First and foremost, let’s get the “dead clown” out of the way – this review will have spoilers and will also assume that you have played the previous Arkham games. If you haven’t, then now is your time to turn around, go play those games, and then return.
There’s something else that really must be said upfront, as well – the ‘next’ generation of console graphics is truly here. There is nothing that compares to the visual feast that is Arkham Knight. Whether it’s the simply beautiful cresting waves of the river – contender for best water in a game ever? – or the eerie and daunting explosions in the latter half of the game, there is really no denying that this is a perfect looking game. We expected no less, but it’s still just awe inspiring how great this game looks at times. Flying through Gotham, Batman’s cape flutters in the wind, droplets of water fall off it as he soars to the ground to take out some goons flawlessly, then walks into a building where the lighting changes drastically. The era of loading screens is gone. And dammit, it’s glorious.
Within the world of the Batman mythology, there is a multitude of well-known stories involving Batman, Joker, Robin, and co. Whether it be The Long Halloween or A Death in the Family, there is simply no shortage of grand Batman tales. Well, you can throw Batman: Arkham Knight onto the pile as well.
There is no doubting that the Joker is dead. In the grand tradition of stunning openings within the Arkham games, the screen opens to a dead Joker lying on a gurney. There are no on-screen prompts, but as any gamer would tell you, if nothing’s happening on screen for a moment or three and there are no prompts, then just start mashing buttons and moving thumbsticks. Twirl a thumbstick around and a flame roars up. Keep it in place and watch the Greatest Villain of All Time™ burn to a crisp.
It’s a wonderfully stark opening to what is a wonderfully stark game. Story wise –Arkham Knight is one of the greatest representations of the character of Batman in recent memory. It takes the challenged Batman from Arkham Asylum, who was eventually thrown through the wringer and broke his one rule (not to kill anyone) in Arkham City, and drags him as a broken man into the emotionally torturous world that is Arkham Knight.
One of the masterful elements of these Arkham games has always been the seemingly flawless ability to give the player the truest feeling of what it is to be The Batman. That’s no different here in Arkham Knight. In fact, one could argue that the core theme of Arkham Knight is its ability to show the many facets of Batman. Whether it be from the ever-present Joker through to the various iterations of Robin, Arkham Knight explores what it is to be Batman.
This time round, Gotham is under attack from the mysterious Arkham Knight, as well as the terrifying Scarecrow. Scarecrow’s plan is to bring terror to Gotham via the use of a device called the ‘Cloudburst’, which will release the Scarecrow’s fear toxin all over Gotham. Meanwhile, alongside Scarecrow, the Arkham Knight wants Batman to see his city suffer before he kills him. Before you know it, Gotham has been evacuated of all its citizens, leaving the streets filled with cops and crims as Batman races against the clock to track down the evil that has permeated his city.
If the marketing for Arkham Knight told you one thing and one thing only, it was that you would (finally?) get to drive around in the Batmobile. Personally, I had hoped that the over reliance on advertising the Batmobile was simply to try and keep major plot points under wraps. And sure enough, the focus on the Batmobile did keep one of the larger secrets hidden until a certain point in the game (more on that in a moment). However, I also wasn’t prepared for simply how much Batmobile we would get.
The Batmobile is a beast of a vehicle in line with the Tumbler from the Christopher Nolan Batman films. It’s a tactical tank that can flatten oncoming vehicles without a worry. With a grand carefree nature, it will fire an electrical shock at passing enemies, throwing them against a wall with a terrifyingly painful scream. Presumably, these enemies survive being launched at a brick wall by a bolt of electricity that wouldn’t be out of place in The Green Mile; the Batmobile is so quick that you aren’t given an opportunity to see them stand up. Thematically, the brutality of Batman is explored later on, but that still doesn’t detract from the over the top aspect of the electric shock it emits.
Visually, the Batmobile is a wonderful sight to behold with its armoured plates and admittedly quite cool ‘back seats’. However, if for some reason you find the Batmobile visually unappealing, well, tough, as it’s your main form of transport around Gotham. The smooth gliding of Batman flying through the night is still included, but often you will be forced into using the Batmobile to get around the city. Whether it be in one of the many tank battles or simply transporting the latest supervillain you’ve caught, you’ll find yourself mostly careening around the city and causing a lot more destruction than expected. It handles as you may expect a tank-like vehicle to handle, only with a touch more finesse than an actual tank. Cornering is a bit of a bother, and more often than not you’ll find yourself crashing through street poles and into store fronts causing a damage bill that no doubt will raise a few eyebrows.
