Opinion : It May Not be Arkham but Gotham is Worth Visiting

Without a doubt Gotham Knights is a flawed experience, but it’s one capable of providing incredible moments as a member of the Bat-Family. 

Understandably, Gotham Knights has obstacles defying its success from the get-go. It’s a title set in the Batman universe that doesn’t star Batman and a game that is unceremoniously asked to become the successor to the much beloved Arkham franchise. For these reasons it makes sense that the odds would be stacked against Gotham Knights, and the scrutiny would be high. Whether or not Gotham Knights lives up to expectations will come down largely on just what it is you’re hoping to get from your experience. 

From the moment players boot up the title screen, it’s clear that Gotham Knights is intent to set itself apart from the darker, more brooding art style that accompanies the Arkham series. Gotham Knights sees bright colors juxtapose more flamboyant art styles reminiscent of DC’s New 52 color schemes. The opening cinematic showcases a fast, frenetic, and violent battle between Batman and Ra’s Al Ghul which sees both perish in dramatic fashion. From here, the Bat-Family is informed of Batman’s death and asked to carry the mantle.

This tone and the high budget cinematics permeate through Gotham Knights’ roughly 20 hour experience, with more time added for completionists who choose to indulge in a more dynamic and living world of Gotham than has been seen in any other Batman title. Characters are highly detailed, with special attention being given to the Knights themselves. You’d be hard pressed to find more detailed or brilliantly animated character models in any comic book title to date, which is a high bar set by the likes of Insomniac’s Spider-Man and Eidos Montreal’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

The impressive cinematics are only the beginning of Gotham Knights’ visual flair, however, as each of the four heroes stands out with impressive animations while they take down enemies. Contextual takedowns have a brilliant level of martial arts prowess on display, with each hero having their own distinctive combat styles in both hand to hand and ranged combat. Be it Nightwing’s impressive acrobatic combat flipping about the battlefield or Red Hood’s dual pistol wielding ranged style, each hero feels markedly different and offers their own unique take in battling Gotham’s underground. For those willing to explore combat trees, it’s highly unlikely anyone who takes the time to research their options will be left feeling without a style that suits them. 

However, exploring those combat trees and unlocking the best each hero has to offer can be a bit of a chore due to some baffling choices in progression. While it’s a huge win that XP gained for one hero is applied to all, making ability points additive across all characters, there are certain challenges that must be completed in order to unlock each hero’s traversal method. Nightwing’s glider, Batgirl’s glide, Robin’s teleport, and Red Hood’s mystical steps are inaccessible from the onset and require grinding specific tasks for each before becoming available. This makes moving about the city a chore in that the only option is the grappling hook or Batcycle. It’s certainly a deterrent early on that feels needlessly applied.

In regards to traversing the map, movement feels smooth thanks to early patches that removed some wonkiness in dropping from ledges and zipping about. The grappling hook feels intuitive, and the Batcycle quickly grows on you as it’s a simple D-pad press away. The only real drawback in standard movement that consistently rears its head is the contextual jump button. Your character cannot jump unless near certain ledges or elements of the world, and those elements are not always obvious. This can lead to some frustrating moments where your hero, who’s dedicated their life to becoming the peak of human condition, is unable to step up a ledge or jump a shallow rock face. It’s by no means a deal breaker, but it is certainly a noticeable shortcoming. 

Despite these strange drawbacks, moving about Gotham is unique among all previous Batman titles before it. While the Arkham series always found reasons for Gotham to be abandoned while Batman battled his rogues, Gotham Knights features a Gotham City that is alive and whose citizens are going about their business in a dynamic, well-lit fashion. The choice to create a dynamic open world with crimes happening at random makes for a less cultivated, focused experience than, say, Arkham Knight, but it also feels more natural and what you’d expect to see if you were defending a massive city from crime-ridden alleys. Certainly it can be said that the Gotham of the Arkham titles had more personality, more Easter eggs, and more intention, but it also felt less alive than the Gotham City here. It’s likely that, given time, this Gotham City will be appreciated in ways that other versions have not been, particularly if WB Montreal chooses to continue adding content. 

Comparisons to the Arkham series are something that some reviews have avoided, but I’ve found it nearly impossible to discover what Gotham Knights truly has to offer without them. This is especially true when discussing the combat of Gotham Knights. While the Arkham series redefined superhero combat with its Freeflow system, a system that has had influence on nearly every 3rd person action title since Arkham Asylum, Gotham Knights abandons this system for one that takes some adjustment but offers rewards not found in its peers. Gone is the counter button in favor of a major emphasis on the dodge mechanic. Timed dodges and counter attacks make up the bulk of combat as each hero builds their ability meter for a special attack. It is in these dodges and counter attacks that the game showcases the best of what its animations have to offer. Moments of incredible animations are put on display as the camera slows and zooms in to showcase the combat efficiency of our heroes. It makes for some fantastic moments of super hero prowess that almost makes up for the loss of a counter system. 

Truly there are moments in Gotham Knights’ combat that surpass even the most brilliant of Arkham, Spider-Man, and other third person action titles, but it’s a system that feels wonky at times, with an inconsistent camera and moments that feel cheap as enemies arrive with attacks from off screen that cannot be anticipated. The enemy types feel distinctive, and each faction has their own personalities, behaviors, and designs, but rarely do they feel so unique that combat encounters are entirely different based on who you’re fighting. Be it the Court of Owls, Harley Quinn’s goons, or standard street thugs, the combat is the same: dodge, counter, build the meter, and use a special attack. It can be a joy, but it rarely forces a big change up in the encounter formula. 

