I love video games, but it’s rare for me to play them right when they are first released. Normally it takes me a somewhere from a few months to a few years to get around to playing to a game. I’ve got a considerable backlog of games that I’ve been meaning to play and it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve been able to start chipping away at the list. With that in mind, I’ve created a new series of posts called Late to the Party, wherein I discuss the games that came out in the preceding years that I’m finally getting around to experiencing. Today’s entry in the series is Batman: Arkham Knight.
I almost didn’t finish Batman: Arkham Knight. My playthrough of it started a little before my housing issues sprang upon me, and in the ensuing weeks my time with the game was heavily fragmented. At a few points it seemed doubtful that I would get back to the game and my enthusiasm for it was beginning to fade, but I pushed through and just over a week ago I finally got to the ending credits. It wasn’t how I normally like to play a video game, but I’m glad I kept at it, as Arkham Knight is an outstanding game. Though this commentary will have a few spoilers, I won’t spoil the main story’s ending and none of the screenshots or videos will be from late in the game. That said, in the first sentence of the next paragraph I am going to spoil a major part of the ending of Batman: Arkham City, the game whose story precedes that of Batman: Arkham Knight, so be forewarned.
The Joker is dead. Having succumbed to the aftereffects of taking a large dose of the Titan formula, Gotham City’s most notorious criminal is gone, and in the opening scene of Batman: Arkham Knight, Joker’s body is placed in a cremator and incinerated. Everyone in Gotham City expected the worst from the power vacuum Joker left behind in the criminal underworld, but instead things got better. For several months crime dropped and Gotham City’s star looked to be on the rise. That all changed on one day, when Scarecrow released a small amount of his latest fear toxin in a cafe, and demanded everyone vacate the city, or he would unleash the toxin on the rest of the populace. Gotham City was quickly evacuated, emptying the streets of civilians. The only people who have stayed behind are the city’s criminal elements, the police, and Batman. Over the course of one night, Batman, together with his allies, must track down Scarecrow and put a stop to his machinations. This won’t be easy, as Scarecrow has enlisted the help of several of Batman’s greatest villains, including Two-Face, Riddler, Penguin, and Harley Quinn. On top of this, Scarecrow is working with the mysterious Arkham Knight, a man who wears his own version of the Batsuit and somehow is deeply familiar with Batman and holds an undying hatred of him. The Arkham Knight has brought his own private militia to Gotham City, with armed soldiers taking control of buildings and drones patrolling both the streets and the skies. Batman’s greatest challenge, however, is psychological, as he is haunted by the ghost of Joker. During the events of Batman: Arkham City, Batman was injected with a packet of Joker’s blood, and that blood has been slowly infecting his brain, causing him to see manifestations of Joker around him and at times lose control of his body. With each passing hour Batman’s mind is being corrupted and Joker’s psyche is steadily taking over. If Batman can’t find a cure, he will eventually become Joker.
Meeting the Arkham Knight
I enjoyed Batman: Arkham Knight’s story. Yes, there are a lot of silly and implausible things in it, such as everything in the main story happening in the span of a single night, but this is a superhero story, and even the story of a “grounded” superhero like Batman has plenty of suspension of disbelief. A cursory knowledge of the Batman universe should dispel any notions of realism in a Batman tale, so I can’t really ding the game’s story much for its leaps of believability. If you can let those things go, you’ll find a good story that draws deeply from various aspects of the Batman universe and builds upon the foundation of the previous Arkham games. The game’s cast is nearly a who’s who of Batman characters, with Commissioner Gordon, Nightwing, Robin, Catwoman, Oracle, Alfred, Lucius Fox, and even Poison Ivy aiding Batman in his fight against the aforementioned villains. Lots of minor characters like Firefly, Thomas Elliot, and the Manbat also show up and play their part in the story. Honestly, the only major Batman characters that I could think of that aren’t in the game are the likes of Bane, Mr. Freeze, Hugo Strange, Ra’s Al Ghul, and Killer Croc, and those characters already appeared in the first three Arkham games so it’s not a big deal (ok, so Killer Croc does have an extremely brief appearance in the Batman: Arkham Knight, but he has no dialogue and is only seen standing around before being removed from the picture). In some games, what Batman: Arkham Knight has going might be considered character overload, but the game somehow handles this masterfully, keeping the focus on Batman, but giving everyone else a bit of the limelight when their paths cross with Batman. Related to the characters, I will add as an aside that I correctly guessed the identity of the Arkham Knight from early on. The Arkham Knight is based on one of the most famous Batman storylines from the comics, and even if you’re like me and you have a modest knowledge of Batman lore, there’s a good chance you’ll guess it too. Still, even though I knew what the plot twist was, I still had a satisfying buildup to it. Thematically speaking, Batman: Arkham Knight’s story has Batman continually facing the reality that while he is doing most of the fighting, it is the people closest to him that are getting hurt. In his efforts to protect them he frequently shuts them out, but this only makes things worse and the consequences of his actions suffered by others steadily pile up. During one particular Joker hallucination this fact is driven home when Batman is forced to relive the day Joker shot and paralyzed Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl) and the literal writing on the wall reads “This is what happens when you drag your friends into this crazy little game of ours.”