So, driving the Batmobile is fine, yet the over reliance on it during combat really drags down what is otherwise a great game. Making up the bulk of the Arkham Knight’s arsenal are a seemingly endless supply of unmanned tanks and drones. Many of the battles throughout the main storyline see you battling these tanks in some of the most lackluster and bland battles I’ve seen in a game. The unmanned tanks have a laser that marks where their shot will hit, so you always know where the enemies will be attacking, making every battle a mere case of dodging the lasers and shooting the enemies down. Later on, there are some flying enemy drones that come into battle, but really each battle is the same ‘rinse and repeat’. I lived in hope that the boss battles would at least be different and would hopefully rely on Batman’s grand arsenal, yet I was let down time and time again. There is no grand memorable battle here like the Mr Freeze battle from Arkham City, there is simply ‘hop into the Batmobile and hunt down some stronger tanks’.
Granted, not every boss fight is a battle between tanks, but there seems to be a lower level of creativity than in previous games. For example, one of the battles that really should have been an epic watercooler moment failed to deliver – the lead up to the ‘final’ fight between the Arkham Knight and Batman. The Arkham Knight is built up to be an equal to Batman in every way, someone who can match his fighting style, someone who can match his intellect. However, instead of going up against him fist to fist, you are tasked with hunting him down in a huge tank and taking pot shots at him until he’s beaten. When you do finally manage to tackle him head on, he’s just sitting in one spot and you have to creep up on him like you’re playing “What’s the Time Mr Wolf?” – you get bumped back to a checkpoint if he sees you.
If it isn’t Batmobile battles as boss fights, then it’s a mano-e-mano fight with endless goons. The combat is polished, and countering attacks is as thrilling and joyful as expected from this series. Rocksteady have taken the core mechanics created in Arkham Asylum and improved on them throughout the years to what is an often imitated and almost flawless combat system. Alongside the main story, there is a plethora of side missions to keep you busy, ranging from tracking down a disturbed serial killer to stopping Two-Face from robbing banks. Yet the majority of these side missions see you punching down enemies to reach the super villain, who is then captured in a cut scene without Batman ever having to actually physically battle them himself.
On top of these side missions are the expected Riddler missions. These are implemented a lot better than in previous Arkham games – whether that is because I actually managed to solve a lot of them myself rather than resorting to a guide is up to you to decide. I had hoped that after growing quickly tired of the Batmobile, I would be able to find solace in the Riddler missions – surely he wouldn’t implement the Batmobile into his puzzles? Nope! Wrong! Here you’ll find Batman tasked with racing around tracks in the Batmobile to help gain keys to save the trapped Catwoman. Sure, there’s the odd mind scratcher here and there, but the majority of these puzzles involve the Batmobile. Call me cynical, but there were points here that I felt like I was playing that Star Wars Pod Racing game from the Nintendo 64 again. Now, if you’re a huge fan of that game, then you’ll love these racing tracks, but I personally was not.
I should clarify, the mechanics of the game are not broken, the Batmobile works just fine, it’s just the over reliance on these very basic elements and the lack of creativity that makes it a disappointing development. If the bar hadn’t been raised so high with the great creativity in previous games, then I wouldn’t have been so disappointed here. I’m well aware that’s a petty complaint – “if you weren’t so good, you wouldn’t suck so much” – but it’s a testament to the great quality of games Rocksteady have created that these kinds of complaints become glaring issues. The overuse of it here is Rocksteady wanting to show off their ‘cool new toy’ – it’s over exposure to the point of exhaustion.
Fortunately, on the opposite side of the coin, there are some really enjoyable fights that incorporate two characters. Sometimes you may find yourself in a fight against The Penguins goons with Nightwing by your side, or Catwoman tackling Riddler’s robots. These fights are wonderful, as you have the ability to swap between characters thanks to visually exciting dual takedowns. When you’re not controlling the other character, they still manage to hold their own and are equally effective as yourself. It’s a nice new take on the combat system, and when these fights do occur, they instantly become a highlight of the game.
If it sounds like I’m being too harsh on Arkham Batmobile, it’s simply because surrounding these disappointing elements is a truly great Batman story. In fact, I would go so far as saying that it is the best Batman story from the past ten years. The Christopher Nolan Batman films have been great for sure, but they can’t hold a flame to what amounts to over twenty hours of great Batman story. The crux of what makes Arkham Knight a great and must-play game for those who are Batfans is the intense assessment of what Batman stands for and his effects on Gotham.
This is full spoiler territory from here on in:
Shortly into Batman’s investigation into Scarecrow and finding a way to stop the fear toxin from being released into Gotham, Batman is exposed to a massive amount of the toxin. With the first of many great ‘jump scares’ – the Joker appears. He’s still dead as a dodo, but with the high dose of the fear toxin on board, Batman starts hallucinating Joker everywhere. Tasked with trying to reclaim Gotham, Batman must also deal with the internal fear that he may just be losing his mind.
