A split skillset makes you wish you just were the world's greatest detective in this beautiful revisit to Gotham City
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Robin crouches on the edge of the massive Belfry Tower in Gotham City. Sprawling out below is a glowing playground metropolis offering a feast of superhero vigilante justice, the city is enshrouded in darkness and the night is yours. Villains beware! Robin and friends are here to save the day.
This is the promise of Gotham Knights; a sort-of sequel for the beloved Batman Arkham series. Knights was produced by WB Games Montreal, the studio that were entrusted with Batman : Arkham Origins, a 2013 prequel for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 era that had mixed reviews at release. The general consensus? A strong story but a lack of innovation, a rather lifeless open world and a noticeable amount bugs and lack of polish held it back from being a true successor to Batman: Arkham City.
So has history repeated itself?
Well… kinda. Gotham Knights is an intriguing experiment - a superhero action game that is torn between being a solid narrative experience and something else entirely that is soured with odd loot systems, uninspiring character ability trees and a fundamentally flawed mission and world design that feels cut and paste and repetitive in the worst ways.
Vale Bruce Wayne
Batman is dead, and it’s up to the batfamily to pick up the pieces left behind by Bruce Wayne’s shock passing and become Gotham City’s new protectors, Nightwing, Red Hood, Robin or Batgirl, to solve the final investigation Batman was working on.
Along for the ride if you choose as you clean up the mean streets of Gotham is a new cooperative play feature that allows for just one of your friends to join you on your nightly caped crusadering.
Gameplay in Gotham Knights follows a very tight game loop. You begin at the Belfry, a story-hub location where the bat-crew have assembled with Alfred and are busy working away on mysteries and case files. You’ll have some cutscene interactions with your crew, be able to craft and upgrade your gear, check the status of your missions and swap characters. From the Belfry you can launch certain story missions from their case file window (a weird submenu that feels out of place with how other missions launch inside the open world environment) or you can head out on patrol.
Patrol shifts the action to Gotham City itself. Night has fallen and the bad guys are out to play. You'll be charged with intervening in petty crimes taking place in such as a handful of baddies robbing an ATM or trying to bust into a car. Your goal with these procedurally generated missions is to kill enough enemies to gather ‘clues’ which burst out of fallen enemies like candy from a piñata or interrogating random mooks with a well timed grapple move. Once you’ve hoovered up enough clues like a vigilante vacuum cleaner sweeping up the streets, you’ll unlock a new rank of procedural cut-and-paste missions - the premeditated crimes.
These missions are slightly longer, more involved and may have challenges associated with them for bonus exp (stop enemies from filling up a van with money from the vault of a bank, perform x number of stealth takedowns, chase a van that’s rushing away from you on the batcycle etc).
Moving through the shadows
Progression in the main story and many of the iconic villain-themed side quests is intimately tied to these activities; you’ll need to interrogate x number of freak gang members before you can progress certain Harley Quinn missions and will be bouncing around Gotham City stopping random criminal attacks as pre-requisites for many story events. It’s the worst style of open world game design busy work and quickly wears out its welcome. The repetitive and shallow nature of the core gameplay is unfortunately amplified by the fact that there just isn’t enough activity variety on offer. It’s all a bit Groundhog Day when you’ve stopped your tenth identical bank robbery in a row.
Speaking of things to do around Gotham City, get ready for the usual fare of open world collecting and scanning. You'll be findingbatarangs strewn about the place, scanning graffiti for Robin’s art history class assignment, doing cumbersome time trial events (thanks to the fiddly controls) by jumping from building to building. Yawn.
And the jumping and movement? Well it's clunky. Never in Arkham City did grabbing onto a ledge feel so sticky and odd. You’re provided the batcycle and a grapple hook for early transportation in the opening hours of the game.The Batcycle is fine, a serviceable steed, yet it still feels somewhat slow despite all the motion blur and wind effects when you’re riding it around. The Grappling hook feels imprecise and clunky - it just doesn’t have the precision or speed of Marvel Spider-Man’s web-slinging.
Navigation through Gotham’s sterile streets is improved slightly after you complete each hero's Knighthood quest line - once again achieved by working your way through a generic checklist of open world nonsense.
A quarter of the bat
Each hero receives a unique movement ability - Robin gets a teleportation rift. By holding the RT button while falling in the air Robin can slurp himself into a pocket dimension and zip around the city in short ten second bursts.
The problem? In co-op it was slower than Batgirl’s glide ability (yes, she gets Batman’s gliding from the Arkham games) and makes you disappear off your partner's map and compass radar whenever you're mid-blip. Things are slightly improved for Red Hood, he gets a supernatural frop-leap move that lets him skip about through the sky.
The clunkiness isn’t just reserved for movement and traversal; it seeps into the combat and stealth gameplay as well. Stealth feels clumsy, like the batcrew decided to go crime-solving after a night of heavy drinking. You stalk enemies as you would in Spider-Man or the Arkham series from rooftop ledges, well placed gargoyles and scaffolding beams. Unlike those games though, you need to be extremely close to your enemy before you can launch into a stealth takedown rather than a generic enemy attack. Judging this distance was difficult and led to many moments of slight shimmying and maneurving to try and get the right angle on an enemy, or in most cases - just dropping to the floor and crawling up behind them instead to make things more effecient.