The Arkham gameplay formula that began back in Batman: Arkham Asylum has been undated and refined yet again in Batman: Arkham Knight, though anyone who has played the other Arkham games will feel right at home in this one. Free-flow combat still works just as well as in previous games, with Batman expertly taking down foes in rapid succession through strikes, stuns, evades, and counters that can be seamlessly combined with the usage of his various gadgets. Combat is fast and fluid, and the only real problem with it is that sometimes it’s so fast that the game’s camera has trouble keeping up with Batman. Building up your combo meter in combat allows you to unleash special attacks that instantly incapacitate enemies, and as you get farther into the game these become increasingly important as you fight larger groups of stronger opponents. When the enemies have guns you switch to different tactics, with Batman becoming a predator who stalks and observes his prey before striking out of the shadows. You can certainly try to just go in and bum rush armed guards, but Batman will not survive long under a hail of bullets, and the game rewards you for getting clever in these encounters. Sneaking up behind enemies for stealth takedowns will work most of the time, but you can also go all-out in orchestrating ambushes and there’s a certain satisfaction from pulling off an elaborate sequence of takedowns. If enemies are close together there’s also a new game mechanic called the Fear Takedown, which allows Batman to chain together a series of knockout strikes and can go a long way to swiftly clearing out a room. When not in combat, Batman sometimes finds himself investigating mysteries, and Detective Mode vision returns in Batman: Arkham Knight to help you find clues for Batman to piece together. Detective Mode can be utilized at almost any time, and can also be used to find items in the game and spot enemies that would otherwise be out of view. One of the notable gameplay changes in Batman: Arkham Knight is that at certain points in the game you’ll be working with Robin, Nightwing, or Catwoman, and have the ability to play as them instead of Batman. Most of the time this happens during melee combat, as you can use a move where Batman and his ally will do a double takedown of an enemy, and at that point you’ll take over that character until you do another double takedown. Robin, Nightwing, and Catwoman do not have as wide of a moveset as Batman and you only play as them for short periods, but they each have a few unique attacks and playing as them makes for an interesting changeup. The biggest gameplay addition to Batman: Arkham Knight, however, is the Batmobile. Although the Batmobile appeared in prior Arkham games, in Batman: Arkham Knight the Batmobile can now be controlled and driven around Gotham City. You can summon the Batmobile from almost anywhere on the ground in Gotham City and when you do it will dramatically come drifting around the corner and Batman will jump right into it. The Batmobile also has a secondary mode, whereby it transforms into a tank, allowing Batman to do battle with the Arkham Knight’s drones and to solve certain puzzles. In case you’re wondering, the tank mode of the Batmobile fires non-lethal rounds at human targets and any thug who touches it gets an electric shock. I personally found tank combat to be fun, but I didn’t like how the Batmobile handled when I was driving around the city. In that sense I appear to be the reverse of the majority of people who played the game, as reading comments online seemed to indicate to me that most people liked the driving but hated tank combat. What surprised me about the Batmobile was just how prominently it factored into the game. When I first got the Batmobile, I figured it would be just for transportation and the occasional mission, but you use the Batmobile for a lot of missions and the prevalence of tank combat means you’ll be dealing out a good amount of destruction with it. Given my dislike for the Batmobile’s handling, however, I only used it half the time to get around Gotham City, and the rest of the time I used Batman’s glide ability to get from point to point.
Ambushing the Penguin
All the myriad gameplay elements I just mentioned will be experienced extensively in Batman: Arkham Knight, because it is a meaty game. There are dozens of side quests and over two hundred collectibles in the game on top of the main story missions, and even if for some reason you limited yourself to just those you would still get at least twelve or so good hours from the game before reaching the credits. The Gotham City map in Batman: Arkham Knight looks to be the largest in the series (I’m not completely sure on this – the one in Batman: Arkham Origins might have been about the same size) and is full of things to see and do. There are mysteries to solve, villains to apprehend, hostages to rescue, militia strongholds to clear out, AR challenges to compete in, and Riddler trophies to find, among other things. These extra challenges add at least another ten to fifteen hours to the game as Batman crisscrosses Gotham City and sorts out its problems one by one. In my playthrough I completed every side mission except for tracking down all the Riddler trophies, which I realized was going to take forever, and I can say that these side quests are completely worthwhile, both for earning experience points that can be spent on upgrading Batman’s suit, abilities, gadgets, or the Batmobile, and for adding on to the story of the main game. The only time I was frustrated with the side quests was at one point in the game when a large batch of new militia installations and drones popped up across the city, which was really annoying since I had taken the time to systematically clearing out the previous ones. The boss fight with Deathstroke at the end of his series of missions is also a little disappointing, but that’s only because he was such a great boss fight in Barman: Arkham Origins. Your progress in completing these side missions is measured both in game’s statistics screen, and in the GCPD’s lockup area, which gradually fills up with inmates as Batman brings more people to justice. You have to pass through the cellblocks in GCPD to get to the main area, so every time you visit the police headquarters you get a visual representation of how well you’re doing in cleaning up the city.
