Rocksteady Studios set a new bar with 2009's Batman: Arkham Asylum, a title that showed that licensed superhero action games didn't have to feel like cheap cash-ins. With a small but expertly designed game world, bosses that functioned as puzzles, and rhythmic combat that flowed stylishly and felt like a genuine Batman simulator, Arkham Asylum was a great title that nailed what it was going for, up until an incredibly dumb final boss fight that's best ignored.
Two years later, Arkham City was released, giving us a larger, open world (at the expense of some of the first title's atmosphere), more great boss fights, more of the same satisfying combat, some awkward flying puzzles, and abysmally bad (and somehow award-winning) writing. While it improved as a game in many ways, Arkham City's genuinely bad dialogue left a bad taste in my mouth. I skipped the following game, Arkham Origins, a prequel that Rocksteady had no involvement with.
With 2015's Arkham Knight, Rocksteady returns and does something genuinely unexpected: This game provides a conclusive, final chapter to the series, taking some narrative risks and separating itself from the worlds of the Batman comics/cartoons/movies. The previous games always struggled to find the right tone, teetering oddly from silly to macabre with little grace, and while this title takes some obvious cues from other Batman stories, it very much feels like its own, confident story.
Click here for a Batman: Arkham Knight screenshot galleryUnlike the first two titles, Batman: The Animated Series writer Paul Dini did not work on this one, with writing credit going to Martin Lancaster, Ian Ball, and series director Sefton Hill. This was a good choice; this game has the best writing in the Arkham series by a long shot. That's not to say it's astonishingly good; there are some cheap twists and some awkward choices to undo dramatic consequences, but overall, it's a big step up. In spite of the Mature rating (in comparison to the Teen rating on the previous games,) Arkham Knight tries a lot less hard to appear "adult," and does not rely on the same sort of dumb edginess found in City.
|My costume of choice for the entire game.|
Plot spoilers for Arkham City follow; minimal spoilers for Arkham Knight
The one brave, gutsy choice Arkham City's writers made was killing off The Joker at the end of that game, a decision that helped make Arkham Knight as effective as it is. Joker was dying of a horrible disease, infects Batman to force him to find a cure, Batman cures himself, lets Joker die. Years later, guilt over this event still haunts the ever-brooding Batman, who finds his city under attack by two coordinated forces: Scarecrow has returned and threatens to blanket Gotham City in Fear Gas™ while the Arkham Knight, a mysterious cyborg ninja with a personal connection to Batman (bringing the Metal Gear Solid tone/references established in Arkham City full circle) rampages around with an army of PMC soldiers and unmanned drones.
|Arkham Knight wearing some metal gear|
|Great facial expressions on both bros here|
|No Killing: A safely unharmed unconscious enemy with four detached limbs|
|Batman's always up for fun|
There's some dumb comic book science behind all of this, but I'm not interested in that. I dug their love/hate relationship, and enjoyed having The Joker play the Devil on Batman's shoulder without having a real angel to play the other side. This was the meat of the game to me, not the silly (but ultimately harmless) Arkham Knight story line.
|Gordon's not pleased with Batman's outfit tonight|
All that said: I'm lukewarm on Arkham Knight overall. While the writing is the best in the series, the visuals are great, and I genuinely love being able to play the whole thing dressed up as Adam West's Batman, the game play takes a very noticeable step down from Asylum and City.
|Gotham may be in danger, but only a fool turns down pizza|
Hand to hand combat is more or less the same, with the addition of some Team Up moves in the rare events where you get to fight alongside Catwoman, Robin, or Nightwing. These are cool fights; I would have enjoyed more of them. Your gadgets are mostly the same, you've got the same combos, and if you've played the other games, you'll do well. If you haven't, it doesn't explain the mechanics very well and assumes you're already familiar.
|Clown Puncher 2015|
|Slow fightin' in the Bat Tank|
I didn't hate the tank battles, but they're about as mediocre as you can get. I did, however, hate the game's timed races, but they're largely optional. For some reason, The Riddler challenges Batman's intellect by... building a series of underground race circuits? They're awkward, ugly, and just no fun at all, but I did all of his awful missions (including a terrible one where you have to launch out of your car and glide between tight spaces) because I wanted to see a resolution to Riddler and Catwoman's stories; the game then denied me of this, telling me to go into the city and collect nearly 250 doodads to proceed. I refused and left this portion unfinished. Don't ask players for this kind of trashy item collecting to progress a story, even if it's a side story!
|Ivy's "You've got to be kidding me" face: I made this one a lot too|
There are a couple of boss fights; you get to take on the Arkham Knight in his own cartoonishly large tank, navigating a series of tunnels and luring him into traps. This fight was good! Your hand to hand encounter with him involves multiple phases of expert stealth and infiltration. This is also good! So where are the rest of the boss fights? One of the most well done elements of the previous Arkham games is almost completely abandoned here, and it's inexplicable. There were four years between City and Knight; did all of that time get spent on visuals and icy car physics?
|Batman and Catwoman have a couple of good puzzles together, but mostly fight generic robots|
Ultimately, I had fun with Arkham Knight, even if I was incredibly bitter that the true ending was locked behind insulting, pointless doodad collection (thankfully there's Youtube.) The Joker stuff is so good that it's easy to overlook the fluffier parts of the story, and the writing is finally paced well and discards City's dumb edginess. The changes made to the game play can't be ignored, though; when it comes to scenario design and clever objectives, we went from the wonderful Arkham Asylum to the average levels, well above average bosses of Arkham City to the overall subpar-to-average mission design of Arkham Knight. The game is rarely actively bad (Riddler trophy collection requirements, the race missions) but it's very padded with mediocre content that doesn't live up to its legacy, never hitting the high points of its predecessors.
|We'll always have donuts, Bruce|
I'm impressed that they had the guts to close the book on this story, but disappointed that we'll never get a Rocksteady game with the writing of Arkham Knight, the level design of Asylum, and the boss fights of City.
|Joker gets some great moments in a very impressive section near the end|