imageBatman: Arkham Knight simultaneously manages to be the best and worst game in the Arkham series. On a purely mechanical level, combat mechanics have never been so responsive. There are more options available for sneakily taking down foes without being seen, despite the increase in challenges. The Riddler trophies and challenges mostly provide challenging enough brain teasers without requiring extreme mental or “physical” acrobatics. Traversal around the city with cape and hook has been greatly improved, with plenty of tricks and upgrades to keep Batman’s feet off the ground for extended periods of time.

On a superficial level, Arkham Knight has made the prior games, or at least Arkham City and Arkham Origins, obsolete. Despite all of these improvements, Arkham Knight also feels the least like being The Batman.

I’m tempted to lay the blame at the tires of the Batmobile. Before the player has much time to adjust to its Warthog-style of physics, they’re thrown into a chase through the narrow, winding streets and alleyways of Gotham. Without a clear understanding of how it controls, the player will no doubt find themselves crashing into criminal and concrete alike, knocking down walls, signs, and light fixtures while desperately trying to keep behind an enemy APC. Shortly after the player will descend onto Riddler’s brand new race track, where they must steer the Batmobile just right if they wish to defy physics and drive along a wall. Foot too heavy on the gas and the player will lose control of the vehicle. Not enough power and the Batmobile will ineffectively drop down to the floor (or mysteriously deep acid vat) below. Turn the vehicle to the left or right too much and gravity will suddenly reassert its dominance over the player.

These sorts of tracks demand an understanding of how the Batmobile works from the player, yet no real instruction is truly given. The player must instead try, try again, with little feedback as to how close they were to getting things right. No matter the mistake, the end result looks the same. The Batmobile losing traction, spinning around, and plummeting to the depths below. What is perhaps most bizarre a design choice is that some of the most difficult of these obstacle course loop-de-loops are placed towards the end of the game’s main story, meaning some of the hardest content is mandatory rather than being left optional for skilled or completionist players.

In contrast, the Tank controls are much easier to adjust to. The slower speed and multidirectional movement capabilities make the vehicle more instinctually responsive. Early confrontations are also kept simple, with a small number of opposing drones firing at the player, their bullet trajectory lit up for the player to see. These are some of the most interesting conflicts within the game, gradually introducing new tools for Batman to use, such as EMP blasts to temporarily disable enemy vehicles, as well as new enemies that fire homing missiles.

Even so, the game also has a habit of increasing difficulty by simply increasing the number of foes you face at once, as well as the number of waves you have to endure. It’s not entirely an artificial inflation of challenge, as it requires the player to be more environmentally aware and capable of dodging the separate trajectories more affectively. However, it certainly turns it into more of a war of attrition, as dragging such conflicts out merely increases the likelihood of making more mistakes.

I also take issue with introducing what are called Cobra tanks. I imagine it’s supposed to be a stealth-based contrast to the regular combat, much like the Predator segments are for the standard Batman gameplay. However, unlike the Predator mode of design, Batman lacks the same advantage in mobility and environmental awareness. To be seen means to retreat or die, but the cobra tank movement patterns are frequently crossing over. Especially in some of the latter missions within the game. There are always openings, certainly, but they’re not as visible as when the player can simply activate Detective Vision from a perch above their foes as Batman.

imageWhich perhaps highlights just why Arkham Knight feels so unlike a proper Batman game as the prior releases. The Batmobile just doesn’t feel like Batman. Not to say that the Batmobile doesn’t belong at all. It’s actually quite convenient to drive from one island of the city to the next before ejecting out of the vehicle, gliding through the air onto the rooftops closest to your destination or goal. It makes the act of exploring the three islands, as large as they are, less of a hassle. Recall the slog of gliding across a bridge in Arkham Origins? That is no longer necessary here. In that regard, the Batmobile does not impede on the aesthetic. In addition, using the winch to solve a variety of puzzles also expands the challenge possibilities both for Riddler content and story missions.

With the exception of some of the racing segments and challenges, I ultimately feel like they did a good job with the Batmobile. However, it is shoe-horned in so often to the main story that it feels like there’s less emphasis on “being the Bat”, despite the fact that “Be the Batman” is one of the game’s taglines. If the player is going to “Be the Bat”, it is most likely in the optional side content.

Many of the missions, such as chasing down Penguin or interfering with Two-Face’s bank heists, are precisely what a Batman game ought to be. Following leads to some of Gotham’s Most Wanted criminals before taking out their goons and their own horrible selves. Unfortunately, this is one of the areas where the game actually feels lacking compared to the prior releases.

On the whole, Arkham Knight has a mere handful of the best of Batman’s rogues gallery, only three of which are really necessary to the plot. Arkham Asylum, Arkham City and even Arkham Origins managed to somehow weave a series of villains into the story, both popular and obscure. Arkham Knight seems more interested in forcing the player to take down the titular character’s militia, all of which offer a variety of combat challenges but make the remaining rogues feel like mere distractions.