Tank combat and bomb disarming
Batman: Arkham Knight was the first Arkham game to come out on the current generation of games consoles, and it fittingly has received a sizable visual enhancement over its predecessors. Gotham City is the standout for this graphics upgrade, and it is darker and dirtier, but also more detailed and believable than ever. There are myriad small details on every building and every street, along with a few scattered nods to other characters in the Batman and DC universes, and the city will even very subtly morph as you progress the main story of the game and Batman increasingly comes under the influence of The Joker. The only things really missing from Gotham City are the civilians, who, thanks to a convenient plot device, are all gone. Actually, every Arkham game has found an excuse for them not to be wandering around outside, so I guess you could say that the lack of regular people is traditional. Lighting, weather effects, and character models also received a visual boost, though a few characters can at times have slightly awkward facial animations. Batman himself will occasionally look a little strange when he talks in-game, but that might just be my brain being thrown off by the fact that when he speaks only the area around his mouth moves, as his mask covers the rest of his face and is motionless. Speaking of Batman’s outfit, the new Batsuit in Batman: Arkham Knight deserves at least a small commendation in my mind as it is my favorite one that Batman has worn in the Arkham games. While previous Batsuits generally fell in line with designs found in the comics and animated series, the new Batsuit makes Batman look like he’s going to war, which makes sense considering the circumstances Batman finds himself in. The final visual item of note in Batman: Arkham Knight is the inclusion of a Photo Mode whereby you can pause the game and take control of the game’s camera to create and capture unique images. The Photo Mode of Batman: Arkham Knight is purely a novelty and doesn’t have as many options as some of the Photo Modes you can find in other games, but there’s enough camera control and effects for you to stretch your create muscles and compose interesting shots. I’m always glad to see Photo Mode make an appearance in any game that I play, and I’m thankful to the game’s developers for putting in the time and effort to enable this feature. On the audio front I didn’t notice much difference between Batman: Arkham Knight and its predecessors, but that’s not a bad thing. The Arkham games have always sounded great and Batman: Arkham Knight continues that heritage. Whether it’s the thud of Batman’s fists connecting with a hapless goon, the rush of air as Batman leaps off a building, or the roar of the Batmobile driving through the city, Batman: Arkham Knight delivers a strong audio performance.
Despite everything positive I have to say about Batman: Arkham Knight, there is one negative thing that I feel compelled to mention before wrapping up this commentary. The last thing you do in Batman: Arkham Knight is activate what is called the Knightfall Protocol. I won’t say what that is in order to avoid spoilers, but I will say that it triggers the game’s final cutscene. There are two versions of the cutscene, and which one you get depends on how much of the additional quests and collectibles you’ve completed in the game. I had done more than enough things to meet the criteria for the shorter, incomplete version of the cutscene, and was just fine with that because I wasn’t willing to put in the extra hours needed to get all the Riddler trophies, but for some reason the Knightfall Protocol never came up in my game. Youtube had me covered and I was able to watch the complete cutscene online, but this glitch in the game was something of a downer at the end of what had been a great experience up to that point. I don’t know if this is a widespread problem with the game or if my experience was just an isolated incident.
Completing one of Riddler’s challenges
I’ve had sort of a strange relationship with the Arkham games over the years. For some reason I have to really convince myself to play them, but once I get going I love them. Batman: Arkham Knight was no exception to this pattern and I would say it’s one of the better games I’ve played so far this year. I would definitely recommend it to any Batman fan who enjoys video games, or really anyone who likes video games in general, as it stands on its own as a great game regardless of whether or not you’re into superheroes. When you play Batman: Arkham Knight you feel like you’re Batman, and this is why it and the other Arkham games have fundamentally succeeded. My one qualification to my recommendation for Batman: Arkham Knight would be the fact that it is the fourth game in the Arkham series, and its story builds heavily on the previous three titles. While it is possible to skip those games and have a decent grasp of everything that is going on, I would recommend playing the previous games first, or at least looking up their plot synopses online, both because you’ll get the full context of the events of Batman: Arkham Knight, and because they’re good games. Batman: Arkham Knight is a great (apparent) conclusion to a great series, which has gone undefeated with four great games in a row. If no more Arkham games come out after this one, I could confidently say the series ended on a high note.