Rocksteady Studios return to the series is a fantastic one. In closing out the same tale that they started back in 2009, they have gone back to their already stellar framework and improved upon it in ways that probably few fans could have guessed (or even desired on their own). Batman: Arkham Knight is as much as a statement about Rocksteady’s pride and talent as it is simply a fantastic game.
Arkham Knight throws us back into the present day for Batman, one year after the events of Batman: Arkham City. Scarecrow is back and has forced a city-wide evacuation in Gotham with the threat of a new fear toxin. This leaves a vacuum in which his militia fills, an effort led by a mysterious Arkham Knight fellow who seems to have some sort of history with Bats, as well as all of the Big Bad Guys of Gotham.
The Dark Knight, however, is dealing with his own set of problems. Coming out of the events of Arkham City, our brooding hero has to deal with the death and absence of the Joker. (Slight spoiler alert ahead for Arkham Knight.) It begins to manifest somewhat physically as a brush with Scarecrow’s toxin reacts with the Joker’s blood in him and he begins to hallucinate.
This is easily the strongest component of the game. Its narrative is just top-notch throughout with some spectacular turns sprinkled all around. The singular flow of Batman: Arkham Asylum is missing, but it also fixes the broad and reaching plot of Arkham City.
But most importantly, it is thematically dense and significant. Batman and Joker have always been closer than the Caped Crusader would rather admit, but this game addresses it in an exceptionally potent way. Batman can throw around tough guy lines (like responding to a concern about the militia taking him down with a gruff “they won’t”) but the Joker that’s inside his head is voicing all the fears and doubts and insecurities that his gravel-soaked machismo hides.
Some of the twists are not even twists in the conventional sense, but rather that the game does a great job of building up to increasing degrees of “oh no oh no oh no” instead of a single “buhhhWHAT.” It cultivates a sense of dread of the inevitable that, unfortunately, will likely land under the category of Divisive.
The story, however, manages to inform some of the gameplay in interesting ways. For instance, just as Scarecrow has cobbled together the likes of the Penguin, Two-Face, et al. in an uneasy alliance, Batman has friends he works with. There’s a new Dual Play mechanic that allows you to switch between characters like Catwoman, Robin, and Nightwing in combat and predator sections as well as outside of them.
It adds a much needed wrinkle to an old fighting system. That’s not to say that it’s not good (it’s just as great as you remember and a welcome reminder of how to do it right) but there certainly was a monotonous drone to it all as you reached the ends of the past games. Having you dip in and out of different move sets and teaming up for dual takedowns adds spice and variety to it all, reminding you to still have fun with it.
Other than that, though, the combat is still the Freeflow system. The difference is that Rocksteady has tweaked how you use Batman’s gadgets into a more manageable button structure as well as how they fit into reactions to certain enemies. That was a huge problem with Arkham Origins; at a certain point, it all got so convoluted that you just regressed into a meat and potatoes kind of fighter instead of a resourceful, skillful one.
A lot of that has to do with the enemy designs and progressions. There isn’t much of a tutorial to speak of—almost a self-aware recognition of this being “another” Arkham game—but instead relies on throwing complexity to you and have you figure it out. And it works because it’s intuitive. From preparing for encounters to strategizing the mixed use of combat and stealth techniques, it just makes sense.
Medics revive so you stop that, but you soon find out they can charge dudes up with electricity, a concept you are introduced to with henchmen with stun sticks. So now you have a similar enemy created preemptively by another one that can also bring them back. At this point, you have an idea of how to deal with the results and a priority. It’s a guidance that has a stunning lack of hand-holding that is most welcome.
Most of the game, actually, doesn’t hold your hand, and it’s better for it. From excising button prompts where most other games would harangue to letting you figure out how to find missions, it just puts you out there. There’s a bit early on where you are trapped as you attempt a rescue mission, and there’s no indication of what to do. For all you know, this is the end. But the solution teaches you how the game wants you to think about this pickles and how to get out of them: this isn’t just Batman anymore.
Namely, there’s also, like, a two-ton tank called the Batmobile. This is probably another portion of the game that will be divisive as hell, but it is handled deftly enough that it’s a welcome respite from punching people in the face and hiding in rafters. There’s pursuit stuff that has you chasing down cars (mostly okay), the Riddler race challenges (novel and pleasantly chaotic), environmental puzzles (strangely engaging), and the tank battles (superb).
Truly, the pursuits are mostly harmless palate cleansers for the other Batmobile shenanigans. You just chase other cars and try to lock-on with missiles. The Riddler races are more interesting in that you have to simultaneously manage the race track while maneuvering the Batmobile up walls and on ceilings and through the air.
And then there’s the battles. They have you up against an army of drones that require you to dodge shells and missiles while peppering airborne buzzers and blasting other tanks. It’s both frantic and measured in a way that the series hasn’t explored before. You’re keeping in mind timing and spacing and monitoring your secondary weapon gauges and anticipating openings and cover all at the same time. Save for the pseudo stealth bits where you fight Cobra tanks, it’s pretty great.
Side missions also make a return, which almost goes without saying since this is an open world game. But this time around, rather than being of the ilk of “go here, do this, come back,” each individual kind of mission plays into a specific subplot that feels wholly unique. From tracking a giant bat to helping out Catwoman to playing an entirely different character, it all feels substantially personal.
The way you touch base each time you switch between objectives is great, too. It adds context and immerses you at the same time. If you go from the main story to say you’re going to go track down gun runners, Alfred will chime in with something about Nightwing. Or maybe Batman himself will comment on the situation himself. It’s a little touch that works wonders.
There’s also a lot of times where you’ll get into a mission and that mission kind of sends you, well, nowhere. Or seemingly nowhere as there’s nothing to do there. Instead, you have to actually seek it out, kind of playing into the idea that you’re actually Batman searching for clues and not somebody playing a game and going down a checklist of objective markers on the map.
It’s not all gravy, though it does come very close. There were more than a forgettable amount of bugs from missed mission triggers to enemies getting stuck on geometry. (Note that this is the PlayStation 4 version being reviewed, not the stupidly broken PC version.) And it’s still hard to wrap your head around the idea of Batmobile stealth in tight quarters where everything it touches somehow crumbles like a dry sand castle.
There’s also a layer of endings after the story ending that is, well, either wholly disappointing or absolutely baffling, depending on your patience for collectibles. And that’s not to mention the main narrative’s linchpin twist and gameplay’s Batmobile bits, which already are splitting opinions like toppings requests in a dorm room. There is likely to be no middle ground on loving or hating those things.
Take those little lumps out, though, and it is pure, uncut, grade-A gravy. If you think you’ve had your fill of the Batman: Arkham games, you might want to give this one a try anyways. There is value to the masterful refinement of a craft, and Batman: Arkham Knight just might be that.
+ Fantastic and thoughtful narrative about Batman’s nature
+ Return and girding of a defining combat system
+ Batmobile sections work well at adding variety
+ Mixing stealth and combat elements makes both more contemplative
– More than a few bugs
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: Batman: Arkham Knight
Release: June 23, 2015
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC