BATMAN: ARKHAM KNIGHT (& some DLC) Fashionably Late Video Game Review
NOTE: This review of the Xbox One version of the game (100% completion) may contain potential SPOILERS for those who haven’t yet taken their dose of fear toxin. Read at your own risk!
I love the world of Batman. It’s dark, foreboding and fully embraces whatever camp may be present in its material with a gothic grain of salt. And, without a doubt, the ARKHAM video game series has been a blast of entertainment worthy of the Dark Knight (yes, I’m even including the wayward WB Montreal cousin ARKHAM ORIGINS). Throughout these games, Batman (voiced by longstanding Bat-voice Kevin Conroy) has been challenged to take on the most infamous of DC Comics’ Rogues Gallery within the haunting and claustrophobic environment of ARKHAM ASYLUM (2009) to the apocalyptic urban war zone that was ARKHAM CITY (2011). All the while, the player had to rely on a steady diet of button-mashing combat strikes, puzzle-solving skills and stealthy takedowns to reach the ultimate climax in which the legendary Joker (voiced by other ANIMATED SERIES alumnus Mark Hamill) is the architect of his own downfall and is finally embraced by the Grim Reaper. WB Games and Rocksteady Studios were able to craft one of the most spellbinding and emotionally-charged Batman tales ever told…in a video game. Where else could they possibly hope to go from there without losing momentum? What other story could have a chance of topping the “Death of the Joker? Why, the “Death of Batman,” of course! Welcome to ARKHAM KNIGHT.
9 months have passed since the Joker’s body was cremated (a little in-game mechanic that was surprisingly cathartic to play). Gotham City looks to have finally found some relief from its continuous assault from criminals and is flourishing. However, some folks like Commissioner Gordon (voiced by Jonathan Banks of BREAKING BAD fame) suspect the worse is yet to come. He is proven right when the Scarecrow (voiced by John Noble, FRINGE) resurfaces and launches a chemical attack of his new strain of fear toxin on Halloween. Gotham is immediately evacuated. The only folks left behind are the lawmen, the crooks and those unfortunate enough to be caught in the middle…oh, and Batman…and his Batmobile.
As the missions start and you take off in the Batmobile, it quickly becomes clear that Batsy’s foes have pooled their efforts even more so this time around to cause chaos for both him and his Batmobile. This is only compounded further by the appearance of the mysterious Arkham Knight, a sort of anti-Batman with his own personal army of mercenaries (but no Batmobile), who is Scarecrow’s right hand man throughout most of the game. It’s up to Batman to save the city with his keen fighting skills, deductive abilities and gadgets…but mainly with the Batmobile. Did I already mention that the Batmobile is in this game?
I’m going to get my one huge issue with KNIGHT out of the way here. From the announcement of this installment, the inclusion of the Batmobile in gameplay was being touted as the breakout feature. Players would finally get to “be the Batman,” but they would also finally get to drive his car with its own Battle Mode and everything. And you know what? Given the far grander scale of this game’s setting (you’ve got the whole city to patrol, not just a neighborhood or two), terrorizing and scattering enemies in a vehicle straight out of FURY ROAD is a hell of an experience. No doubt, driving the Batmobile around Gotham is fun…in small doses.
The problem quickly reveals itself as missions and objectives become overly-reliant on using the Batmobile to the point where it gets kinda ridiculous. Repetitive tank battles are littered throughout the game map and major boss showdowns become aggravating as you try master maneuverability in the car while also trying to avoid Arkham Knight’s deadly barrage that does you in in one or two hits. And if you thought solving Riddler challenges and trophy collecting was a pain in the ass before, get f#%king ready because a good 50-60% of his content this time around includes meticulous car-based problem solving (following the slowest sonar ever, driving remote control while you’re off solving another part of the puzzle) and underground Riddler racetracks. That’s right. There are Riddler racetracks. Where did the Riddler find the time and money to build a whole series of full-scale underground racetracks?! Again, I’ll admit some of the Batmobile gameplay is fun when it is utilized properly, but it is stuff like the never-ending tank showdowns and Riddler’s attempt at Nascar fame that make KNIGHT feel less like a Batman game and more like a dark knock-off of TWISTED METAL or MARIO KART.
