Arkham Asylum is the first game I experienced that largely reframes stealth, not as a challenge that disempowers the player where getting seen puts you at a severe disadvantage and the ideal goal is to move through a level without leaving a trace, but as a hunter calculatedly stalking its prey and putting the fear of god into your quarry. It’s reflected in the swift and silent violence of the takedowns, all uniquely, brutally animated depending on your approach.
There isn’t even really a way to sneak through areas without enemies knowing, as the Joker constantly broadcasts your presence whenever you take down a mook in a set stealth encounter and orders the other minions to check your victim’s location. While these hapless guards react by putting on a brave face and buddying up, that facade falls eventually as the bodies pile up. Joker’s goons get paranoid, turning around erratically with every other nervous step, firing into the air, their hearts pounding. And when you finally reveal yourself to them, they stagger in terror, a second before you relieve them of their consciousness with a mighty blow.
Of course, the game’s stealth has to be this way because it’s all about the power fantasy of being Batman, this almost supernatural symbol of vigilante justice striking from the darkness. You face different, increasingly tougher stealth scenarios that push you to use your growing arsenal of gadgets and skills and make better use of the environment as you progress through the game, but the narrative remains the same. You are vengeance, you are the night, you are Batman.
It’s worth saying that the depiction of criminals in the Arkham series, and, hell, in a lot of Batman stories that focus on his vigilantism, is fucked up. It definitely made going back to Arkham Asylum earlier this year an exercise in compartmentalizing.
Speaking of problematic faves, I genuinely love the frantic dynamic ebb and flow of stealth and combat in The Last of Us and its sequel. The real-time crafting mechanic along with the dozens of bricks and bottles you can pick up and throw at enemies add so much to the scrabbling, scrappy mess whenever I inevitably get caught shiving someone or make too much sound and alert a damned clicker.
It’s never as methodical as Batman weaving in and out of the shadows or Corvo dissecting Dunwall, nor is it bombastic as Snake gunning down waves of soldiers when the alarms start blaring, or even outright comical as Agent 47 yeeting fire extinguishers and cans of expired spaghetti into the noggins of bystanders when he’s been made. It’s just Joel, Ellie, and Abby struggling to survive from one bedraggled encounter to the next, at least in my less-than-proficient hands.
Oh and special shoutouts to Tenchu: Stealth Assassins for introducing me to the genre over two decades ago! I’m sure that if I were to actually replay it now I probably wouldn’t have a good time, as I recall controlling Rikimaru and Ayane felt like the exact opposite of being a speedy ninja even back then. But yo those stealth kills were sick as fuck, and you could do them from the back, the sides, and the front!
just check this shit out: