The Ultimate BATMAN: ARKHAM KNIGHT Review Author: Ryan Hoss (Follow @SMB_RYAN)
Date: November 28, 2015
EDITOR'S NOTE: BOF contributor Ryan Hoss played BATMAN: ARKHAM KNIGHT to 100% completion. His review can be found below.
In 2009, game developer Rocksteady turned the industry on its head when BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM was released. Out of nowhere, it changed the way people think about licensed video games and what they can bring to the table. It reintroduced Batman to a whole new generation of gamers and managed to craft a combat system so innovative and fun that it remains an industry benchmark. Since then, we’ve had an incredible sequel in ARKHAM CITY, an underrated prequel in ARKHAM ORIGINS, and a bevy of tie-in games, comics, toys, and merchandise that have elevated the ARKHAM brand into its own unique branch of Batman pop culture.
And now, after years of waiting, BATMAN: ARKHAM KNIGHT arrived mid-2015.
The highly anticipated game has been billed as Rocksteady’s final entry of their Batman story, so the game has had to live up to some pretty unbelievable expectations. I tried to keep my expectations in check, but each new piece of information revealed about the game gave me hope that it could be the pinnacle of the franchise. And after spending countless hours tearing down streets (and rooftops) in the Batmobile, foiling Scarecrow’s master plan, capturing every criminal in Gotham, and tracking down 243 Riddler trophies, I can safely say that ARKHAM KNIGHT is a masterpiece.
Although I’ve been having a blast with the game, it’s worth mentioning the tumultuous events leading up to (and extending beyond) the game’s release. ARKHAM KNIGHT was delayed twice before it met its release date. The most premium SKU of the game that featured a transforming Batmobile statue got cancelled only a week out from release. The most publicized faux pas, of course, was the botched release of the PC version of the game – that version’s performance was so poor that Warner Bros. pulled the game from shelves until the issues can be resolved. (FYI: A patch has been released for the PC version that is supposed to fix the problems, but reports as of November 28, 2015 say that all problems still exist.)
So, if you decide to take the plunge and pick up the game, get it on PS4 or Xbox One. The PS4 was my console of choice and I had minimal issues playing through the game.
And what an amazing game it is! The open-world Gotham City of ARKHAM KNIGHT is one of the most fully-realized game environments I’ve ever seen. You’ll visit some familiar locations like the GCPD, Wayne Tower, and Oracle’s Clock Tower, while being introduced to some interesting new areas like the Stagg Airships and a mid-renovation film studio that serves as your impromptu Batcave. Gotham is split up into three major islands, with an overall scale that’s about five times larger than Rocksteady’s previous Batman game, ARKHAM CITY. The sprawling urban labyrinth provides the perfect landscape for an abundance of gameplay styles. Whether you’re grappling across rooftops or blasting down the streets in the Batmobile, the experience is pretty flawless. Towards the end of the game, you’ll have a fully-upgraded vehicle and a utility belt full of gadgets, giving you an incredible sense of being the Batman.
The popular “free flow” combat system returns in this game, and it’s as fun and innovative as it’s ever been in the ARKHAM series. In addition to the standard moveset we’ve become accustomed to, there are a few added enhancements that manage to make the fighting sequences a blast without being too gimmicky. One such enhancement is a remote hacking device that can blind flying drones, disable sentry guns, and cause environmental distractions. The counter move has been upgraded to include something called a “throw counter” which rewards perfect counter moves, adding another layer of variety to combat.
The most entertaining new combat addition, though, is the Dual Play feature. In certain sections of the game, you can seamlessly switch between Batman and one of his allies (or “known associates”) during a fight. When your combo meter is high enough, you can perform a devastating finishing move before repeating the cycle over again. It’s a shame that this feature isn’t available whenever you want it, but it does make those moments more special when they present themselves.
Besides, who needs a sidekick when you have the Batmobile at your disposal? Other games before the ARKHAM franchise have utilized Batman’s signature vehicle to varying degrees of success, so I was extremely curious to see if Rocksteady could successfully integrate the Batmobile without shoehorning it in or making the gameplay unbalanced. There are some quirks to be sure, but what they came up with exceeded my wildest expectations.