There are times where Gotham Knights suffers from a severe identity crisis. It seems irrefutable that the more time spent with Gotham Knights, the more obvious this gets. While the new combat system certainly allows Gotham Knights to stand on its own in a positive sense, wholly separate from this is a completely unnecessary gear system that bogs down the entire game with trivial gear scores and outfit denials. Certain styles of costumes are locked behind crafting menus ripe with material icons that seemingly lack any connection to the greater DC universe. Material caches are spread throughout the city with such scarcity that it’s hard not to get the feeling that, at one point, Gotham Knights was to be an open-world looter before that was abandoned after watching industry trends. Despite 60+ hours in the game, it remains unapparent just where and how certain materials must be acquired to craft some of the highest end gear in the game. 

This begs the question: why would a member of the Bat family need a gear score, anyway? Certainly there are some video game concessions that must be made in order for a player to experience progression, but this feels wholly separate from the XP gain and ability unlock. The entire gear system does the best parts of Gotham Knights a disservice. 

An unfortunate casualty of this gear system is the enjoyment to be had in customizing the look of each Knight. Each crafted or discovered suit has a surprising amount of customization available to it, from colorways to variants of gloves, boots, and cowls. This allows each player to truly identify with their vision for the character. The character models and suits are beautifully designed, with reflections, battle damage, and distinct styles within each specific suit preference. This falls apart, however, should the necessary suit, with its gear score and stats, not match your preferred appearance. At this point the only alternative is the transmog system, which does allow you to change your appearance and keep your stats, but at the forfeit of any visual customization. It’s convoluted, annoying, and a distraction from the simple enjoyment of being a Knight in Gotham.

Despite several moments of obvious pivot in game direction, there are fantastic moments of detective work, combat, and challenges that only the Bat-Family would face. Hunting Ra’s Al Ghul’s body down to ensure his death brings with it fantastic encounters while outsmarting the Gotham Police and facing down the League of Shadows, all while knowing there is a greater threat looming in the Court of Owls. Several of these levels stand out, including the infiltration of a Court of Owls masquerade ball, Harley Quinn’s prison takeover, and a Clayface pursuit that showcases the best the Batcycle has to offer.

What sets Gotham Knights apart from any of its Bat-predecessors or the widely diverse genre of comic book titles, however, is its writing. While the main story follows a predictable path of loss and redemption, each of the Knights has their own set of side quests, contextual dialogue encounters, and interactions with the world that makes them feel like more than just avatars on the screen. Each handles the loss of Batman differently, and this is on display in a number of ways, all with credit towards the writing team. Dick’s emails with Clark Kent over the loss of Bruce, Barbara’s fear of somehow forgetting her father while attempting to live up to him, and Tim Drake’s imposter syndrome of being the third Robin standing next to his predecessors while also being wholly different from each make for brilliant moments of writing. 

The quiet calm of solemn introspection during a mission or a visit to the Belfry reminds us that these characters are doing their best to take up the mantle of their world’s elite protector. Batman casts a shadow of both metaphor and pain; his family is now left to fill a void while carving their own path forward. Each character has their own doubts, fears, and shortcomings that make them question whether or not they’ll live up to Batman’s larger than life expectations. Oftentimes, that solemn introspection brings them back to the Belfry for conversations with one another and with Alfred.

Continuing a long trend of the glue holding the Batverse together is Alfred, who is written beautifully in Gotham Knights. Moments of wisdom, sadness, and hope are provided at just the right time in both scripted and unscripted ways. Alfred’s presence in the Belfry, the Knights’ base of operations, is what makes the hub feel like more than a simple launchpad for missions, but rather a home for our characters to inhabit. Quiet conversations with each, the chastising of Dick for not managing his injuries better, reminding Jason he’s more than a zombie returned from the dead, and letting Tim know he belongs in this world… it’s on par with the best portrayals of Alfred, be it in the animated, live action, or video game universes. 

Gotham Knights has the unfair task of living up to the legend that is the Arkham series, and, while WB Montreal had accomplished this before, there are risks taken with Gotham Knights that provide mixed results. On its own, Gotham Knights is a solid video game with spectacular writing, acting, and moments of incredible animation, becoming a worthy entry into a number of highly successful DC games. Though it is an imperfect outing and certainly stumbles with elements of traversal, progression, and a rogue’s gallery that measures too few for the size of Gotham itself, there is plenty of enjoyment to be had here. I suspect that those who detach themselves of their expectations for an Arkham experience will be well rewarded with a solid Bat-story that includes plenty of fun to be had in both solo and co-op.

Consider this a must play for Bat-fans and a wait for sale for those with a passive interest. I found a solid 60+ hours of enjoyment in unlocking all that the game seemingly has to offer, and, with Heroic Assault on the horizon, I’m anxious to dive back in. What WB Montreal has here is a foundation… one I hope they build on with a larger universe and lessons learned from the reception of Gotham Knights itself.

By Luke Lohr

Luke Lohr is the creator and host of the Xbox Expansion Pass. XEP is a weekly podcast that discusses the goings on of the gaming industry and features developers, journalists, actors, and equality advocates from all over the gamingverse. You can find Luke on Twitter @InsipidGhost.

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