Warning: Mild Spoilers Ahead
Be Vengeance. Be the Night. Be Batman.
Rain pounds against my cape in a staccato rhythm as I soar through the skies. After a great deal of searching, I’ve finally found one of the Arkham Knight’s final strongholds within my city. I can’t help but feel a certain amount of satisfaction as I glide behind one of the guards and firmly plant my boot at the base of his skull. His jaw shatters between the force of my boot and cold concrete roof. Without hesitation, my index finger pulls the trigger on the grappling gun. My body is instantly fired toward the nearest vantage point. One down, six to go.
I am Batman.
Allow me to preface this review by saying that Batman: Arkham Knight is one of the best Batman games that I have ever played. Throughout the fifty to sixty hours of gameplay that I have pumped into Arkham Knight, one thought continues to run through my mind. Rocksteady crafted this game with a great deal of love. This love gave birth to a truly amazing story with near perfect gameplay. As the narrative unfolds it is completely obvious that Rocksteady has a love for the Batman mythos that only rivals my own.
I know that there are some people out there who don’t agree with me on this statement. Many feel that the Batman: Arkham series hit its pinnacle with the introduction of Batman: Arkham City. In that particular entry, Rocksteady upped the ante by allowing the player to explore a portion of Gotham City and expanded the roster of villains to populate this title. As a result, the narrative knob was turned to 11 through the incorporation of all of the villains. At the end of Arkham City, the story felt incredibly bloated because many of the major plot threads did not tie together as one cohesive experience. The result was a form of narrative ADHD that felt slightly disjointed.
Video games are an entertainment medium that necessitate the perfect marriage between story and gameplay. Without a perfect union among these two aspects, a video game can sink to new levels of mediocrity. This is an aspect that I felt Rocksteady absolutely nailed with Batman: Arkham Asylum, and to a lesser extent, Batman: Arkham City. When constructing a superhero story, it is important that narrative is centered on a theme. A strong theme resonates more with the audience than plot. Batman: Arkham Knight extends the plot of the Batman: Arkham Universe while also introducing and exploring interesting themes with the audience. Rocksteady has constructed a plot here that presents both personal and global stakes for the caped crusader. The stakes are enhanced by the themes they represent. I feel that this is what ultimately distinguishes Batman: Arkham Knight from the other entries in the franchise.
Two of the most compelling themes presented within the narrative structure of this entry are that of ultimate sacrifice and Batman’s failure. Bruce Wayne’s crusade has come with a great cost. Barbara Gordon, Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, and Selena Kyle have all been captured and are facing death at the hands of Gotham’s Most Wanted. Things are going from bad to worse on Gotham’s streets with the introduction of an adversary that knows a little too much about Batman. For every step forward, it seems that Batman is taking ten steps back and the Scarecrow and Arkham Knight dig their claws deeper into the city. Bruce can’t even save himself from becoming his own worst enemy. The odds are completely stacked against the Batman. Yet, he continues on because he must. He will sacrifice everything this city. At times, it appears that his sacrifice results in devastating failure regarding certain family members. The mystery surrounding the identity of the Arkham Knight and his extensive knowledge of the Batman is central to the plot. Moreover, the resolution of this mystery is central to these themes and helps to nicely tie up all of the plot threads presented within the game’s narrative.
Batman: Arkham Knight’s narrative is complemented by the title’s gameplay. The Free Flow Combat System and Detective Mode have been refined to perfection for this entry in the franchise. In particular, the Detective Mode incorporates many of the advances in its system that have been implemented throughout the franchise’s history. The addition of each of these elements shows the franchise’s growth throughout each of the installments. One of my favorite elements of Detective Mode was scrubbing through recovered video feeds to find where a character had placed his hands as a means of reconstructing his fingerprints. Throughout Batman: Arkham Knight, Detective Mode feels familiar yet completely revamped. The level of complexity of these elements helps the player to truly feel like the Dark Knight Detective.
In previous installments, the Free-Flow combat system made me ultimately feel as though I was simply mashing buttons in order to beat Arkham’s thugs into the ground. My gameplay skills never really reached levels necessary to unlock the Free Flow 50 achievement. However, these skills are necessary in later battles for eliminating Arkham Knight’s forces within Gotham City. In Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City, the use of gadgets felt like more of a bonus than a necessity for a majority of the unscripted encounters. Batman: Arkham Knight improves upon this feature through the incorporation of enemy classes which require the use of certain gadgets during combat. As a player, this required a certain level of cognizance regarding the buttons being pushed. Otherwise, the player can be quickly defeated in manners that are completely embarrassing for the Batman.
