When the original Arkham Asylum broke into the scene in 2009, it was met with understandable skepticism and cynicism. At the time, licensed games still couldn’t shake off the stench brought by movie tie-ins and arm-twisted creative freedom. Six years later, the Batman Arkham series has almost single-handedly reversed this stigma, delivering some of the best comic book experiences in the medium. With Batman: Arkham Knight being developer Rocksteady’s swansong to the franchise, we were no longer wondering if their conclusion would be good, but if it would be Rocksteady’s best.
With the Joker dead (cremated as we’ve seen in Sony’s E3 demo), and Hugo Strange killed, Scarecrow has taken the opportunity to become Gotham’s biggest threat. He’s concocted his infamous city-wide fear toxin, which induces instant homicidal psychosis, and now Gotham is in disarray.
But he doesn’t accomplish such without the titular Arkham Knight. The new villain isn’t only identified by his militaristic strength – with deployed tanks and militia throughout Gotham – but has also become a formidable rival against Batman. In fact, he is so formidable, that he happens to know the Dark Knight more intimately than any previous villain has. His grudge against Batman does get a bit tiresome, though, at least until we get closer and closer to finding out who the man behind the mask is. While some may be disappointed about how thinly veiled his identity becomes, for a concluding Batman story, it’s difficult to see the arch of the mystery man end any other way.
As one of the few Batman stories rated only for mature audiences, Arkham Knight embraces its dark themes with a high level of appreciated DC class. It practices a respectable amount of restraint by using clever, yet no less unsettling, ways to mask the horrific acts of violence. A disembodied Joker plays a big part in some of Arkham Knight’s more morose moments, and is by far the most charismatically repulsive depiction of the Clown Prince Rocksteady has ever written. Even Batman himself, under the stoic hardened exterior, steadily comes dangerously close to meeting his breaking point as the events unfold. Both a deceased and ever-present Joker and a deteriorating Bruce Wayne are a big part of why Batman: Arkham Knight is the best story in the series.
Story aside, the way Rocksteady handles your return to Gotham City feels like the studio assumed you lived in a Batman vacuum for the last two years. After the camera pulled into our ominous black-caped hero perched on top of a skyscraper, I was given minimal instruction on how to make my way to the first objective, which lay 1000 metres away. Newcomers will likely stumble for the first hour or more gathering their bearings on how to navigate this tall, expansive city. Even I didn’t feel as if I had stood on solid ground until my muscle memory was refreshed in some very timely AR trainings.
Batman: Arkham Knight will, in time, feel achingly familiar to those returning to the franchise. Punch, punch, counter; cape, punch-a-bunch, takedown; the Free Flow combat system that has been inseparable from the Arkham series is back in full brute force. But Batman’s non-lethal fists of quadriplegia feel less special this time around. Given that this is the fourth Batman title in the series, and that other games like Shadow of Mordor have (arguably) bested its combat system, the game’s core combat mechanics feel outdated. Even the inclusion of Dual Takedowns (performed when Batman is with a hero partner) feel like nothing more than a flashy way to instantly incapacitate an enemy, save for the fact that it gives an opportunity to mix up the flavor and play as Nightwing, Catwoman, or Robin.
What does elevate the combat system, however, is Batman’s widened utility belt, enabling him to table-set his advantage by either sabotage or manipulation. Later in the game, I favoured using the improved Disruptor not only to jam firearms, but to also booby trap, from afar, any annoying electric baton-wielders and medics capable of reviving their allies. This would then be followed up by a smoke bomb – a great set-up for the new ‘Fear Takedown’ that enables Batman to take out a chain of enemies at once (thanks again, Shadow of Mordor). Enforcing the rules of engagement before the first punch is thrown offers a much needed alternative for those who struggle to memorize a complete move set. It all proves to be much more characteristic of Batman than ever before, who never walks into a fight unprepared.
Part of what allows this sandbox level of freedom, even within basic melee combat encounters, is Arkham Knight’s newly built Gotham City. Next-gen Gotham’s towering skyscrapers serve a more meaningful purpose than simply being a showcase for how far Rocksteady can push city building on new hardware. The city’s newly found verticality adds both width and depth to your approach within the series’ famed ‘Predator Encounters’, allowing you to circle these patrols before attacking from above or below.
Additional new gadgets can be put to use as many of them bolster your approach. Take the Voice Synthesizer, for instance, that grants Batman the ability to issue orders with the voice of his enemies; for example, you can order someone to walk into explosive gel. It’s a shame, though, that device is disappointingly limited to only but a few selected encounters. On the other end, players will undoubtedly take many opportunities to turn the militia’s drones against themselves with the new Remote Hacking Device (non-lethal drones of course). Looking back, though Arkham Asylum is arguably a leaner experience overall, there’s no denying that Arkham Knight’s expansive freedom has made both the combat and predator encounters the best in the series.
