Spoiler Warning: Some important story aspects of Batman Arkham City, the prequel to Arkham Knight will be discussed in this review. No story spoilers for Arkham Knight are mentioned.
Batman: Arkham Knight is the latest, and reportedly final Arkham game from Rocksteady Studios. Rocksteady surprised the world in 2009 when they released Batman: Arkham Asylum, a licensed superhero game that not only didn’t suck, but was a legitimately good game. The follow up, Batman: Arkham City, brought an open world element to the series while maintaining the foundation of consistent tone, impeccable movement and fighting, and a dark gritty world that is so unmistakably Gotham.
Batman: Arkham Knight returns with a larger open world area, but does it live up to the pedigree of the previous Rocksteady Batman titles?
The narrative experience of Arkham Knight is absolutely a highlight for the series. The central story of the game revolves around Batman trying to stop the Scarecrow from releasing a devastating fear gas in Gotham and areas beyond with the help of the mysterious Arkham Knight. The fallout from Arkham City looms large in the game as Batman lives with the consequences of the death of the Joker, a death he could have easily prevented. The power vacuum left in the Joker’s absence has emboldened the majority of Batman’s rogues gallery to band together to kill Batman and take over Gotham. Explaining more of the narrative content of the game would spoil many interesting and worthwhile plot moments. Many clever and innovative means of exposition are used throughout the game that surprised and impressed me. I will say that fans of Batman movies, comics, or previous Arkham games will not be disappointed with the plot of the game. You can expect to run across the likes of Two Face, Penguin, Riddler, and Poison Ivy of course, but several other less popular Batman villains are featured in the game as well. There are moments in Arkham Knight that I was shocked by, moments that I found disturbing, and more than a couple jump scares as well. Rocksteady is going for broke with this story, and it certainly seems that they planned to leave the series with a bang.
I would say that the side missions tend to err on the side of simplicity much of the time. Most of them boiled down to “Stop _____ from doing _____ 3 times. Go to this Batsignal right away.” or “Watch/Listen for this thing and when you find it do ______ 5 times.” This is a shame as seeing these other characters tends to be a highlight of the Arkham games. However, these villain centric side missions were some of my favorite parts of the game despite their simplicity. While the storytelling in the main mission is remarkable, its incredibly linear nature made these optional missions more enjoyable.
The game continues to expertly use environmental storytelling, whether you are exploring the Gotham Police Department’s evidence room, the Watchtower full of Barbara Gordon’s belongings, or a creepy shrine to the Joker built by Harley Quinn. Players are encouraged to search every nook and cranny of the game for these wonderful secrets. The streets of Gotham are littered with trash and full of criminals looking to hurt Batman, cops, or any other symbol of justice and order. It is always dark. It always rains. This is a perfect night for Batman to exact justice.
One important note: for players to experience the complete ending of the game, they must complete the game 100%. That means that every Riddler Trophy must be collected, every side mission completed, and every drone, enemy encampment, tower, and mine destroyed. After spending a sizeable amount of time and energy in the game, I am currently 98% complete. I need to complete 73 more Riddler activities and defeat him to unlock the complete ending. If you are like me, collectibles in open world games are much more of a chore than an enjoyable thing. I actually enjoy the small puzzles required for collecting most Riddler trophies, but the riddle system in the game is buggy and not as responsive as it should be, making answering these riddles a tedious and not fun aspect of the game. I watched a YouTube video of the true ending myself, and can say that it hardly warrants the not-small amount of hours I would spend searching for and finishing Riddler activities. For me, I refuse to have an otherwise enjoyable and entertaining game ruined by what is essentially the video game equivalent of eating my vegetables for a short cinematic that does relatively little to actually give the story closure. If you choose to 100% it, you are a better gamer than I. This final endgame piece is actually my biggest complaint with the game. My last quarter of the very enjoyable critical path was wholly diluted by tedious tasks like searching for riddle answers and Riddler informants for hours because I knew I could not complete the game without doing so.
… for players to experience the complete ending of the game, they must complete the game 100%.
I wish that I had known that the game does not finish until each activity is completed, so it is very possible to complete the critical path and then work towards completing the side quests at your leisure. Ending the main story does not lock you out of further progress on the save file.
