Gotham’s Destructive Force: A Batman Arkham Knight Review

Fair warning, there be light SPOILERS here. Those looking for the review will want to skip down a few paragraphs. 

Batman: Arkham Knight is the long awaited third entry in Rocksteady’s successful interpretation of a licensed comic book property. I say trilogy because Arkham Origins doesn’t quite count because it was put together by another studio to fill the gap between Arkham City and its then-unknown sequel. Rocksteady deserves all the praise it earned last gen because they managed to breath new life into the character whose previous games didn’t do the character right. Batman is much more than a human punching machine. He’s a paragon of justice who keeps Gotham City safe from the terrible machinations of its dark underbelly. Both Asylum and City put Batman in environments where he could thrive, be it the retrofitted corridors of Gotham’s most famous nuthouse or the dampened rooftops of Arkham City. The events that occur in the first two games come to a head in Arkham Knight to create our hero’s most longest and challenging fight. A battle so grand, that not asylum or prison city can contain. At long last, the fight spread to Gotham City itself – well, a tri-island portion of the city anyway. The Scarecrow has returned and threatens to envelop the populace in a cloud of his newly created fear toxin, an event that spurs Batman’s rogues gallery into action quicker than a frat house kegger. While Two-Face, the Penguin, and Firefly wreak their special brand of terror across Gotham, neither of them push the limits of destruction and self-control more than Batman himself.

For all his psychological issues, Batman – as I know him from the films, a smattering of comics, and Paul Dini’s animated series – is perfectly capable of restraint even at the height of his physical and mental endurance. Through thick and thin, he always finds a way to maintain his personal code – no killing. Batman also figured out that the best approach to bring down armies of thugs is to stick to the shadows of sow discord and fear. This is a reason why Arkham Asylum was the perfect realization of the Batman character. While other games focused on his ability to punch people in the face, Asylum empowered Batman by acknowledging his powerlessness in the face of gun toting goons. In the Rocksteady games, Batman can only sustain a few bullets (even with the maximum number of armor upgrades) before his corpse is the object of a few good taunts. That said, when up against targets without weapons, he can bring down his prey with relative ease in a dance of flying fists and kicks. In these moments, Batman knocks his enemies unconscious mostly with moderate head trauma. When interrogating people for information, he disposes of them by elbowing them on the head and letting their bodies crumple to the floor.

In Arkham Knight, however, Batman is frightingly aggressive in every facet of the character. After getting a face full of the Scarecrow’s spooky gas, he grows considerably more violent. He’s also incredibly stubborn in regards to members of the Bat Family offering help and assistance and yet he can’t go two seconds without communicating to Alfred. Making the situation even worse is the toxin’s horrible side effect of creating a walking, talking physical manifestation of Batman’s thoughts of the Joker. Between Two-Face robbing banks, the Penguin running guns, and Firefly torching fire stations, the Joker’s goading whispers help paint a portrait of a Batman who is decidedly more brutal in his tactics.  In one memorable scene, Batman interrogates a Riddler goon to determine his location. After getting the information he needs, Batman breaks the poor schmuck’s arm before knocking him out cold. It’s quite excessive, honestly.

What is also excessive is the much ballyhooed addition of the Batmobile. The car, cool it may be, is a source of dissonance. No longer confined to air vents and gliding across rooftops, Batman can barrel across city streets like a bat out of hell (heh), transporting high value targets to the GCPD station and taking on the Arkham Knight’s personal army of tank drones. In his pursuit of such noble goals, Gotham City is thoroughly ravaged by the battle tank as it bursts through walls, crushes gravestones underneath its mighty tires, and punches through concrete beams supporting on ramps and overpasses. The Batmobile can also run into fleeing people (goons, mostly, as the play area is seemingly devoid of innocents) which sends their bodies rocketing into the air as volts of crippling electricity course through their flailing limbs. The scale of the property and personal damage caused by Batman is a huge leap from the previous iterations of the character in a way I wasn’t wholly comfortable with. At the end of the game, it was bizarre to see the effect of Batman’s war on crime had on the city’s infrastructure. The day was saved and the villains captured, but who is going to pay for all the damage?

Because this is a video game, we’re not meant to care about disarry Batman leaves in his wake. After all, there’s an implied understand that he gets a free pass for keeping Gotham safe from the Penguin, Riddler, and the like. But I’ll wager there were a few store owners that whispered, “who is going to pay for all this?” Not that we ever hear from the good people of Gotham. Once again, the play area is devoid of citizens after Scarecrow’s threat of unleashing a toxin bomb causes a mass exodus of the area, leaving no one around to tap Batman on the should and ask, “Could you maybe tone it down a little?” I pity the insurance companies whose offices are going to be flooded with calls once GCPD gives the all clear for people to return to their homes and businesses. Such thoughts are not supposed to matter in the end because this is a video game. Who wants to play a mission where Batman has to sit down with a claims adjuster?