Using the city’s robust design to approach various situations at your discretion is, in itself, a stark improvement over Arkham City and Origins. But regardless as such, they simply wouldn’t have been enough to separate Arkham Knight from its predecessors as a proper next-gen conclusion. Enter: the Batmobile.
Of every new feature introduced in Arkham Knight, the Batmobile seems to be the most contentious. Rocksteady asks players for their suspension of disbelief when literally tearing down through Gotham’s City streets, running into criminals and blowing up tanks and cars. The game bends over backwards with contextual concessions by ensuring players know that enemy tanks are unmanned, showing criminals crawl out of exploded vehicles, and animating those run over by the Batmobile by coating them in an electromagnetic field. It’s a stretch, given the vehicle’s immense destructive power, but it’s all in favour to ensure that Batman’s non-lethal code doesn’t get in the way of having fun.
Getting over the “rules” of the Batmobile is just as ungraceful as getting over how it plays. The controls, for starters, marry both old and new configurations, creating a convoluted new system where the right trigger accelerates and the Square/X button breaks, leaving the left trigger to transform the Batmobile into a tank. But as troublesome as it was, working the configuration to my advantage by using the Batmobile’s tank transformation to rapidly reposition the vehicle was an intuitive mechanic. Being forced to adapt to an awkward, yet effective control scheme prepares you for the game’s more hectic driving challenges, many of which involve the Riddler raising F-Zero levels of track design, driving on tunnel ceilings and avoiding obstacles along the way.
It also grows as an “asset in Batman’s utility belt”, or so the game’s marketing says. The early game, which is plagued mainly by the heavily tutorialized Ace Chemical Plant mission, doesn’t do Arkham Knight any favours when it comes to incorporating the Batmobile seamlessly into the game’s mission design. But Rocksteady gradually removes the training wheels by introducing smartly sequenced puzzles – especially in its final missions – reinforcing the Batmobile as a tool rather than a weapon. Although, I must say, it makes a pretty damn fine weapon to boot.
When it came time for tank-on-tank action, admittedly, I’ve never had so much fun engaging in direct combat in a Batman game. Tank battles are frequent but increasingly demanding, as you’ll eventually work your way up to encounters that involve dodging tank shells, missiles and flying drones; all at once. Just like Batman’s hand-to-hand combat, abilities such as proximity hacks and EMP blasts become available after multiple uninterrupted takedowns. Tank battles, as seemingly incompatible as they are, ultimately take the series’ overly familiar Free Flow system and successfully translate it into a fresh new ballistic context.
Batman: Arkham Knight doesn’t have an especially long main story, one which clocks in at just about eight hours. Because of this, it manages to provide a well-packaged and balanced campaign by incorporating all of Batman’s talents – including his detective skills, which make for some of the most convincing and intelligent moments in the game. But, as yet another celebration of Batman lore – and successfully extending the game’s staying power – Arkham Knight’s side quests are a highly valuable distraction.
Each thread makes up Batman’s “Most Wanted” list, where the Dark Knight is tasked with solving mysteries and battling his way to apprehending the villains scattered across the city. Most of them are surprisingly compelling in either their self-contained story arches, diverse mission structure, or both. To many, however, the repetition of the side missions might not excuse the awaiting pay-off. Even for me, completing every single one (minus the obnoxious 243 Riddler Trophies) eventually became an exercise in tedious pixel hunting. But the true reason to tap into your inner completionist is to unlock Arkham Knight’s ‘true’ ending.
In actuality, Batman: Arkham Knight has two additional endings to the campaign. Both differ between requiring the imprisonment of seven of Gotham’s villains and achieving 100 percent completion. If you’re looking for a firm conclusion without the hassle of gathering all Riddler Trophies, the second lends concrete finality to the Arkham series; albeit missing the thought-provoking extension of the third ending. It is an imperfect ending, mind you, leaving some unresolved personal issues that Batman has with some of his allies and enemies. But the weight of the conclusion is hugely satisfying and unexpected, marking one of the best endings I’ve ever seen conclude a trilogy.
Batman: Arkham Knight isn’t the tightest installment in the Arkham series; that title is still held by Arkham Asylum for its long-missed Metroid inspirations. But Arkham Knight accomplishes so much more than what Rocksteady (and yes, WB Games Montreal, too) has strived for in the past. It does so with its story, with its massively built city, and even with the conflicting Batmobile. Ultimately, Batman: Arkham Knight provides the fullest and most climatic Dark Knight experience ever achieved in the medium of video games.
Editor’s note: This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. It does not factor in the crippling issues of the PC version that persists at the time of this writing.
The most climatic Batman experience ever seen in a video game.