The addition of more enemy classes within Arkham Knight’s militia enhances the feeling of despair present within the narrative. Their inclusion is reminiscent to the incorporation of Mr. Freeze in Arkham City. The Arkham Knight and his forces often adapt to each of your takedowns during Fear encounters. This requires a deeper level of thought throughout the course of the game as the villains’ levels of difficulty increase. One of the new enemy classes that was a particular hindrance is the Medic. The medic heals downed militia forces which in turn raises their levels of alertness. With the addition of the new specialized forces, it is necessary for the player to do a certain amount of planning before flying head first into Fear or Combat encounters. The end result are combat and fear missions that require a level of Batman-like thinking as you survey the battleground and implement your plan.
In this incarnation of the franchise, the side missions have some weight. One of my favorite moments of gameplay was also one of my biggest failures. Firefly has been burning down all of the firehouses in Gotham. After using the Batmobile’s power wench to restore power to the firehouse and activate the sprinkler system, the villain emerges. Firefly quickly flees the scene as I give chase in the Batmobile. My driving skills at this point in playing are so poor that the villain escapes. As a video game enthusiast, I am used to the mission failed screen that also provides the chance to start over. This is simply not the case in some of the “Most Wanted” missions. Once Firefly escaped, I was not gifted with the opportunity of starting over. The villain had truly escaped to burn down more of Gotham. In order to redeem myself, I had to search Gotham for more burning firehouses. Through this simple gameplay tweak, Rocksteady managed to add some weight to many of the side missions.
Perhaps the most polarizing element of Batman: Arkham Knight’s gameplay is the implementation of the Batmobile. This is the gameplay element that many of the fans have been begging for since the inception of the franchise. The result is certainly a mixed bag. When implementing this gadget, the game can oftentimes feel more like Grand Theft Auto and less like an entry in the Batman: Arkham franchise. This is certainly the result of the steep learning curve required for driving the Batmobile. Before driving one block of city streets, I had managed to run over many of the thugs still present on the streets. Somehow, I can’t reconcile the physics in my mind regarding the force of an electric charge required to fire someone away from the ten ton Batmobile that is travelling at least sixty miles an hour. Something about this force just screams instant death to anyone in my path. Additionally, this does not account for the numerous times that I ramped the Batmobile and landed on a group of dregs. I would suggest that this version of Batman is willing to kill if it wasn’t such a major plot point related to the theme of sacrificing one’s self.
If one is able to suspend his or her disbelief, and achieve some handle on the Batmobile’s controls, the vehicle is actually pretty bad ass. It’s incorporation into the combat and riddle solving system is nearly seamless. One of my largest concerns for this game was the reliance on the Batmobile. I didn’t want for every mission to necessitate its use. Rocksteady has done an excellent job of balancing its use during gameplay. While some missions require the use of the Batmobile, other missions require you to solve problems the old fashioned way. Furthermore, many of the missions allow you to decide which path to take when incorporating the Batmobile. The use of the Batmobile in completing each of the Riddler’s racetracks as well as achieving many of the 200 plus trophies is still keeping me busy as I strive to achieve the 100% ending for the game.
One of the largest issues that I have found with the Batmobile is that sometimes it can cause the game to crash when ejecting Batman at top speeds. My initial suspicion is that this occurs when you are trying to fire Batman into a new area of the map. However, I have not tested the game on this issue at this time.
Batman: Arkham Knight strives to make the player truly feel like Batman. The engrossing narrative arc, refined detective mode and combat system, as well as the incorporation of the Batmobile provide a nearly perfect experience. Although the Batmobile has the most issues out of all of these elements, it is necessary to remember that it is the newest element of the franchise. Through four games, the developer has managed to refine each of its existing gameplay systems to near perfection. The refinement of these elements help to truly bring the experience to new heights. Additionally, the narrative structure is heightened with resonating themes. These themes are enhanced by the personal and potential global stakes presented by each advancing plot point. Rocksteady has crafted what I consider to be their Magnum Opus for the Batman: Arkham franchise with Batman: Arkham Knight.
Final Rating: 9/10