Note: For the purposes of this review I’m choosing to ignore Batman: Arkham Origins. I didn’t play it, nor does it fit neatly into the Rocksteady Batman trilogy.
Batman: Arkham Knight begins with a declaration of death. “This is how it happened. This, is how the Batman died,” Commissioner Gordon growls in the opening cutscene. It’s an omen, one so prophetic it permeates reality, serving as a reminder this is Rocksteady’s final bite at the Bat-apple. They’ve set the battle lines from the outset, immediately distancing themselves from the franchise they created. That opening line feels like a bombastic declaration to the publisher Warner Bros, “THIS IS THE DAY BATMAN DIES OKAY, WE’RE DONE AFTER THIS.” That sort of exasperated exuberance bleeds through the entirety of this game. It’s an exercise in maximalism, as if they took the core elements of its predecessor, Batman: Arkham City, shoved a balloon pump into them and turned on the air just long enough so the whole thing wouldn’t burst. Oh and they added a Batmobile. Lots of Batmobile.
The premise is the same as it’s been in the previous titles. Set aside a particular set of Gotham, (Asylum grows to a compounded City which grows to three full-blown islands this time around) have one baddie represent a threat to the citizens of Gotham and have Batman swoop in to stop them. This tale focuses on the exploits of Scarecrow, who’s devised his most deadly toxin ever and threatens to unleash it on the streets. His partner, the Arkham Knight, is a mysterious figure who claims to know Batman better than anyone, and seems hell-bent on killing him no matter the cost. They’re comic book villains in the best sense of the connotation. Grandiose, designs on domination and a dab of intrigue.
Batman’s his grim gung-ho self, intent on stopping this dreadful duo. However, he has an internal companion this time. The Joker infected several people with a toxin that’s slowly turning them into Jokers, and Bats happened to get a good whiff. Everywhere you turn, there’s Joker just waiting to comment on the situation, a constant reminder of your gradual transformation to darkness incarnate. That descent is a common theme, one that stinks of purposeless personality exploration. The chances of Batman actually performing something dreadful is null, and the game’s Chekov gun goes off like one of Joker’s toy blasters.
Anytime Batman grapples with his transformation, the Joker gleefully externalizes the internal struggle. It’s a clever conceit to avoid an obtuse internal monologue, but it also doesn’t leave the player any room for interpretation. The closest you get are flashbacks where Batman’s voice quivers, dripping with regret for past actions. Those still feel like hollow reminders though. They’re handily out of the player’s control, something players technically had no hand in, and never even experienced in one of the previous Batman games. Cherry-picking lore and shoving it into a game like this is necessary to build the world, but don’t expect players to feel any sort of emotional investment unless they were privy to and part of its occurrence. Indeed, emotional investment through inherent gameplay rather than immersion-breaking cutscenes is an area plenty of games could improve. Arkham Knight is no exception.
These sorts of emotional touchstones are an ever-present nature of this game’s narrative. When Batman’s forced to reckon with his actions that harmed a former friend, he’s haunted, a shell of his oft-imposing figure. There are real opportunities within the game though to force him to truly reckon with the nature of his actions: the broken kneecaps, the shattered skulls, the collateral and structural damage to the city from driving around in a freaking tank. Those are the sorts of narrative dissonant actions that Rocksteady never forced itself to reckon with. They had the Joker inside his head the entire game and a prime chance to completely subvert typical game narratives. There’s no need for a twist, just perhaps a steady reminder that Batman’s madness may actually be manifesting itself in the very actions you have to perform in order to beat the game. Unfortunately, that’s probably a pipe dream. Start unraveling his “moral” actions and the Bat’s moral mystique fades within his entire collective history.
Batman’s fluid movement and combat remains the same, the only major addition being the Batmobile, which Rocksteady is intent on pounding into your skull. Props to them on its controls; driving the monstrosity around, particularly in tank mode, I can feel the hundred of hours that went into fine-tuning it. It was necessary though, they treat this thing like an extension of your body, and its maneuverability is necessary for various platform puzzles early on in the game. Get used to it, the Batmobile is necessary for plenty of the Riddler puzzles and side missions. It starts to take away from the core mechanics that made the series in the first place. It’s another example of the balloon pump theory. Where in past games a puzzle may’ve taken place within a small area like a room where you had to combine several gadgets, now it’s within an entire complex, requiring frustrating Batmobile functionality and navigation. This isn’t the only example of Arkham Knight blowing something out without adding substance.