The thing that stands out to me most about the mechanics of Arkham Knight is just how many different tasks and activities the player completes through the game. Many of these events are fairly superficial and used once or twice to pull the narrative forward. Some feel more successful to that end than others, but you can expect to scan crime scenes, review video footage for clues, disarm explosives, mark and follow enemy vehicles, manipulate lifts and bridges, and digitally recreate car crashes. Each of these activities feel brief, and a bit hobbled together sometimes. At times I felt like a passenger on an amusement park ride during the main story. After defeating a certain enemy or solving a specific riddle, Batman would get on comms with an ally and tell them bluntly “I am going to do ____ to find out _____.” and I would say to myself “That’s pretty smart, I guess I will do that.” There are few opportunities for the player to figure out what should be the next move when it comes to the main story. Luckily there are an ever growing number of side missions for the player to complete if the highly linear nature of the main story starts to feel worn out.
Combat feels as good as ever in Arkham Knight. Few action games match the fluid, rhythmic nature of the Arkham series’ attack and counter system. Different enemy types like large brutes, electrified thugs, hulking minigun toting brutes, and riot shield using thugs force the player to plan carefully and evaluate each fight before jumping in. Predator sequences where Batman is tasked with rendering a large number of enemies unconscious while maintaining stealth as well as possible have always been my favorite part of the Arkham series, and they continue to feel great here. The addition of fear takedowns is a welcome feature. They allow the player to take down 3-6 enemies without taking damage if the player is able to sneak very close by without being detected. Popping out of a grate in the floor and punching out 6 armed thugs in a matter of seconds feels fantastic. Detective vision, which is essentially x-ray vision that allows the player to see all enemies in a room as well as whether they are armed or not, continues to be so useful as to basically negate players from turning it off aside from wanting to see the gorgeous scenery. Some enemies do use a sensor that will give away the player’s position if they use detective vision too much, forcing the majority of these encounters to be completed without it and some encounters disable detective vision as well. As in previous Arkham titles, new and more powerful upgrades can be earned by leveling up. Players earn XP by completing challenges, missions, and just beating up bad guys.
Popping out of a grate in the floor and punching out 6 armed thugs in a matter of seconds feels fantastic.
As always, Batman brings his gadgets with him to make sure he has the upper hand. These include classics like the Baterang, remote hacking tool, and the Batclaw. New additions like the voice modulator which allows Batman to emulate the voice of his enemies and give orders to their henchmen, and the disruptor which makes up to 3 enemy weapons useless or electrifies enemy weapon crates feel effective and useful. There is one gadget that it is possible to miss as it is not given as part of any story mission (The freeze grenade is laying next to the empty cell in the movie studio.) Several of these gadgets can be used quickly during combat and offer higher scores for weapon useage. It is also important to remember that some important features, like the Batclaw disarm, must be unlocked through the gadgets section of the upgrade tree.
The most contentious addition to Arkham Knight is the Batmobile. Very early in the game, Batman calls for his signature vehicle and quite a sizeable portion of the game is spent using it. The Batmobile has two modes of use, the regular car mode which Batman uses to race through the streets of Gotham, and the attack mode which makes the Batmobile into a slower, highly mobile tank with powerful weapons. The first thing that absolutely must be said about the Batmobile is that there are few things in a video game that are more awesome than the slow motion animation of Batman diving through the air directly into the Batmobile as it remotely skids to a halt under him which the player can do almost any time they choose while in the open world. That is as far as I can go with unqualified praise of the Batmobile. I found the car mode driving to feel slippery and not especially responsive for some time. Eventually I did get used to this feel. I found the tank mode more enjoyable and quickly more challenging as engagements with enemy drone tanks and aircraft get more and more overwhelming. I was very surprised with how much the game forced me to use the Batmobile as well. All of the Riddler puzzle rooms start with a Batmobile section which will include racing or puzzles which cannot be done without the Batmobile. Several story missions require the player to at least navigate the Batmobile into a building, to a rooftop, or to some other place that is usually not easily reached. In the earlier missions I was actually frustrated by how much I was driving and how little I was gliding, sneaking, and climbing. I do feel that a better balance between the two is found after the opening missions, and I feel that the Batmobile is a welcome addition to the series. Your mileage may vary.
I was very surprised with how much the game forced me to use the Batmobile.
Navigation by grappling, falling, and gliding continue to feel great. One of my favorite parts of Arkham City was silently gliding through the dark city streets and listening to the various criminals complain about or praise their leaders, and this feels just as good in Arkham Knight. I love a superhero game that makes you feel like you are that hero, and Arkham Knight certainly does not disappoint on that end.