Thankfully, the rest of the game salvages the experience. Batman’s combat/predator system has never been slicker as fighting combos and attack counters are more fluid and easier to chain together and multi-enemy “fear takedowns” as well as environmental takedowns are now the norm. Also included is a “Dual Play” feature in certain missions in which you assume control of both Batman and an ally (Robin, Nightwing or Catwoman) for dynamic tag-team battles and takedowns that look stunning though do feel like a missed opportunity to incorporate a co-op or multiplayer feature. And of course the game’s graphics are a thing of beauty. Never before have I wanted to just explore and appreciate every detail of Gotham’s open world structure. The only drawback I could find was that, once again, Batman’s world is populated by just cops and robbers. How cool would it have been to be interacting with a fully-populated city on par with GRAND THEFT AUTO’s environment? But when it comes to servicing the game’s story, it is effective.
Speaking of, let’s discuss what treats await you in ARKHAM KNIGHT, shall we? Though it was not written by Paul Dini (BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES), who handled ASYLUM and CITY’s narratives, the Rocksteady team have done a bang-up job in crafting an tale worthy of being Batman’s final adventure. Stakes are raised and a lot of emotional high points are hit in this conclusion. Some of the twists aren’t as Earth-shattering as you would expect (anyone who has followed Batman stories for about the past decade or so will be able to guess Arkham Knight’s identity within five minutes of his debut), but others are a welcomed surprise such as the inclusion of an “imaginary friend” a third of the way into the game that tags along to provide both haunting flashbacks, trippy scene transitions and an unexpected laugh here or there. Subplots started in previous installments find their end here while new ones right away play well into Gotham’s demented aesthetic (the grisly serial killer victims placed around town and the frightening reveal of Man-Bat instantly come to mind).
And, with 100% completion of the main story and all side missions (including challenges, trophies, etc.), ARKHAM KNIGHT ends Bruce Wayne’s story in this universe effectively while teasing that Batman lives on in some way, shape or form. Frankly, I prefer this ending more than the end to THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. It handles the idea of Bruce’s final night in the cowl better than any other medium outside of the comics themselves.
Finally, I want to discuss the DLC that has been released so far (since I have the 6 month Season Pass). The alternate skins for Batman, Nightwing and Robin all look great and integrate well into the gameplay and cutscenes. On the flip side, most of the Batmobile skins look alike with the exception of Tim Burton’s 1989 movie design and Christopher Nolan’s tumbler (hopefully the ’66 TV skin isn’t too far off). The story packs dubbed “Arkham Stories” vary in quality. BATGIRL: A MATTER OF FAMILY, the first post-release pack, is a prequel to ASYLUM and follows Barbara Gordon (voiced by Ashley Greene of the TWILIGHT series) as she tries to rescue her dad from the Joker in an abandoned carnival à la THE KILLING JOKE. It’s fun enough even though Batgirl plays just like Batman, but with fewer gadgets and moves. Harley Quinn’s pre-order story pack takes place just before the events of KNIGHT as she tries to bust her gal pal Poison Ivy out of prison. Her combat system is varied from the traditional Batman setup to be entertaining, but unfortunately the stages are unbelievably short and you are pretty much done with the campaign in under a half-hour or less. The Red Hood pre-order story pack is undoubtedly the shortest and thinnest as it is only comprised of three short combat levels against Black Mask’s gang and his combat system is severely lacking, even with the addition of shooting people! Nightwing’s pack is almost as brief as Red Hood’s, but held a little more engagement for me as I tried to defend GCPD from the Penguin’s cronies trying to bust him out. The remaining “Arkham Stories” announced are promising the inclusion of other well-known Bat-villains and allies. Hopefully, their content has a little more going for them than these first three outings.
Overall, ARKHAM KNIGHT is an enjoyable gaming experience and a satisfying finale to this series of games. At times, the much-lauded Batmobile feature feels a little put-upon the player, but the game’s other mechanics and missions more than make up for it. Add to that a fulfilling character arc to Batman, stunning visuals and the boldness from Rocksteady to push the boundaries of the Bat mythos and you have an experience that will definitely resonate emotionally with any fan of the Dark Knight.
This is how the Batman ends. Not with a whimper, but with a bang.
Final Game Score: 8.5 out of 10
Current DLC Score: 6.5 out of 10