It has been over seven years since Batman: Arkham Knight graced our consoles. While not exactly a Batman game, Gotham Knights aims to fill the gap while Rocksteady Studios prepares their Suicide Squad game. But the Arkham series represents some big shoes to fill. Did WB Games Montréal hit the mark without Bruce Wayne’s assistance? Find out in our Gotham Knights PS5 review.
City Going a Bit Batty
Slight spoiler warning here, but if you’re been paying any attention to this game, then you’ll know the main plot point. The Batman is no more, something the Gotham Knights makes sure you understand with its opening cinematic. Bruce Wayne is given a hero’s death, taking out a powerful adversary when he sees there are no other options. Naturally, he has such an event planned out to the letter, and the Gotham Knights as they might be called consist of several of Batman’s proteges – Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, and Red Hood round out the cast of playable characters. They are eventually assisted by Alfred, who had finally been convinced by Bruce to take a long-overdue vacation, coincidentally right as things popped off with Batman’s latest enemy. Gotham City has become awash in crime, owing to The Batman’s sudden disappearance following Commissioner Gordon’s untimely end, and it’s up to our new heroes to take up the mantle and fight for justice.
The story in Gotham Knights is pretty entertaining, and written well enough that it doesn’t really matter which character you play as. Most cutscenes feature a few different lines depending on who you currently have selected, but it’s mostly reaction dialogue such as Red Hood being a bit more terse in his handling of someone escaping the scene versus Batgirl’s more methodical choice of words. It is kind of jarring playing as Red Hood, though, because he is the only one with straight-up lethal weapons, pistols, for his Gun Kata style of fighting.
Audio work is a bit of a mixed bag here. While the voice acting is great, and cinematics have a soundtrack, running around in the city is accompanied by…nothing. There is no music as you traverse the city, and considering how large it is, that is a long time to hear only your character’s grunts as they trapeze from building to building, and perhaps an occasional quip from nearby NPCs. Some music does play whenever you’re on the Batcycle, but it’s a nondescript background piece that doesn’t really excite much.
You’ll hardly be on that Batcycle because it’s a very inefficient way to travel in Gotham City, except over nearby bridges because none of the playable characters can swim. All characters have a grappling hook that can latch on to many different surfaces. Traveling this way takes some getting used to, but the city is laid out well enough that you can usually move from location to location without ever setting foot on the ground below. A typical sequence involves pressing L1 to latch on, and then pressing Cross to initiate a jump before reaching the grapple point. If this is performed correctly, the character will jump as soon as possible, at which point you can either let them land or press L1 again to grapple to a new point. It’s awkward at first, but eventually most players will be able to move around Gotham City without even using the left analog stick.
Combat has been a hallmark feature of previous Batman games. Hard-hitting punches and kicks that you could feel defined the Arkham series of games. Gotham Knights somehow both simplifies and expands combat. Pressing Square performs a light attack, while holding it results in a heavy attack being thrown. Triangle can similarly be pressed or held for light and heavy ranged attacks, respectively. Stealth approaches are possible, by sneaking around and taking out enemies with either an ambush or stealth takedown, the former of which can alert nearby enemies to your presence. Successful hits and dodges fill up a Momentum meter, and once full the player can perform special moves specific to each character. In theory, this results in varied combat. In practice, you’re mostly mashing square and triangle, with occasional dodges to set up a so-called Perfect Attack, waiting for Momentum to build up so you can clear an area of enemies. This is admittedly hard to quantify, but the combat in Gotham Knights just doesn’t hit as hard as in the Arkham series of games. Combat is fun enough, but ultimately just doesn’t feel as smooth as Arkham games.
Perhaps this has something to do with some of the tight spaces you often find yourself fighting in. Beyond the tutorial, the entirety of Gotham City is open to the player, and it feels overwhelming at first. The player’s task is to venture out into the city at night, and fight as much or as little crime as they want. Each time the Belfry is visited, the night is ended, and any clues dropped by enemies are added to the collection. There are a set number of randomly-generated crimes to take on each time the city is visited. Some of these are pre-mediated crimes picked unlocked by collecting enough clues in the previous night. So, there is incentive to clear out each district to unlock more missions.
An issue that rears its head early on is that there is not a huge variety of mission types. Within the first few hours, I happened upon a mission where you have to save hostages from bombs strapped to them, three times. While the location of each mission was different, the overall mission was exactly the same. Each mission does include random bonus objectives, such as remaining undetected or performing a certain move a minimum amount of times, but these only reward extra experience points and occasionally some bonus crafting materials, so nothing of real value is granted for taking the extra time to perform these actions.
Speaking of experience, each character receives some for each mission completed and enemy defeated. While not at exactly the same rate as the selected character, it does ensure that switching characters doesn’t result in needing to grind in order to unlock new abilities for lesser-played characters. One major issue here though is that you cannot switch characters once you’re out in Gotham City. You must end whatever night you’re on, and can only switch characters in the Belfry. Considering the emphasis the game places on co-op, and the ease with which it seems to load in other playable characters, the inability to switch while out and about is frustrating.
Grapple a Friend
The Unreal Engine 4 was chosen for Gotham Knights. This is a reliable choice, and it does a great job of keeping up with the action. Then again, with the game locked at 30 fps, ostensibly to allow for a smooth drop-in/drop-out co-op experience, it’s not terribly surprising. There are no graphics settings to tweak, as the player can only mess with basic sliders like Brightness, Contrast, and Saturation. While I understand the need to keep co-op smooth, players who plan to solo the game will likely feel a bit stiffed compared to the options on PC.
As mentioned earlier, co-op is available at almost all times in Gotham Knights. This is an awesome feature if you’ve got someone else to play with, because it’s a simple drop-in/drop-out experience. In fact, due to unexpected circumstances I found myself remotely playing the game while also connecting to a co-op session, and things worked without a hitch. The game’s approach to co-op is basically that the host’s game becomes the single source of truth for both players – their progress is now player 2’s progress in terms of mission availability and activities to do. However, this is only the case upon finishing whatever night the host player was on when the session started, if any. This resulted in some confusion the first time we had a co-op session going, because objectives were not shared until we returned to the Belfry to end the night. So, although co-op can be started at any time, we’d recommend connecting while the host player is in the Belfry so that you don’t have to sync objectives.
Gotham Knights has a few interesting things going on. It’s just not enough to elevate it to the level of previous Batman games. Now, sure, technically speaking, this isn’t truly a Batman game, as the focus is on his legacy of proteges. But the Arkham series of games has elevated expectations quite high, and while Gotham Knights didn’t hit them, it has moments where it does feel like something interesting is brewing. With more to do in the city, and an easier method of switching characters, perhaps this could be the start of something greater.