The world itself is easy to explore. The Batmobile flies around quickly and gliding is still a breeze, and possibly the most enjoyable part of the game. That exploration belies what becomes a prevailing issues throughout the whole game: a location devoid of any character. All of these games rely on bland color palettes, but the suffocating, Stephen King like nature of Arkham Asylum bred a particular vibe throughout the game. Ditto for Arkham City, who created a Lord of the Flies type supervillain stronghold. This is just, like, a city yet to be gentrified? Wandering around the world I could barely tell you any area that constituted a particular event. There’s nothing reminiscent of the ascent up the tower where Hugo Strange lied at the end of Arkham City or Penguin’s ice lake. Nothing even calls to mind the exterior of Arkham Asylum where you could look upon the lake towards Gotham; even that mundane environment felt more emotionally engaging than anything in Arkham Knight. This is a world that feels like it was created solely to shove more stuff into it. Part of that is the Batmobile’s problem, as increased mobility necessitates environmental expansion. It’s to the detriment of this world though, a mindless bevy of skyscrapers and roads.
Rocksteady provided one of the finest combat templates for pseudo-action RPG games of the last ten years. Their single button hits, easy counters and dodges made for approachable combat that didn’t force players to constantly remember 14-button combinations for their newest moves. Its elaborate and weighty animations cemented its effectiveness, letting even the most novice player feel as if they were capable of decimating an army of foes around them. A third game necessitates innovation though, a product of both external and internal pressure. It feels like they went too far, adding too many enemy types that require a particular move to kill properly. That in and of itself is fine. The layered, divergent enemy types of Halo is what makes its combat so amazing. However, that still requires a single verb to defeat something: shoot. Batman starts to settle into the convoluted territory of this guy needing a punch, tasering this trashy thug, but there’s also a medic that could revive someone, oh and don’t forget about the brutes that you’ll have to throw pop-rocks at first before punching them 20 times in the gut like a little brother fruitlessly hitting his big bro.
In a vacuum, these sorts of enemy diversions seem great, but the generally close quartered combat scenarios oftentimes lead to awkward encounters that completely contradict Rocksteady’s earlier message of not punishing players for memorizing a move set and produce awkward encounters rather than balletic beat-downs. In this game, memorizing myriad button scenarios is a necessity rather than a luxury. Part of that’s because I suck, but attaining any combat scenario where your actions generate the fluidity of previous games feels few and far between.
A third game necessitates innovation though, a product of both external and internal pressure.
Arkham City was the series first real foray into an open-world template, altered from the enclosed, Metroidvania-esque world of Arkham Asylum. Despite that, they peppered enough sidequests throughout the world to keep one’s interest. In particular the Riddler trophies. In Arkham Knight, they fully immersed themselves into the repetitive sidequest concept embroiled within open world game design. Players have to conquer enemy battalions throughout the city, take out mines across the islands or save firefighters. These missions feel like empty padding. The balloon pump went full bore on these puppies and after the first two or so excursions, the fun goes POP. Even the quests involving main Batman villains like tracking down Penguin’s weapon caches or stopping Two-Face’s men from robbing banks are a series of repetitive missions entirely absent of the villain’s personality sans a drab voiceover after the task is completed. Not only did those missions feel unnecessary, they felt completely divergent from the main story.
Arkham City painted a twisted, winding tale that made every villain feel as if it was part and parcel of the same demented mission to take down Batman, even if Hugo Strange was the primary villain. This feels like there’s the Arkham Knight and Scarecrow, and then everyone else just minding their own criminal acts. I guess I could stop Penguin, but I don’t particularly care to track his vans through the same boring process four times in a row. As I found out though, completing those missions was very much necessary to feel any sense of closure for this story. A discovery which led to one of the most egregious decisions I’ve ever seen in a game.
As I finally neared the end of the main story, Rocksteady tried manipulating my mind with several times with one-offs scenarios. A good effort sadly undermined by them peaking with the Scarecrow scenarios in Arkham Asylum. The final scene features Batman’s identity revealed to the public. Scarecrow expects this to be a grandiose end to the Batman, but Wayne reveals his aversion to Scarecrow’s fear toxin, besting him in the process. Despite beating the “big bad”, the game felt like it went out with a whimper, as Batman asks Alfred to initiate the mysterious “Knightfall protocol”, something I presumed to be a tease for the next game. I was wrong. Soon after, it sent me back to Gotham and informed me I would have to finish up at least 3 of the side missions in the world if I wanted to see the Knightfall protocol. Gating additional tidbits or easter eggs behind game completion is one thing, but to flaunt it as a necessity to see the finale of your story? I can’t remember a game ever being that insistent on a player absolutely seeing the full extent of the work they put into this world. “We made this for you, and if you want that ending we made, you’re gonna have to experience every single part of this game.”
Whatever Rocksteady, I’ll play ball. I blew up every mine and destroyed every tower or stronghold they had just to see this Knightfall protocol. It’s a cut scene, and I sit back ready to wash my hands of the game with this finale. Lo and behold, the scene ends after about one minute on a cliffhanger, cuts to credits, and then informs me I have to 100% the game if I want to see the real end of the Knightfall Protocol. Incredulity is my only reaction.