If you’re already familiar with the gameplay from previous ARKHAM titles, the sheer amount of new gameplay elements the vehicle introduces can take some getting used to. The Batmobile can do so many things that sometimes it feels like you’re playing a totally different game. You can tear through the streets at blistering speeds. Track down enemy vehicles in pursuit mode. Use a front-mounted winch to power up generators and scale buildings. The evidence scanner and EMP pulse helps locate mission objectives. In certain combat scenarios, the vehicle will help perform assisted takedowns. It can be controlled remotely to solve some environmental puzzles or help get the jump on enemies. With the press of a button, Batman can eject from the vehicle and transition into a glide. If you’re already airborne, you can instead call the vehicle from the skies and plummet to the streets below and into the cockpit.
And while it seems like the Batmobile performs a ridiculous amount of functions, I haven’t yet mentioned the game-changing (and perhaps controversial) “Battle Mode.” Remember how cool it was in THE DARK KNIGHT and in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES when the Batpod would do some crazy move where the wheels would rotate laterally? Well, ARKHAM’s Batmobile is that concept on steroids, giving the player a transforming vehicle with precision lateral movement. It’s absolutely nuts and it’s a blast to play. Most of the Battle Mode sequences involve firefights with unmanned drone tanks. Before the tanks fire at you, an aiming scope shoots across the playsurface that starts out blue and turns red just before firing. Once 10-15 tanks are firing at once, things get incredibly frantic, giving the sequences a very arcade-like feel. I’ve seen a lot of reviewers criticizing the “Battle Mode,” citing the dramatic shift in gameplay and cumbersome control scheme as detractors from the overall experience of the game. While I do agree that the Batmobile does have quite the learning curve, once I got past that, I found the vehicle sequences to be incredibly satisfying.
While I enjoyed the Batmobile gameplay, it does lead into what I feel is the largest fault of the game (if you can call it that) – an oversaturation of content. I know it’s like looking a gift horse in the mouth by saying that we’ve been given too much of something, but it’s true. Rocksteady crammed so much new gameplay and ideas into this game that at times, you’ll have to play a game you don’t want to play until you can get back to the game you do want to play. Don’t like the Batmobile? Tank bosses? Dealing with Riddler and his contrived Batmobile racetracks? Sorry – if you want to complete the game, you’ll have to get through it all. In fact, if you want to see the game’s true, final ending, you need to beat the game 100%. That means completing the main story, all the side quests, and yes –acquiring all 243 Riddler trophies. Now, I love games, and I love Batman…so I was happy to take the time to do all that. If you’re not a hardcore gamer or don’t have a ton of time, then just YouTube the ending once you’ve completed the main story. Seriously, save yourself the headache if you’re not a completionist.
There’s just so much to do and so much variety in the gameplay that at times, it does take away from the core experience. It just feels wrong to put your pursuit of Scarecrow on hold to drive over to a Riddler racetrack. That being said, the amount of content has been streamlined as well as I think they could’ve done. During the story mode, you’ll be given some natural breaks to go off the beaten path and complete some side-quests. The presentation of the side-quests themselves is incredibly well done, to boot. You’re given a radial user interface menu to select the quest you want, and once you’ve selected it, you’ll get a friendly conversation from Alfred reminding you of what you’re doing and why. And if you’ve reached a point in the story where you can’t make further progress in a side-quest, the game will let you know. So yes – there’s a ton of content, but it’s easy to manage what you’re doing.
I could ramble on forever about the gameplay, but what will make or break ARKHAM KNIGHT for Batman fans who aren’t huge gamers is the story. As the game begins, you’re introduced to this terrifying new version of The Scarecrow and his plan to bring down The Batman for good. In order to disperse an amped-up fear toxin across the city, he’s enlisted the help of an army led by the mysterious Arkham Knight. The bombastic plot provides plenty of excuses for the punches and explosions. Surprisingly, it it also manages to tell a more personal story about the Dark Knight and his inner demons, whether Bruce Wayne can put his trust in the extended members of the Bat-family, and what the legacy and meaning of The Batman will be for Gotham City.
