With 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady Studios not only created a new benchmark for superhero and comic book adaptations, they also set an example for character action/open world experiences. And then, in 2011, Batman: Arkham City hit the scene and proved that Rocksteady’s star was on the rise, and in the eyes of Batman fans, they could do no wrong.
Needless to say, anticipation for Batman: Arkham Knight was high going into its June release, with little fear that Rocksteady Studios would falter when delivering their final Batman game. So, is Batman: Arkham Knight the pinnacle of the franchise? In short, yes and no.
As a Batman story, Arkham Knight delivers an emotionally complex and thoughtful narrative that feels on par with, or in some cases better than, any comic book arc. With Batman still reeling from the events of Arkham City, Scarecrow decides to take over Gotham and inflict his fear toxin on its citizens – those who haven’t fled already. Of course, Scarecrow may be the “big bad” of the Batman: Arkham Knight story, but there are plenty of villains scattered throughout the game, some obscure and others familiar. However, it’s the introduction of a new villain - called the Arkham Knight - that poses the greatest threat to Batman, both from a gameplay perspective and a narrative one.
Without delving too far into spoilers, let us just say that Batman: Arkham Knight presents some deep conflicts for the Dark Knight. It examines his relationships with his greatest villains and his most famous sidekicks, all while pushing towards a climax that could spell certain doom for Batman. The story is truly the best part of Batman: Arkham Knight, and its greatest strength is that it consistently pushes the player forward. More importantly, the story sets up a unique open world structure that’s more than just “unlock this island and then do missions.”
The three islands of Gotham in Batman: Arkham Knight are visually stunning. Rocksteady has always found clever ways to spruce up their gothic look with pops of color, and here they have outdone themselves. The amount of tiny details that are packed into each environment is top tier throughout, to the point many gamers will stop and stare at every building and interior. Character work is equally strong, with facial animations rivaling any of the best games in the industry. But, of course, it’s the design of Batman that players will see the most, and his silhouette is exceptional, from the fluid animations between actions to the tiny tears that form in his cape as the story progresses.
That fluidity extends to the free flow combat of Batman: Arkham Knight, which again proves that Rocksteady is the master of the attack/counter set-up. There are many imitators, but there’s nothing like getting some momentum under Batman’s feet and darting between bad guys, countering at the last moment, and then delivering devastating finishing blows. For Arkham Knight, Rocksteady has added a few more gadgets to mess around with and a few new enemies to test Bat’s mettle; it’s nothing too complicated or different from what has been seen before, but these new enemies are enough to make players think a little more tactically in battle. Most importantly, the Batman: Arkham Knight combat is supremely satisfying, as it accurately captures the agility and power of the iconic DC Comics hero.
Predator combat has been beefed up to support a more capable Batman as well, giving players more tools to work with and a greater feeling of power. There truly are dozens of options when it comes to taking out armed thugs, and Batman: Arkham Knight makes each one of them feel viable. Where past predator set-ups have felt a little like trial and error, the ones in Arkham Knight are genuinely thrilling. There’s the sense that with each takedown, Batman is gaining momentum and turning the tables in his favor. Rocksteady has also introduced a no-nonsense multi-takedown ability that, when fully upgraded, can take out five thugs almost instantly. Predator sections have been hit or miss for me personally, but the ones in Arkham Knight made me a believer.
What isn’t as convincing is that Batman: Arkham Knight needed a batmobile, not to mention one that turns into a tank. Since Batman can already zip and glide his way through Gotham’s fog covered skyline, it feels perfunctory to give him ground-based travel. When going from point to point, the batmobile controls fine and it can make turns on a dime, but its inclusion feels wholly unnecessary. It’s as if Rocksteady wanted to fill out their gameplay resume, but in doing so they’ve shown some design flaws.
Make no mistake, the batmobile is by no means a game-breaking element, but when it needs to get from point A to point B quick (in Riddler Challenges or chase sequences) it doesn’t handle very well, and when it is in Battle Mode the combat is fairly basic. Most of the encounters boil down to dodging enemy attacks and waiting for the cannon to charge, or sneaking around behind larger tanks and taking them out from behind. In essence, Rocksteady has designed batmobile versions of their free flow and predator combat encounters, but these sections lack the finesse and fine-tuning of their hand-to-hand counterparts.
Truthfully, the batmobile is a real sour note for Batman: Arkham Knight, if only because the game relies so heavily on it as both a puzzle solving and combat mechanic. For puzzle solving, though, the vehicle fares a lot better, even if it is still a bit unwieldy. However, when presented with the option of driving through Gotham or flying above the rooftops, flying took precedent every single time.
Rocksteady has also packed Batman: Arkham Knight full of deep side quests and missions that each offers a complete story in their own right. The three main ones feature team-ups with Catwoman, Nightwing, and Robin, and in addition to bolstering the main game’s narrative, are plenty compelling by themselves. There’s not nearly as much to do in Batman: Arkham Knight in terms of side missions, but what’s there is far meatier than most gamers will expect. And, of course, there are 200+ Riddler Trophies to collect, just in case players want to feed their collectible obsession.
As the final Batman game Rocksteady will ever make, it’s hard to say Arkham Knight is anything but a fitting end to the trilogy. Speaking just in terms of the story, Batman: Arkham Knight puts the Dark Knight’s back against the wall, and lets players experience a story that’s mature but filled with plenty of cool comic book touches. Rocksteady has also cut right to the chase with their signature combat set-ups, choosing not to bog players down in lengthy tutorials or hold anything back. They give players all of the tools they need – and then some – and let players run wild.
The only real gripe to be had with the game is that the batmobile feels like the least polished aspect of Batman: Arkham Knight. It has its moments, but the vehicle combat is too basic and the controls are too finicky to say it’s a worthy addition. Rather the batmobile is something that players will tolerate, but could certainly have done without.
Nevertheless, there’s little doubt that Batman and character action fans, dare we say gaming fans in general, will find Batman: Arkham Knight a wholly satisfying experience. It plays great, it looks great, and its story is better than many Hollywood blockbusters out there.
Batman: Arkham Knight is out now for PC, PS4, and Xbox One.