Sometimes I feel like this site was born out of my many, many things to say about only three series: Dark Souls, Pokemon, and the Batman: Arkham games. An eclectic mix to be sure, but the last of those is perhaps the one I’ve gotten most passionate about, especially in regards to its final entry in the franchise. I wrote about what Arkham Knight shouldn’t do upon release, what it could’ve done in retrospect, what it ended up doing and why it ended up doing it. Spoiler alert – those last two are not filled with high praise. Man, I forgot how angry I could get back then, whereas now all I get emotional about is being able to see the bottom of the whiskey bottle.
But funnily enough, I never wrote how well Arkham Knight worked as a game. I started writing a review a while ago when I heard that some patches had been applied, like a band-aid roughly stuck over a shotgun wound, but found myself uncertain on how to precede and eventually felt myself losing interest. But with all the talk recently about how the DC movie universe is a bucket of rancid chicken, I found myself suitably forgiving of the Arkham games. So I started from scratch, played through the campaign again, sat back to consider how I thought of it and released I felt… Not much at all.
Putting aside the shocking state of the original PC port, Arkham Knight is a very average game. It has some very notable problems, it has a few moments of genuine genius, but most of the time it doesn’t have much going for it at all. It’s like watching a heart monitor. Here the line goes up, here the line goes down, here it goes flat, up again, down again… But all this adds up to is just proof of existence, and all it establishes is that there’s just some vague form of life beneath the skin.
Perhaps this is most evident in the story, and Arkham Knight manages to be fascinating on a critical level by featuring both the best and the worst that the Arkham games have to offer in terms of narrative. Having established a fairly solid premise – Scarecrow orchestrates a major Gotham evacuation for an unknown reason and has some mysterious lout in Iron Man armour backing him up with a personal grudge against Batman – the game suddenly loses steam pretty fast, determined to stretch out the story as long as it’ll go.
It’s impossible to ignore. The first act is so brief it might as well not exist, whereas act two takes up about ninety percent of the game and yet barely anything happens in it, with famous villains pointlessly coming and going, like scared child pageant contestants wandering aimlessly across a stage. Remember how in the first game there was a central plot with a central villain, but everybody in the Asylum had some clear connection to that plot and it all seemed very organic and natural? Yeah, forget that. Here they feel like distractions and diversions, which is probably why most of their story arcs break off into optional side quests and never get a suitably story payoff. This problem is alleviated somewhat by the reappearance of Mark Hamill as the Joker (one of the best and most underrated performances of the character I’ve ever seen), but it’s undeniable that all he’s doing is providing audio commentary over the more boring parts, and hinting at what we can expect for the third act finale.
But it’s that finale where the game suddenly jerks back to life, with everything we’d want to see in the last moments of a big game franchise. In rapid succession we have a legitimately interesting look into the psychology of Bruce Wayne, a climactic struggle between him and his arch-nemesis, the reveal of Batman’s identity on live television, and a terrifying sequence where we suddenly release just how nerve-wracking it would be to get attacked by the caped crusader when you weren’t expecting it. How’s that for a slice of fried gold?
Admittedly, the proper 100% final ending is a load of cobblers that’s not worth the effort, but I do have great respect for Rocksteady for really experimenting with the formula more than most adaptations would dare to with source material. Yes, there’s stupid bits and bits that don’t work. Scarecrow is far less interesting in this game than he was in the first one, the idea that people with Joker’s blood transfused into them start to actually become the Joker is an eye-roller, and the reveal of the Arkham Knight’s identity is a major disappointment, sure – but there are solid ideas here. They’re just spread so thin that it’s easy to lose track of them.
Sadly, I can’t help but get annoyed when there’s layers and layers of pointless missions that have no narrative bearing on what’s going on. Its hard to avoid that sense of frustrating impatience when I’m having to fly somewhere without alerting any enemies, so I can sneak around a base, so I can beat up some bad guys, so I can access a computer, so I can lower a bridge, so I can get to the Batmobile, so I can scan for some tire tracks, so I can find a certain car, so I can discover where somebody was taken, so I can rescue them, so I can use their help to beat up Arkham Knight, so I can find out where Scarecrow is, so I can stick that stupid needle glove down his throat until he chokes on it. Wait, who was it I’m saving again? I’ve done eight hours of meaningless piffle to get here and I don’t care anymore.