As a video game, Arkham Knight is a great game in the most general of terms. It is a fitting end to the Rocksteady trilogy because it pulls out all the stop, unloading a dearth of problems for Batman to solve. Not only must he contend with the Scarecrow’s plans and round up supervillains taking advantage of the chaos, but Batman faces a brand new foe calling himself the Arkham Knight. A teched out soldier of fortune with an army at his back and an intense grudge against the Caped Crusader, the Arkham Knight is dogged and relentless in his quest to become the new Batman. The parts of the story that focuses exclusively on the identity of the Arkham Knight is the weakest piece of the game. Without spoiling anything, I will say that the drama of the reveal is hamstrung by a) a mid-game flashback that broadcasts spoils the mystery and b) those unfamiliar with one of Batman’s more infamous comic arcs won’t get much out of the turn of events.

The rest of the story as it pertains to Batman versus Scarecrow, on the other hand, is amazing. And that’s primarily because it heralds the return of Mark Hamill as the Clown Prince of Crime (despite going on record as “retiring” from the character). The Joker is still dead, as if the opening cinematic wasn’t enough of a clue, but he appears as a piece of Batman’s twisted psyche who taunts and eggs on the Dark Knight throughout the entire game. As always, Hamill plays the role the chattering conscience brilliantly and once again stands out from the crowd not only because of his performance, but the Joker’s dialog is so fantastic. The story goes to some interesting (read: what the fuck?) places, but the story angle sheds a great deal of light on the twisted relationship of these two characters.

The Scarecrow doesn’t get much time on the chess board but his influence can be felt all over. There are no amazing set pieces like Asylum, but Rocksteady plays with the game’s tech to create some Eternal Darkness-style hallucinations and scares. These visual tricks, like drastic scenery changes that happen while panning the camera around, offer fun and jarring surprises. Many of which are legitimately creepy and unpredictable.

Two-Face, the Penguin,the Riddler, and Firefly get their time to shine through a series of missions that are regrettably repetitive. Battling Firefly requires chasing him around in the Batmobile until close enough to tackling the fire bug, and the Penguin encounters are short melees that prominently feature Nightwing as a (briefly) playable partner. Outside of 245 trophies to collect (sigh), the Riddler pits Batman and Catwoman in a Saw-like challenges that require light puzzle solving and environment manipulation. Of all the secondary objectives to complete, I found the Two-Face heists to be the best, though considering the repetitive nature of the latter, that’s not saying much. Two-Face’s heists play like a time sensitive version of the main game’s predator mode, as Batman must stop the gangs from draining bank vaults. The bank’s alarms blare loudly, which gives Batman a chance to strike without worrying about the other enemies hearing him.

Where Arkham Knight falls short is in its most hyped feature: the Batmobile. As I mentioned earlier, Batman’s car is a nearly unstoppable battle tank capable of tearing Gotham and its enemies to shreds. Controlling such a beast should be fun, but in truth, it is anything but. It’s often difficult to control at fast speeds, resulting in a great deal of spinning out and drifting into walls. The car’s controls just never “clicked,” making each car-based mission an exercise in patience. In particular are an assortment of Riddler challenges that require Batman to drive his way through ridiculously designed (how can he afford to build them?!) underground obstacle courses. For combat situations, the Batmobile’s battle mode turns the game into a third person shooter against the Knight’s drone tanks. I didn’t mind them so much because they don’t require much driving but like the Penguin and Two-Face encounters, they are repetitive. Play one mine hack and you’ve played them all. The most obnoxious on wheels segment, by far, involves a stealth(!!!) battle against heavy tanks that can only be destroyed from behind. For what is supposed to be the penultimate conflict between Batman and the Arkham Knight, the design of the fight is just dumb. Funnily enough, when Deathstroke takes over for the Arkham Knight, his own final battle is the same exact same tank sequence.

The Batmobile portions of the game (of which there are many) are an unnecessary addition that brings the rest of the game down with it. Getting around Gotham on foot isn’t particularly difficult, especially when you upgrade the grapple to its highest level which lets Batman fly from one island to the next in no time at all. All things considered, the Batmobile – as a thing – is certainly cool. I like jumping in and out of the car and the bestial growl of the engine as it starts up.

Disparaging this write up may be, Batman: Arkham Knight is a game with value. Even its most glaring faults can be overlooked because of the portions that the game does really well. Like I said earlier, this is a fitting end for an exciting chapter of video game history that, I fervently hope, stays closed. Apart from upcoming DLC additions, there’s no reason to ruin Batman’s grand final bow with a host of needless sequels.

But then again, the Arkham series made WBIE money, so who knows what’ll happen?

 

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