In fact, one of the coolest parts of the story is something I won’t spoil here. I’ll do my best to talk about it without ruining the surprise. “It” happens around 10% into the game, and sticks around pretty much until the end. It’s unexpected. It’s amazing. It’s an incredible story point and something that also manages to enhance gameplay at the same time. Whoever came up with the idea is a genius, and it’s something that really only works this well in a videogame. You’ll know it when you see it – and it catapults ARKHAM KNIGHT into one of the most unique Batman experiences you’ll ever have.
The side-quests are no slouch, either. Some are better than others, of course, but when one of your favorite Batman characters pops up, it’s pretty thrilling. Many characters are presented in new and interesting ways, with an ARKHAM twist on things. Two of my favorite side-quests were plot threads that carried over from ARKHAM CITY and I had a blast seeing how they played out. It’s worth noting that some side-quests have alternate endings depending on how you choose to play.
That kind of extra-mile design oozes throughout the rest of the game. Early on, you’ll run into a prisoner chiding Batman from inside his cell. You can reach inside and knock him out. You may find yourself outside the GCPD and see some officers crowded around the Batmobile, admiring its new features…before they realize you’re right behind them. And here’s a pro tip – once you make your way to the top of Wayne Tower, be sure to listen to all of your messages. You won’t regret it.
If the game’s story has any sort of misstep, it would have to be the titular Arkham Knight. The character is perfectly serviceable, even if the focus on him and his role in the plot is a little heavy handed. The same could be said for the Knight’s true identity, but an unspectacular reveal doesn’t really detract too much when everything else in the game delivers in a big way. Troy Baker (who did an excellent job as The Joker in ARKHAM ORIGINS) voices the character, and he makes do with what he’s given, although the characterization is pretty one-note.
The voice cast is the final touch that brings the story of ARKHAM KNIGHT to life. Jonathan Banks (BREAKING BAD) brings us a seasoned James Gordon who’s been at Batman’s side since his inception. Scott Porter (FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS), Matt Mercer (RESIDENT EVIL 6), and Ashley Greene (TWILIGHT) bring Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, and Barbara Gordon to life in a way that turns Batman’s closest allies into a believable family. The soul-churning interpretation of The Scarecrow from John Noble (RETURN OF THE KING, FRINGE) is both creepy and calculated, providing just the right edge to a villain attempting to bring out Batman’s greatest fear.
I’ve seen this sentiment elsewhere and I’ll repeat it here – the real standout voice actor in ARKHAM KNIGHT is none other than Batman himself, Kevin Conroy. He’s voiced the character in almost every medium for over 20 years, so it’s easy to take him for granted. For a few years now, he’s shown up in a DC Animated Universe feature and given the same, consistent performance we’ve come to know and expect. The Batman he’s voiced in the ARKHAM universe has always been more “hardcore,” but his performance in this game is simply spectacular. I really can’t put my finger on why it’s so good, but just pay attention to the lines and the delivery. There’s an absolutely massive amount of dialogue in the game, and there’s not one line in the bunch where it seems like Conroy isn’t giving us anything but his best.
Cutting-edge visuals, polished gameplay, and brilliant storytelling combine to make ARKHAM KNIGHT a piece of entertainment that simply must be experienced. The game isn’t without flaws, but the amount of passion and craft that went into making it is commendable and is certainly worth the considerable amount of time it will take to complete it. From the unconventional opening moments to the shocking end, ARKHAM KNIGHT manages to entertain, innovate, and amaze.
Only time will tell what Rocksteady does next, but what they’ve done for Batman – and videogames – will be remembered and praised for years to come. – Ryan Hoss
Ryan Hoss has been a BOF contributor since 2006.
He runs and maintains his own portfolio website at RYANHOSS.COM, as well as SMBMOVIE.COM.