The Dark Knight Returns in "Batman: Arkham Asylum"

Last year's deluge of licensed products for The Dark Knight contained one glaring absence. The expected mediocre gaming cash-in somehow managed to crawl out from beneath the mountain of cheap plastic Happy Meal toys and inappropriate adult Halloween costumes and go into hiding.

Licensed games generally get a hard time, a fate they largely deserve. When consumers are somehow expected to throw their hard-earned cash away because this week's crappy-looking robot with an uninspired power set and a boring storyline just happens to sound like Robert Downey Jr., they rightly point and yell something obscene about corporate whoredom and weep for Shigeru Miyamoto.

Batman: Arkham Asylum has finally emerged into the light more than a year after The Dark Knight's release, and it's a gleaming Zarathustra of a game ready to declare the dawn of a new age.

Based partly on Grant Morrison's graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, Batman: Arkham Asylum takes place in the aftermath of what would normally be considered a Batman story. We come upon our hero in the Batmobile, shipping the Joker off to Arkham after having once again foiled his latest cockamamie scheme.

What should have been a rote sequence of events takes a turn for the worse when the Joker escapes his guards and takes off into the bowels of the asylum, which wraps him in an unexpectedly warm embrace after his codependent sidekick Harley Quinn meddles with the security systems. Toss in the opportune arrival of dozens of Joker devotees from a local evacuated prison, and Batman's night just got a lot more complicated.

A script by Batman: The Animated Series veteran Paul Dini and a stable of that show's voice talent (Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker, among others) give Arkham Asylum a proven pedigree of Bat-talent that allows the game to fit neatly inside the franchise's 70-year history without having to rely on heavy-handed movie tie-ins. It engages the player, leading him through the Metroidvania-inspired level design without reducing the storyline to a second-class window dressing between waypoints.

But a Batman game, even a well-written one, is about crime fighting. On its surface, Arkham Asylum's combat system is a simplistic "press X to win" affair. Players of the demo might even find it to be a turn-off, as small groups of early enemies barely register as threats.

Once the game really takes off, though, melee combat takes on an entirely new face. Batman is by necessity a creature of rhythm, beating the ever-decreasing odds of his survival by constantly staying three steps ahead in a fight. As the number of variables in a group increases, "press X to win" quickly becomes "press X at the wrong time to die." Batman's necessary function in life is to quickly and efficiently introduce as many criminal faces to the floor as he can. Arkham Asylum rewards players who can juggle all the variables involved in fighting a mob of enemies that has evolved past the one-at-a-time school of martial arts. The better players become at stringing together combos, the faster and more effective Batman becomes. Five hits in a row and he's fast; by a dozen or so, he's inhuman.

Despite the game's deceptively intricate combat, Batman is most true to form when he steals a page from the venerable Thief playbook. Any unbalanced millionaire with a propensity for leotards can throw together a costume and commence with the fisticuffs, but Batman is at his most Batman-ian when he's the thing that his targets fear but cannot see.

From the stealth-centric environment to his arsenal of crime-fighting gadgetry, Arkham Asylum is built toward the experience of Batman as the Westernized ninja fans are familiar with; particularly rewarding are the realistic AI reactions when some unseen horror picks apart a group of well-armed criminals and leaves them disarmed, broken, and hanging from the ceiling.

The most important thing Arkham Asylum does, though, is challenge the way we think about franchise games. In the past, I've said that a licensed game should only be released if the game itself would be fun even if it lost the pre-existing license. Arkham Asylum is different, though. By doing so much with the property so well, it couldn't be anything but a Batman game. Anything else would be just a cheap Batman rip-off.

And all it took was a dedicated team with a history of success working with the source material and a development time frame unfettered by studio mandate to make it work. What a novel concept.