As was the case with previous Arkham titles, I did not find the tutorial or prompt system especially helpful. The game features many different takedown and gadget options during combat. These are mostly taught to the player through quick button prompts graphics which are quite small and difficult to read while maintaining combos and counters in a fight, or pausing the game and entering the skill tree to read how to perform certain attacks.
Graphically, the game looks good. Water effects are impressive and Batman looks like he is sneaking around a dark rainy city throughout the game. I would describe the art style as gothic art deco. The architecture and city design of Gotham makes it unmistakable, the large dirigibles above the city add to the noir feel. The world is consistent with no areas standing out. The dirtiest basement and the high tech laboratories look like they belong in the same world. The character design is slightly lacking in my opinion compared to earlier titles. The Joker still looks like his cartoony grinning self while Harley Quinn has been touched up to look more realistic despite maintaining her highly animated voice. I also personally did not like the character design of Robin who looked too gruff and hard boiled for my taste. These complaints are completely subjective and your opinion may differ.
Sound design is strong. The score is moody and dark with lots of strings and sounds like Batman music. It swells to feverish heights during tense moments, and flirts with the periphery of the game. I found the voice acting to be very strong with Kevin Conroy, the voice of Batman in Batman the Animated Series, making a return to the series. The cast also includes powerhouses Troy Baker, Mark Hamill, and Nolan North. I hope that you enjoy hearing some banter exchanges between thugs many times because you will while you are working on side quests however.
Gadgets sound heavy and real. Punches sound solid and bone crunching. The Batmobile sounds like a powerful supercar racing through the streets of Gotham, its weapons loud and devastating. The overall sensory experience of the game was very pleasant to me.
I played the game on Xbox One and found it to maintain 30 frames per second almost across the board. Occasionally, during racing sequences especially, or when a large number of particle effects were happening at one time, I would notice a very short drop in frames. These instances were rare enough that I wouldn’t even hold them against the game. I did have the game freeze on me four times during my play time, requiring me to restart to resume playing. The game crashed once, requiring me to replay a cutscene.
AI pathing issues were at times problematic, most notably with the Batmobile which would sometimes get stuck behind a building when I called it and required several attempts to navigate to me. Close ups during interrogations often look jerky and awkward with criminals clipping through the ground often. Batman’s facial expression animations were incredibly flat during in engine scenes as well. I realize that Batman is not a character known for his emotional range, but the disconnect between Kevin Conroy’s wonderful voice work and Batman’s never changing facade were comical at times.
In many ways, the increased power of the next generation was felt most in the incredibly small number of load times that players will experience while playing. It is possible go inside nearly every building that the player is allowed to enter without a single loading screen. Transitions from ending one mission inside a building to exiting and starting another are totally seamless. In fact, the load times that happen in the game mostly when moving very quickly across large portions of the map are so uncommon that I found them totally jarring despite lasting less than 5 seconds each time. Each death in the game results in a lengthy load screen however, further discouraging players from playing carelessly.
As an important note, Arkham Knight’s performance on PC has been quite poor resulting in PC sales of the title to be temporarily stopped. These negative performance issues have not impacted the PS4 or Xbox One version of the game.
Batman: Arkham Knight is a strong entry to the Rocksteady Arkham Titles. It does little to innovate the formula aside from the addition of the contentious Batmobile, and for many fans of the series I think that this will be fine. The game is larger, looks nicer, has more things to do, and doesn’t fix any of the conventions of previous titles that weren’t broken. Fans of the “Caped Crusader” continue to enjoy being of the lucky few superhero fans with a truly remarkable video game franchise. I felt like I was working towards saving Gotham while I played. The tedious and uneven nature of certain side quests hurt the game overall in my opinion as the full ending cannot be achieved without completing them, but the game is a wonderful open world superhero fantasy. The narrative content and delivery in Arkham Knight stand above other open world adventure games. The twists are unexpected and the fallout from your actions disturbing. Batman is a character that has danced with the edge of right and wrong in the past, and Arkham Knight dives into the fray forcing me to ask myself if the actions of Batman are justified and whether another path would have been wiser. Characters die, betrayals are made, and there are moments when even the good guys decide to put the ends above the means. Gotham looks at Batman differently after the death of the Joker in Arkham City, and I have a difficult time imagining a more interesting means to explore those consequences.