhat a product of its time.

Style: 4
Substance: 5
Overall: 4.5

Review: Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 – D&D 4E

I didn’t reckon a great deal to The Phantom Menace but Episode II went a long way towards making up for the problems with it. In much the same way I feel that DMG2 – especially in the context of the extra Player’s Guides as well – goes a long way to make up for the problems that traditional roleplayers, such as myself, have with 4e in its initial incarnation as a skirmish game with strictly defined roles and a boardgame mentality.

Like I said after watching Episode II, ‘Apology accepted’.

4e has had a shedload of criticism from a lot of people as being an unnecessary edition change coming too rapidly on the heels of 3.5. Couple that with the game no longer being properly open, the dependency on online tools and more recently the loss of the miniature line (ludicrous for a game that puts so much emphasis on minis) and there’s a pretty big groundswell of annoyance and nerdrage that makes even older edition wars seem mild by comparison. No small amount of that criticism has been leveled by story-oriented gamers who have felt that the niche-lock, encounter build format, combat focus and miniature orientation acts as a barrier to roleplay and to people playing characters based on roleplay, rather than niche. Games Masters too have felt restricted by the notions of balance and encounter building, the video-gamey feel that the game favours.

In many ways DMG2 feels like a – slightly sensitive – response to this criticism and a way of arguing that D&D is still a real RPG after all.

Being a DMG this is a fairly mechanically heavy book but the mechanical additions are, perhaps, the least interesting part of the changes to the game presented. There are ways presented to do things with encounters, there are new forms of fantastical terrain, traps, monster customisation and templates.

The more interesting part comes in the less rules-heavy sections, suggesting alternative rewards, how to create villainous organisations and to structure campaigns. All good solid advice.

The really shiny sections are those found in the ‘Group Storytelling’ and ‘Skill Challenges’ sections. Skill challenges have always been the saving grace of 4e, a robust and flexible system for dealing with non-combat challenges. DMG2 expands on the concept of the skill challenge, explaining them better, expanding the options and showing ideas for different types of challenges and challenges that can shift and change. This is all good and useful stuff.

The Group Storytelling section is, essentially, a fistful of ideas that have cropped up in various Indie games. While there’s no formal rules for much of it you’ll find a lot of ideas such as player buy-in, incorporating players suggestions, rewarding dramatic and narrative play, incorporating or encouraging player motivations and ideas. There’s no teeth to it, no way of regulating it other than the honour system, but since it’s added on to the base game I’m not sure that it needs it. It’s encouraging to see so much RP ‘boosting’ going into 4e but I’m afraid that for those who have already made up their mind, it’s probably too little too late.

Being a DMG there’s not a huge amount of atmosphere to be had in the book. It’s too piecemeal and general to have a cohesive theme – though if there is one it’s the aforementioned ‘apology to roleplayers’. That said, fans of Planescape will be immensely gratified to see Sigil and the Planes given a bit of love towards the back of the book. There’s not enough distinctive art to really bring Sigil to life for new players but as a sop for the gamers of old it’s very welcome and there’s just about enough to be getting on with. The use of sigil also ties in nicely to the paragon level campaign suggestions, opening up the wider, wilder world to keep things interesting for the more advanced adventurers.

The artwork is good, as is expected in a D&D book but there’s so many different artists used in what’s already a piecemeal book that it lacks visual cohesion, which could have gone some way to making up for the scattering of the written material. Less artists used could have given a visual thread to tie the whole thing together.

While there’s a lot of good stuff in here, veteran RP-oriented players are likely to already use these ideas in their games, or to be playing other games that more explicitly support these things. It’s a bit too little, too late to reach out to the lost audience though it’s nonetheless welcome.

On the Plus Side

  • Roleplaying!
  • Sigil!
  • Improved skill challenges!

On the Minus Side

  • Lacks cohesion.
  • Not sure who it’s aimed at.
  • Lacks mechanical support for its RP conceits.

Style: 3
Substance: 4
Overall: 3.5