Actually, it’s funny I mention the Batmobile, because that was a serious point of contention with the public when the game was released. And honestly, I don’t see why. I’ll happily confess that driving this big tank is far less fun than just punching people in the regular gameplay, but I never really understood all those complaints about people saying it was unwieldy and hard to control, especially when you could just toggle strafe mode and instantly slide into whatever direction you want, easy-peasy. And one of the things I actually quite like about it is that the vast majority of obstacles just crumble ineffectively when directly confronted by several tons of heavy armour plating and weaponry cosplaying as a flying squirrel.
But easy doesn’t mean fun, and driving the Batmobile does get old fast when the game keeps contriving excuses for you to use it. I got so sick of being thrown into the driver’s seat that I actually cheered when I saw it get destroyed in a cutscene in the final third of the game. And when Batsy revealed that he always keeps a spare in case something like this happens, and that we need it to blow up yet another tank battalion, I cursed bitterly under my breath. The car is slower than gliding to your destination, less fun than direct melee combat and actively annoying when it comes to the weird stealth driving missions. So why the hell is it here? Just keep it in the shed along with Damien’s bike and we can go about our day.
Thankfully in regular gameplay, it’s exactly what we saw before. Here’s a big city full of goons who need punching, with story-focused missions spread around and waiting for you like candles on a birthday cake. And those returning Riddler trophies? Think of them as the hundreds and thousands on the cake – because there’s tons of them, they amount to nothing and have no real flavour of their own. What lunatic kept asking for these things in every game?! They sort of worked in Arkham Asylum because there were actual riddles in play that tested your knowledge of Batman lore, but I promise I’ve had enough of throwing remote-control batarangs at hard-to-access switches to last me a lifetime.
And when you come to deal with goons and mercenaries directly, it’s the same system we know and love. A reaction brawler when it’s direct melee combat time, and swinging between vantage points when you need to stealthily choke out somebody with a gun. There is a bit too much gadgetry going on this time and it’s a little too easy to forget about the abilities you have, but it’s a minor quibble on a system that still works. I guess if I’m pushed for complaint that I’m disappointed Rocksteady didn’t bother to experiment with that formula, just added more powers to make it easier. All the other work went into the Batmobile and putting Scarecrow’s face in a paper shredder.
There is something that annoys me, though. Why do I feel like this entry is fighting the source material so much more than the other games? Why do I feel like it resents Batman’s no killing policy, rather than seeing it as an opportunity for fun puzzles to defeat enemies in non-lethal ways? They wanted you to be able to run over thugs in your car, but they know you can’t kill them, so they put a silly taser effect on the exterior and claimed that makes it safe. They want to have an apocalyptic event near the end with the whole town getting gassed, but don’t have the stones to admit that it would probably be knee deep in corpses even after you remove the toxic smog. They want to bring in the Riddler as a character again, but don’t care about actual tests of intellectual challenge and investigation, so there’s just race tracks instead. They want you to be able to blow up tanks, but they don’t want the drivers getting melted into the metal and ruining the illusion, so they’re all unmanned drones. Seems to me that if I were Gas Mask Skeletor and his sidekick Special K, I’d purposefully stick some guys in the tanks so Batman can’t explode them without ruining his no-kill record.
All this adds up to is a game that intrigues at the beginning, excels at the end, but takes so long to get from one to the other that it almost doesn’t seem worth the effort. The PC port is now somewhat better (though by no means perfect and likely never will be), and all the additions to gameplay feel unnecessary. I won’t lie and say that I didn’t enjoy getting back into the bone-breaking swing of things when it came to throwing muggers into brick walls, but I have the other games for that. So all this one really has to offer that’s fresh is a few narrative insights and some tedious vehicle combat in a Power Rangers car.
Let’s not mince words here – Arkham Knight is the third best game in a trilogy (or quadrilogy if you include Origins, because you’re feeling sorry for it), but being third best in this series doesn’t necessarily mean you suck. It just means that you had to do really well to compete with the brilliant Arkham Asylum and Arkham City.
Arkham Knight fails that lofty goal, but that doesn’t mean it’s irredeemable. It’s just kind of average, which feels like more of a shame when you consider its heritage up until now. I guess I might recommend it to those who see it going cheap and love the gameplay of the others, or to those who haven’t played any of the franchise before and want to try it out, but it’s not quite the worthy successor we hoped for.
Ah, well. At least it doesn’t have Lex Zuckerberg and a kryptonite spear. That’d be really bad, right?
Arkham Knight provides an ambitious and rather impressive story, very few gameplay innovations to a solid system, a terrible attempt at pacing and the world’s most boring supercar. Thus, with the eyes of the world watching, the Arkham series winds safely – if unremarkably – to a halt.