It creates a sort of thematic schism within the setting. Along the main story’s path, you have a group of villains whose entire goal isn’t to ruin or rule Gotham City, but to break the spirit of Batman. On the other hand, you have a bunch of antagonists doing typical Batman villain things, such as smuggle weaponry or rob banks. The latter tend to feel like the Batman game you’ve always wanted. The former is a well-designed open-world game starring The Batman.

This is, of course, purely aesthetic. It doesn’t actually impact the quality of the game itself, but it certainly leaves something to be desired narratively. This is, after all, intended to be the big finale of the Arkham series, yes? While I am hardly a proponent of “more is always better”, I do feel that Arkham City managed to integrate some of the best of Batman’s villains into the story without feeling overblown. It helped provide a greater sense of grandiosity fitting for some of the story’s implications. True, characters such as Victor Zsasz and Azrael are mere distractions. Yet any villain aside from the big three are only distractions, filling very little real purpose.

It is also part of why it can be so hard to put a finger on the main theme of Arkham Knight. At its core, the game is about the invulnerable immortality of a symbol versus the finite limitations of a mortal man. Batman is forced to face the fact that he is just a man, with Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight pushing him closer and closer towards his breaking point.

If you want to break Batman, then why intentionally empty Gotham city and leave it for the thugs? The excuse given in-game is that this allowed the Arkham Knight to bring in his militia without anyone noticing. However, the only force to oppose this militia would have been the police department, which is still fully staffed and within the city. So now the game has to jump through hoops to make certain Scarecrow’s plan is still threatening, that it makes some level of sense and can truly break Batman’s spirit, while simply being little more than an excuse to have a bigger, more open world without worrying about running over the innocent citizenry of Gotham.

imageWhich is really the biggest issue with following Arkham Knight’s theme. The various story threads are interwoven quite effectively, but due to the open-world nature of the game they feel much more disconnected. Batman will be eager to chase after a friend in trouble, but Alfred then suggests to take five and rescure a firefighter or two in the meantime. The sense of urgency is interrupted, and the narrative trail is lost or confused.

As blasphemous as it is to say, I also feel that Kevin Conroy’s acting capabilities don’t help. Having grown up with the animated series as my definitive take on the Batman character, I understand how iconic Conroy’s voice is to the role. However, having just watched some episodes of that original series, I have to say Conroy’s emotional range is limited. He was suitable for the purposes of the cartoon, and he did an excellent job as an embittered and retired Bruce Wayne in Batman: Beyond, but he does not have the range required for this interpretation of Batman. He never sounds as if he’s reaching his breaking point, that his compassion for the goons he’s been beating down for years is slowly draining like sands in an hourglass. He has the same stoic voice of every game prior, and when he’s trying to sound sad or melancholy it feels artificial.

Don’t get me wrong. Whenever I read a Batman comic, it is Conroy’s voice that I hear. Unfortunately, the Conroy in my brain has a much greater range of emotions.

The story makes up for this lack of emotional depth by instead telling the player how Batman is feeling through other characters. They go for the tactic of beating it over your head rather than letting it speak for itself. At least, where Batman is concerned. In all other factors, particularly the effects of Scarecrow’s fear toxin, the story-telling is top-notch. If Rocksteady understands anything about game narrative, it is how to convey insanity. Both subtle and obvious, it is clear that the game’s antagonists are getting to Batman’s mind, and every moment the game builds on these factors is a delight.

Which leaves me to the final takeaway of Arkham Knight. Rocksteady is an incredibly skilled developer, but they are not yet masters of the craft. Arkham Knight is the most mechanically refined of the franchise (on console, at least), with a lot of great new gameplay ideas used to enhance and develop plenty of the old ones. The story is a great way to thematically close off the Arkham narrative (which, retroactively, I do believe Origins even fits in well with, and you may recall I originally hated that story).

Yet there are so many choices that make this feel like an inferior Batman game. The Batmobile does not always fit the mythos as it is implemented, and often feels as if they had to justify its inclusion. Justifications that the game did not need beyond faster travel in a larger world. The rogues gallery is the most disappointing here, and the story has to jump through more hoops than usual to justify the open world nature of the game. The open world that distracts from the greater story.

If we’re talking pure mechanics, Arkham Knight is the best of the bunch. Yet it has not truly capitalized on the strengths of its predecessors. It is both the victim of sequel glut, forcing a bit too much content that is unnecessary down the player’s throat, while having less of what made the sequels feel so suitably Batman. It exceeds expectations, and fails to live up to them.

Arkham Knight is as schizophrenic as Two-Face. Perhaps he should have been the main villain after all?


 

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