This review contains spoilers for 2011’s Batman Arkham City
“This is how it happened. This is how the Batman died.” These ominous words begin the third and final entry of Rocksteady’s Arkham trilogy, Arkham Knight. A far darker and more ambitious title than it’s predecessors, Knight attempts to conclude the Batman saga with a deep psychological examination of the man behind the mask. But a bland environment intrusive new gameplay mechanics often disrupt this bombastic finale. Can the Batman rise once again? Or should fans hang up the cap and cowl before it’s too late?
Arkham Knight takes place nine months after the events of Arkham City. Crime is down and the citizens of Gotham are free to walk the streets once again. But when Scarecrow broadcasts his intentions to gas the entire city with his latest fear toxin, a mass evacuation turns the bustling metropolis into a concrete ghost town. Batman quickly sets out to thwart Dr. Crane’s psychotic scheme before encountering the Arkham Knight, a mysterious mercenary with a vast knowledge of the Dark Knight’s tactics. Despite heavy exposure to Scarecrow’s mind altering gas, Batman must discover the identity of the Arkham Knight and save the city he dedicated his life to protect.
The story is decidedly bleak. Death, regret, and failure are constant threads throughout the main 8 hour narrative, but it’s overarching theme is fear. While the concept of Batman facing off against his personal demons is an enticing scenario, the execution isn’t all that scary. The thrust of the caped crusader’s adventure are threats of dire consequences. Yet when these consequences come to pass, Batman and his allies quickly accept and adapt the new status quo with little reflection or apprehension. True to his character, Bruce Wayne remains as determined and stoic as ever. But it’s hard to remain emotionally engaged when even his life long caretaker , Alfred, resists reflection on personally devastating events.
One of Batman’s hallucinations is the ever present ghostly apparition of his greatest nemesis, The Joker. Mark Hamel once again reprises his role as the Clown Prince of Crime, delivering his signature laugh and inappropriate quips. The return of The Joker is welcomed but the method of his reappearance is at it’s best contrived and at it’s worst hokey. With enough restraint, his narration could have punctuated Batman’s troubled psychological state. Instead, The Joker appears in nearly every story beat and even while casually roaming the city. This quickly removes the mystique of one of pop culture’s greatest villains and further clutters the already bloated plot.
Anyone familiar with the previous Arkham titles will quickly adapt to the majority of Knight’s gameplay. The revolutionary free flowing combat allows Batman to quickly switch targets in large scale melee battles. Successive strikes, counters, and stuns build the Dark Knight’s momentum and power, enabling Batman to unleash special combos. Each brawler is defeated with unique methods, larger enemies must be stunned, stun rods carrying enemies require dodging, and jumping is necessary to take down riot shields. Downed enemies can now be knocked down with additional punches, allowing players to quickly resume the battle. Specially equipped medical staff can quickly revived their fallen comrades, adding to the already hectic pugilistic puzzle. Juggling a variety of techniques in the midst of a dozen enemies is still as exhilarating as ever, providing a fantastic blend of gray matter and bruised knuckles.
Stealth also returns, although with a less success. Environments have been greatly enlarged at the sacrifice of nuance. Batman can still enter floor grates, perch from high ground, and cling to walls before surprising guards with stealth attacks. The new Hovering drones and scanning machine guns scour their surroundings with deadly accuracy, but their limited mobility reduce their presence to aesthetic. Patrol units come in large numbers but Batman’s new Fear Takedowns allow for up to five enemies to be knocked out at a time. It’s a thrill to watch terrified criminals swiftly taken out, but it only further removes the strategic elements of Knight’s core gameplay. Of course, this method is optional, meaning sneakier players can completely abstain for the majority of the game.
Arkham Knight’s biggest addition to gameplay comes in the form of the Batmobile. A large militarized vehicle that smashes through the streets of Gotham and transforms into a full fledged tank with the tap of the button. A large battalion of unmanned ground and airborne drones roam throughout the city, ready for a head-on battle with Batman’s latest gadget. Heavily armored tanks require the Batmobile to stealthily sneak up and attacked their vulnerable exhaust pipes. Even The Ridder joins the automotive action with a selection of twisted race courses littered with activatable platforms and barriers.
Unfortunately, the Batmobile sequences feel woefully out of place. Nearly every major story event concludes with large scale tank battle against dozens of inept drones. Often tanks will simply stand in place as they slowly aim, leaving players ample time to blast them away without much challenge. The vehicle’s dodge ability and homing missiles further removes any sort of combat tension, making these fights more of a chore than a highlight. While the tank controls are quick and responsive, the same can not be said of the Batmobile’s driving functionality. Stiff turning results in Batman smashing into walls, unintentionally climbing up walls, or flying off narrow pathways.
For the uninitiated, Batman hates guns, going so far as to destroy a series of Penguin’s weapon caches. There’s something unsettling about the Dark Knight machine gunning and exploding hundreds of combatants, even if they are robotic. It’s certainly neat watching the unmanned vehicle slowly creep towards Batman or jettison him into the air. But outside of scripted events and drone battles, it’s wholly unnecessary, especially when it’s often easier to glide towards far off locations. Worse yet, many objectives revolve around gaining access for the Batmobile. Frankly, it feels like babysitting and a poor substitute for the series’ traditionally excellent boss battles.
Outside of the main campaign there are a plethora of side quests, each with their own separate narrative and gameplay focus. Preventing Two-Face’s latest bank robbery requires stealth, while rescuing kidnapped firefighters gives players a chance to brush up on their fista cuffs. The Riddler returns with nearly 250 hidden trophies cleverly placed inside of Gotham City. Admittedly, I was only able to obtain less than ten percent of the overall sum, but these puzzles are amongst some of the best designed gameplay in Arkham Knight. Training Azrael as Batman’s successor, hunting down a serial killer, and rescuing Catwoman are equally fun and highly recommended for any play-through. Batmobile quests are predictably underwhelming, but occasionally provide entertaining conclusions.
Utilizing the enhanced hardware of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, Arkham Knight’s graphics make a grand current gen-debut. Neon signs and lightning pop, showcasing the game’s impressive dynamic lighting engine. Immense particle effects from exploding vehicles, debris, and Batman’s smoke bombs give a satisfying sense of impact. Poison Ivy’s eye catching facial animations deliver realistic performances with emotional eyes and strong expressions. Lavishly decorated interiors such as the police station and gang hideouts are packed with small details and easter eggs, further establishing a living world. Sadly, this doesn’t carry through the Gotham City itself. Despite three separate islands to explore, none have an identity of their own. But the extravagant visuals more than makes up for the occasional framerate dip and Gotham’s lack of personality.
Arkham Knight is a good, albeit troubled sequel. It retains many of the gameplay aspects that made its prior entries a success. The fast paced combat, thoughtful stealth sequences, and forensic investigations remain strong. It’s a shame the most compelling elements are frequently interrupted by repetitive vehicle shoot outs and simplistic boss fights. Arkham Knight is intended as a grand finale, incorporating much of the Batman mythology into a single title. But it’s story and gameplay feel more concerned with closure than character, leaving little breathing room for sensible escalation and development. Still, it is the ending to a six year long story, and one many fans will want to experience