What then occurs throughout the rest of the game is one of the greatest assessments of fear I’ve seen in a game. To pull a line from The Dark Knight, Batman ‘completes’ the Joker. They work together perfectly, and even though the Joker is dead and burnt to a crisp, he now has Batman’s mind to play havoc within. If there’s one thing that Bruce Wayne had always hoped for, it is that one day Gotham would not need Batman. The majority of Arkham Knight shows Batman taking responsibility for his actions, and course correcting Gotham to become a city that can exist without Batman. Whilst he does that, he quite literally has to confront his fears and stop Joker from taking over his mind and turning Batman into a hulking Bat-Joker.
Mark Hamill once again shows why he is the best actor to have portrayed the Joker, with some glorious lines of dialogue. Often the Joker will appear on a rooftop, goading Batman into allowing him to take over his mind, reminding Batman of how good they work together. As the fear toxin takes further control of Batman’s mind, the Joker appearances increase. Combine the fear with Batman’s brutality and you have an ultimate killing machine. There are some battles later on where it’s not entirely clear whether the enemies Batman just took on survived or not, making for an even darker level of storytelling.
I am possibly imparting my own personal experiences on the game here, but I felt a profound sense of empathy for Batman as he struggled through these awful moments. The clouds of literal fear that appear later in the game, swarming his city, are beautiful displays of a man on the rapid descent to madness. It’s this assessment of a man pushed to his limits and then gradually nudged over that precipice that elevates this from being just a basic superhero story into something grander.
As Batman encounters possible successors like Nightwing, Catwoman, Robin, and Azrael, he is constantly reminded that the burden of being Gotham’s protector is not one he has to carry alone. However, this goes against his desire to put those he cares about in harm’s way. On one level, it feels like someone dealing with a mental illness. Batman wants to battle the demons alone – and at points, the quite literal mental demons that display themselves as Joker effigies – without anyone’s assistance for fear that they will be hurt. Yet, what happens along the way is quite the opposite, with the people he cares about being gravely injured.
Another minor quibble is the apparent reluctance of the two main villains to kill Batman. Both Arkham Knight and Scarecrow encounter Batman multiple times throughout the story, but for ‘reasons’ they don’t kill him there and then. As mentioned, it’s a minor problem that is thematically explained away by their desire to have Batman ‘suffer’ by seeing his friends suffer. That desire makes sense, but is unfortunately undercut by certain characters non-deaths. There is a terrible case of ‘Marvel death syndrome’ going on in this game, where certain characters appear to die, only to find that they magically appear later on quite alive. It’s a frustrating element as these more intense sequences eventually lose their emotional impact, even though they do try and explain them away with some story plot points.
With all of these dramatic plot developments, it never feels overstuffed. Events occur naturally and – most of the time – make logical sense. The ending itself is really quite something else. There is a basic ending, which is gained by completing the main Arkham Knight/Scarecrow storyline, but then there is also a further ending when you have caught the majority of Gotham’s Most Wanted. Finally, there is a 100% completion ending, which is gained when you have caught all of Gotham’s Most Wanted – meaning you have to collect all 239 Riddler trophies to capture The Riddler. In previous games, these Riddler puzzles were tedious and really didn’t feel like they achieved all that much, but here they work thematically within the story and provide a real reward at the end that is worthwhile working towards.
Whilst Arkham Knight doesn’t have a jaw dropping ending as Arkham City did, it is still a grand finale to what is a truly magnificent series. It’s been said many times before that these Arkham games have redefined what superhero games can be, but they’ve also redefined what 3D brawlers can be. Navigating through Gotham, you can see various Lex Luthor buildings as well as hearing goons talk about how “hopefully the flying man with the cape” doesn’t appear. If there’s one thing I hope, it’s that the superb quality and attention to detail given to Batman by Rocksteady is also given to other superheroes, as these Arkham games have proven that it’s possible to create an immersive experience that not only matches, but often supersedes, the comic book origins.
With all of that said, is this a must-play game for all gamers? Well, no. If you’ve played the previous two games and enjoyed them, then you’ve most likely already played this day one for fear of being spoiled (if not, I did warn you). But, if you’re not a fan of Batman or the previous games, then unfortunately I don’t feel there is enough here to convert you into running around the house with your dirty bed sheets as a cape shouting “na-na-na-na-BATMAN” and scaring the dogs. Visually – it’s perfect. Story wise – it’s one of the greatest Batman stories told. Yet, over its 20- to 30-hour play time, you’ll find yourself repeating actions over and over again to the point of tedium. If this repetition was reduced and a great deal more combat variation was in place, then you’d be looking at one of the greatest games of the year – nay, the decade. Unfortunately, it’s just a very good game that should have been better.