At other times, I’d be right behind an enemy, ready to grab them for a fast takedown - only to have my caped crusader stand up and smack their ranged attack instead.
Combat feels floaty and non-responsive. Gone is the combo counter from Arkham, replaced instead with a ‘momentum bar’, a resource you generate by attacking enemies and mastering perfect dodge timings. Momentum is used on flashy special moves that allow you to guard-break enemies, interrupt their big attacks and generally dump a lot of damage into a single target. Momentum is slow to build in the early hours but some characters (mainly Nightwing) can unlock abilities to increase the generation rate - you can also improve it through itemization and gear set ups (more on gear later).
The result is a slower paced combat system in the early hours, generic enemy mooks have far more HP than they did in the Gotham series, and big bruiser enemies have big chunky health bars that are designed around being chewed up by your flashy moves.
The Arkham style of snap-lock on punching/attacks is still here, but now the camera whirls around without a care. I’d often find poor Robin attacking enemies that were off screen as I wrestled with the camera to reframe the action. the snap-lock system also fails spectacularly during ranged attack combos and I frequently found Red Hood facing the opposite direction from his target - shooting his shotgun rounds into thin air.
Enemies in Gotham Knights have a level system and so do your heroes. As you slowly gain experience for stopping crimes and solving side quests you’ll get ability points to use on unique skill unlocks for each character which allow you specialise.
For Robin, that means leaning into a high crit/elemental damage build or specialising in stealth abilities that other characters do not get (such as the ability to use stealth takedowns on big bruiser enemies and a special aerial stealth takedown that allows Robin to string enemies while perched up in safety).
This levelling system also ties into your gear which is a bit of a mess. There’s a gearscore/power level system at play (think live-service games like Destiny) and I’m not actually sure what it does other than bigger numbers are better. When you co-op with friends, you’ll be synced to their gear level, so no need to worry about being under-geared in co-op play.
Early hours in the game will see you getting minor boosts on armor and equipment (3% momentum build up gain - wowee!) and the true scope of your hero’s abilities won’t be felt until after hours of grinding your way through endless open world questing. You’ll upgrade your gear by finding items in chests, through quest rewards and through lots and lots of very dull crafting. The game, so aware of how inane this process feels, will automatically scrap your oldest non-equipped loot when your inventory fills up, providing you with even more nonsense resources to feed the endless crafting system.
While the mechanical systems at play paint a pretty gloomy picture, there are some reasons to dive into Gotham Knights.
The story-heavy side quests focusing on the batverse’s many colourful villains are a particular highlight. From one Harley Quinn’s shift into a career in wellness-influencer grifting, to another classic baddy working on their directorial film debut, there’s some sharp writing and fun level design hiding away here.
Gotham Knights imbues its cast with strong personalities and depth, Red Hood is processing the trauma of having died and come back to life and his lust for violence clashes heavily with Nightwing, who is a straight up boy scout in comparison. Robin stands out as a plucky teenager hoping to prove his worth to the team and gets along well with Batgirl and her love for technology and gadgets. All four are intimately linked by the shared injury of having lost Bruce Wayne and the game doesn't shy away from their grief.
Where Gotham Knights falls a little flat is its refusal to deeply interrogate the role of vigilantes and the police in their shared role of protecting Gotham's streets. The villainous gangs of Gotham City are cartoon characters; the freaks in particular are introduced as they set fire to a university campus, cackling and chortling about how much fun they’re having burning down the joint. Are they meant to be a play on anarchism? It's hard to say when they have the depth of a shallow puddle.
Meanwhile, the heroes of this story do not question or ask if they should be throwing on batsuits and taking crime-fighting into their own hands. They've have been anointed by Batman himself, so therefore, of course their actions cannot be questioned - even when it’s the violent Red Hood, gleefully looking forward to any excuse to crack skulls in the name of justice.
Gotham’s police department is a third wheel in this story, Commissioner Jim Gordon is gone and the new police chief has a vendetta against vigilante superheroes in her city. The police will roll up to completed crime scene events and open fire on the batfamily - the game actively using its systems to punish you should you decide to combat them directly. There’s zero exp, drops or loot rewarded when attacking the police as antagonists.
At the same time they’re shown to be a deeply corrupt institution; complicit in crime, taking bribes, planting evidence and abusing people in their custody. Yet Gotham Knights works hard to try and build a redemption plot for the failing police force. There’s always a good cop just around the corner who is trying to turn the system around and any other option than superheroes working alongside law enforcement is not on the menu.
Knights plot is more focused on repairing the shattered relationship between cop and superhero than it is with exploring a different Gotham City; one free of its corrupt police state.
It hides its strenghths, a moderately enjoyable ensemble superhero story, beneath layers of bulky systems bloat, clunky gameplay and dated open world design. The promise of a superhero perched up on high, overlooking a city brim with possibilities and adventures instead feels more like a vigilante crusader tripping over their own cape a little bit too often.
A copy of GOTHAM KNIGHTS on PC and Xbox Series X|S was provided to SIFTER for the purpose of this review.