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Sunday, October 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  Fair
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Batman: Arkham Asylum melds deadpan imagination with fun gameplay
PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC Sept. 15 (Rated Teen)

There's political commentary to be read into the new video game Batman: Arkham Asylum concerning the state of the economy and our national health care debate.

At one point, you hear Joker telling his employees (his henchmen) they must suffer pay cuts due to budget cuts. Then Joker uses a public address system to snark at Batman, "You might want to check your health insurance. Oh, what am I talking about?! You don't have any!"

That's unexpected. And the game does something apolitical that's comically unique: One of the villain "bosses" seems to suddenly drop dead of a stroke - right in the middle of a fight with Batman. I don't know if I've ever seen a game villain die of natural causes during a showdown until now.

Such moments speak well of the imagination that went into Batman: Arkham Asylum, which is inspired by a Batman graphic novel, as opposed to Batman movie plots.

Batman escorts Joker into Arkham Asylum. Joker escapes. For the rest of the game, you play as Batman as he wends his way through many hours of tracking Joker down.

Actually, you spend most of your action time punching Joker's henchmen (this is far too easy to do) and occasionally beating up his sub-bosses (this is more challenging, although once you beat up one sub-boss, you basically know how to beat up the rest).

Those punching redundancies are frustrating. But mostly this is a good, fun and fascinating game, and it takes many hours to finish. It's also a nearly beautiful action-adventure, with its setting and cinematic visuals set on an asylum island. The island is a crumbling morass of bricks and mortar, a maze of asylum buildings and mansions, plus a darkly lush island exterior of greenery and cop-sniper towers.

As Batman, you use zip lines to zip up to gargoyles on walls, then jump down upon henchmen's heads. Or you crawl through vents to get past Joker's laser-beam obstructions. Or you throw Batman's boomerang at the eyes of giant monster-ish creatures, to stun them, so you can then beat them up.

Notice I did not say you kill anyone. Batman declines an opportunity to kill Joker early in the game, and he refuses to kill henchman. He merely knocks them out. He says of one bad guy engulfed in toxic gas, "I can't let that man die. I have to clear the room of toxins as quickly as possible!"

That's commendable, Batman. But by letting Joker and his subordinates live, you let them live to kill again and litter the asylum with a mass of guard corpses who may leave families weeping at home.

But as we all know, superheroes like Batman and Superman let nemeses live for two reasons. 1) Superheroes can't be seen stooping to villains' murderous levels. 2) Comic book executives need villains to live another day to sell another comic book.

And so, in this game we see Joker let loose in an asylum, where he goes on wilding rampages due to Batman's moral against killing killers. That's what you call a nuanced sociopolitical theme.

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