Seven long years ago, we parted ways with the phenomenal Arkham series and have suffered a Batman-shaped hole in our lives ever since. Warner Bros. Montreal, the team responsible for the prequel Batman: Arkham Origins, are now rectifying the extended absence and providing an all-new Batman adventure separate from the continuity of the Arkham saga. But the Montreal-based team isn’t looking to simply re-hash the (still) superb framework that gave DC an incredibly successful video game series all those years ago. Instead, the developer is looking to strike out on their own, creating something distinctly different than Rocksteady’s award-winning formula. Enter Gotham Knights.
Gotham Knights presents the grimmest of scenarios: Batman is dead. With Gotham spiraling into chaos following the Dark Knight’s passing, the spotlight shifts to the Bat-Family. Batgirl, Nightwing, Robin and Red Hood are now left to pick up the crime-fighting slack and unravel the mysteries surrounding their mentor’s death and unfinished business. Needless to say, the group has a big cowl to fill. It’s a bold move by Warner Bros. Montreal to finally release another Batman game after a gap the lasted the better part of a decade and choose to remove Batman himself from the offering, but I must say that it does outline an engaging and personal narrative.
Fortunately, the four heroes in Bruce’s stead are widely recognizable and popular characters who have each branched out beyond the Caped Crusader’s campaigns in various other media. In the Arkham games, we were only able to enjoy Batman’s entourage in challenge maps. Now, the crew has been unshackled and set loose into the open world of Gotham with a host villains, including the secret and sinister Court of Owls, ready to test their mettle. The crimefighter successors seek to ascend to the level of their late teacher as they follow in his footsteps for the first time without his oversight.
Each hero brings their own flavor to this spiraling situation, giving players a choice in the gameplay approach that bests align with them. For those who enjoy leaping around nimbly and/or providing team support, Nightwing is your guy. If something tankier is desired or you simply want to turn the third-person action game into a third-person shooter, you will definitely want to jump into the boots of Red Hood. Robin is the go-to character for anyone who prefers pure stealth. Batgirl is a solo player’s dream thanks to her high single-target damage and self-revive capabilities. The particular playstyles of each Knight can be further expanded via four skill trees, one of which is unlocked through the completion of a few simple Knighthood challenges.
If thoughts of Arkham Knight‘s Waynetech upgrades immediately came to mind, then you may be in for a bit of a surprise in regards to how upgrading your costumed defenders is handled this time. That is because Gotham Knights contains more RPG DNA this time around, shifting the gameplay stylings away from the action-adventure focus of its predecessors. Now, a host of common RPG mechanics are thrown into the mix to shake up the prior series’ norm. Piles of loot of varying colored rarities, the aforementioned skill trees, gear crafting, health bars and floating damage numbers all join the experience. Sadly, the basest forms of many of these features have been shoehorned in, resulting in a game that can often feel like a generic RPG rather than a top tier Bat-Family outing.
Unfortunately, that RPG focus has taken a chunk of the game’s soul away. Combat is notably slower and more restrictive than the buttery smooth freeflow combat with which we all originally fell in love. Gone is the ability to counter, forcing greater focus on dodging and utilization of special abilities. Special abilities are activated as momentum is built, which is accrued through maneuvers such as perfect timed strikes and dodges. Nightwing, for example, can spring into an acrobatic leap and land on a target’s head. Red Hood, on the other hand, can take his dual-wield pistol mastery to the next level with some lead-filled talents. Each character is fairly distinct in their primary group role and combat expertise. The character skill trees allow further development of these roles through exclusive actions. The diversity can lead to some fun planning when you have to consider if it’s more useful to have a Knight with the ability to hack electronics or one that can perform a silent takedown on larger enemies.
Even with these fun role developments present, the combat can’t escape from the shadow of Batman’s prime gaming period. This boils down to two reasons. First, each character is good at something but none are good at everything. Previously, we played as Batman, the all-around master. Now, we are being forced to choose which 1/4 component of Batman we want the most at a given time. And the game struggles to elevate beyond that feeling of “I’m settling for less” when choosing a character. Even a fully upgraded character doesn’t rise to the same level of excellence as the old combat systems. Second is that combat seems oversimplified. Enemies spam the same moves over and over. The sheer amount of AOE attacks that light up the floor during encounters is insane. The early hours of the game had me regularly engaging with Freaks gang members, every one of which had an obsession with launching an endless barrage of molotov cocktails. The repetitive, limited movesets performed by enemies coupled with the heavy focus on the momentum system strips away that Arkham rhythm.
That’s not to say that Gotham Knights combat is terrible. It’s not bad, but it’s a far cry from the series standard (goodbye, combo counter). Striking a criminal with Grayon’s escrima sticks or going non-lethal John Wick with Red Hood certainly have their moments. Following the Court of Owls main story, pursuing iconic villains through side quests, and extinguishing random crimes cropping up around the city all present countless opportunities to bruise skin and break bones. In fact, the only time you won’t be beating problematic citizens into a pulp is when it’s time to put an analytical eye to a crime scene to determine the culprits. But this detective work assists in revealing more opportunities to knock out thugs.
The main allure of Gotham Knights is that it finally affixes a cooperative experience to the core gameplay, allowing players to live out their vigilante dreams as they beat down baddies side-by-side. Any combination of Batgirl, Nightwing, Red Hood and Robin can be used (even duplicates!) in two-player, drop-in drop-out co-op. It’s here that Gotham Knights reveals what is easily it’s most next-gen feature: untethered co-op. Friends and strangers alike can join another’s journey, roaming Gotham’s troubled streets next to one another or on completely opposite sides of the map. This aspect of the game is able to evoke that superhero fantasy of coordinating crimefighting efforts with a fellow hero. Whether you are taking down two separate crime activities or teaming up to take down Mr. Freeze, cooperative play is a joy.
After having read all that, what if I told you there is an aspect of Gotham Knights that near mirrors Arkham Knight? Well, there is. Prepare yourself because this isn’t a compliment. Gotham Knights has extremely rough performance, making it harder to shrug off other lesser areas. I immediately flashed back to attempting to play Arkham Knight on my R9 290X and being completely unable to do so until I upgraded to a GTX 980 Ti. I have a RTX 3080 powering Gotham Knights and it is still incapable of holding 60fps steady, regardless of the graphics settings tweaked. Driving around the city on the Batcycle is made almost unbearable with severe framerate drops. Notable but lesser dips also occur in heavily populated fights. For a game that shifted to a current gen-only release, leaving behind the technical restrictions of last gen console hardware, the result echoes the optimization shortcomings of the 7-year old Arkham Knight. It’s a shame to see this ground retread because Gotham Knights can’t afford to have stability woes corrode away at its limited redeeming factors. But, hey, at least the graphical quality is easy on the eyes.
Gotham Knights Review Verdict
Gotham Knights: Gotham Knights takes Warner Bros. longstanding Batman formula in a radical new direction, one that wants more RPG and less Batman. The end product hits a few of its marks, but misses many as well. Cooperative play sits atop the short list of exceptional inclusions, allowing players to mask up and join forces online to fight crime. However, all of that crimefighting will begin to bleed together due to repetitive attacks and mission types. The fun to be had here can also be quickly eroded away by troublesome performance that touches nearly every aspect of the game. In the end, Gotham Knights is a promising concept that fails to fully step out from under Batman's shadow. – Joshua