Yes, games are inherently different in that they require player action to see their conclusion. They require some level of aptitude, but the barrier to story conclusions, particularly in open-world games, is generally pretty low. Still, can you ever imagine a film reaching its climax, heading into its descending action, cutting to black and saying you’ll have to watch every deleted scene and commentary on the DVD before you can see this ending. No. For that reason, and many others enumerated above, Arkham Knight is a monotonous, unsatisfying conclusion to this trilogy. That’s a trait it shared with Christopher Nolan’s conclusion, The Dark Knight Rises. In fact, the similarities between the two trilogies are eerily numerous.
Christopher Nolan created three Batman films: Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. All three were generally praised, and created a new, darker, more “serious” paradigm for comic book movies, one that DC jumped right into and find itself stuck in now. This trajectory and influence feels reminiscent of Rocksteady’s creation. Both came out of relatively nowhere, and immediately sparked discussion over someone finally “getting” the Batman character. In Nolan’s case, that seemed to mean steering into the darkness. Setting up the typical origin story and exploring the depths to which Wayne sunk in the aftermath of his personal and physical transformation. Rocksteady followed a similar path with their art direction, capitalizing on an Unreal Engine that’s tailor made for spitting out gritty, dark environments like Epic’s touchstone for the engine, Gears of War. Yet they also fine-tuned the sort of abilities Batman actually displays with a strict set of gear, movement/combat, and his ninja-like stealth abilities. All three facets are utilized in Arkham Asylum and throughout the entire series. Nolan found similar success with the early portrayal of Batman as a stealthy assassin with near supernatural fighting skills.
Even analyzing the cultural feedback on the trilogies, the second title in both seems to engender the most goodwill. The Dark Knight is considered by many to be the finest comic book film ever, and many would argue the same about Arkham City as the finest comic book game produced. The connection comes to a dispiriting conclusion when talking about the end of each creator’s trilogy though. Both The Dark Knight Rises and Arkham Knight dig deeper than ever before into Batman’s psyche. They send him to the depths of his mental hell, trapping him physically in a pit within the film, an overt metaphor that dovetails nicely with the mental entrapment Batman finds himself in with the Joker infesting his every thought throughout Arkham Knight. Yet, they both falter with the same inevitable expansion that feels necessary as a series continues.
Fans grow restless. They expect an increasing cast, deeper references, new villains, the whole gamut. Giving in to those inclinations is only natural. Who wants to recreate the same world. That canonical sprawl starts to seep into the quality. The Dark Knight Rises introduces Catwoman and hints at Robin, ancillary characters who start to feel rather superfluous compared to the central struggle between Bane and Batman. The same is true in Arkham Knight, as the colorful cast of Catwoman, Nightwing, Robin and rather unexplained villainous collaboration between the Arkham Knight and Scarecrow makes the story look like a once promising crop field overcome by weeds.
They both feature Batman being “bested”. One through physical means as Bane breaks his back, the other mental, with Scarecrow revealing his identity publicly. Grappling with both of those facts takes Wayne to the deepest dredges of his mind, a tact that’s ultimately a fallacy in concept as players know the inevitable positive outcome. Most superheroes descending into darkness aren’t interesting solely because their upstanding morality means people know they’ll ascend probably without repercussions. This is especially true of Batman, who’s often mentioned as being “born in the darkness”. Going further is unnecessary, players understood his motivations and psyche the moment his parents got shot. This is where these last two entries failed, and without the dynamism of a top-flight villain to counteract Batman’s stoic nature, the stories felt like nothing more than an indulgence in senseless darkness.
Arkham Knight is a competent bookend in many respects. The singular loop of taking down foes from the darkness and gliding around Gotham is still unbelievably satisfying. It’s also bloated and bland, the product of an expansion that sacrificed bespoke content in favor of repetitive grinds. That may have started first and foremost with the Batmobile, whose presence undermines a lot of the unique discoveries on-foot traversal afforded players in the previous game.
At one point in the game, Batman sees a particularly grisly, emotional scene. “Scarecrow is punishing me,” he growls to Alfred. If Batman wasn’t describing his internal punishment, then Joker was extrapolating it to the player. Players have no chance to reckon in their actions or even the thoughts of Batman. Reveling in moments of silence to comprehend the dire situation before Batman would’ve at the least allowed players to make some of their own assumptions about his psyche.
Perhaps players have to take that upon themselves. Maybe, just maybe, that sacred refuge lies atop the tallest peak of Wayne Manor. And as you stare upon the wreckage below, contemplating just how to resolve this mess, you start to understand the crushing nature of Batman’s infinite loop towards his inevitable dea…”WELL BATMAN, there’s still 200 riddles to solve on Founder’s Island, why don’t you get on that!,” the Riddler interjects over a citywide loudspeaker. Nearby the Batmobile whirs to life, smashing through foes with all the subtlety of an impassioned elephant.