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Batman: Arkham Knight Review: Style Without Substance

by on July 19, 2015
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Synopsis

Scarecrow returns to Gotham City for one final attempt to destroy the Bat. Enlisting the help of the mysterious Arkham Knight, Dr. Cane has an army prepared to destroy the city and Batman with it.

Platform Played On

PS4

 

Gotham is dark and full of terrors. A city of fear awaits the ever stoic Batman in Batman: Arkham Knight. Scarecrow hides behind an army of mercenaries led by the Arkham Knight and Batman must use extreme force to stop them. From suit to batmobile, Batman is faster and stronger than ever before. Arkham Knight is an adrenaline rush that’s exhausting by the end, and for all its glitz and glamour the game lacks the endurance to craft a truly captivating experience start to finish. Spoilers ahead!

It’s a shame the game fluctuates between being fun and being okay because it looks gorgeous beginning to end. Arkham Knight is Gotham city at its finest. Everything about Gotham seems full of life, city-wide evacuations aside. This feels like the Gotham City Batman was meant to protect both in scope and aesthetic. Rocksteady Studios did an excellent job streamlining navigation and utilizing the batmobile to provide a new perspective. Best of all, the transition from street to skyscape is seamless encouraging players to explore every crevice of Gotham. There were a few instances where the game froze (the PS4 version) and required a hard reboot, but this seems to be a minor glitch across consoles. Batman games are notorious for their glitches, but for a game five times the size of previous installments it renders well. There’s a fairly stable frame-rate throughout, which hasn’t been the case for many next-gen games (here’s the proof). Arkham Knight is not a game for older consoles and next-gen provides the power to bring a well-polished Batman experience.

55a594eae87bdOf course, the experience wouldn’t be half as enjoyable without the main voice cast. Mark Hamill returns as the Joker only this time he’s inside Batman’s head, taunting Bruce with his greatest failures. It’s sacrilege at this point to let anyone other than Kevin Conroy voice Batman. This is a Batman starting to feel the effects of his endless crusade and Conroy delivers in every scene. John Noble will always be the perfect Scarecrow. He brings this ethereal quality necessary for the master of fear. It’s a stellar performance from all involved, even minor characters and various NPCs help to fill in the gaps of the larger DC universe. Criminals on the street will mention Metropolis, mercenaries will talk about their families, and it all helps to build the Arkham-verse players have become so well acquainted with.

No expense was spared in designing the batmobile and it becomes the instrumental main star of the entire game, so much so that it eclipses more iconic game mechanics. Arkham City became famous for it’s creative use of predator mode and bat-related gadgets to take out the various enemy factions. Innovation and patience were prized over raw power, but that isn’t the case with Arkham Knight. Players are not confined to rooms and buildings—they have a whole city to conquer. The batmobile accommodates the need fight on open streets. There’s tanks to take down and physical puzzles to solve, but the openness of the world lacks an intimacy that defined previous installments. It’s one thing to fight like the Batman, it’s another to think like him. Being locked in a room forced to take enemies out one-by-one provided that opportunity. Instead the sheer power of the new suit and batmobile encourage force above all else. Batarangs and other bat-gadgets take a backseat to Batman’s martial arts and takedowns. The new three-man “fear” takedown is a welcomed improvement, but most of the game is spent confined to the batmobile. The most intense sequence of the game involved Batman entering an airship where he was forced to use only a handful of gadgets and stealth to take out enemies. The enemies got smarter over time, in true Arkham fashion, and it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the game. There’s power in giving players the tools, but allowing them to solve the puzzle their own way and the lack of this takes away some of the joy playing Batman.

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While the gameplay deviates from its more recognizable forms it remains easy to understand and simple to master. The real issue of Batman: Arkham Knight is the story—it wasn’t what was promised and the plot fizzles out by the end mission. Spanning the course of a single night, Batman must stop the Scarecrow from unleashing his fear toxin on the eastern seaboard. Things get progressively worse for Batman, as he discovers he is being hunted by the Arkham Knight. However, that isn’t the main focus of the game, no, the main focus of the game is the Joker’s venom slowly turning Bruce Wayne into the Joker. At the end of Arkham City, Bruce was left only half-cured from the venom and as a result Joker appears in Batman’s mind throughout the game. Arkham Knight is exactly what the series has been leading up to, but it doesn’t have the decisive ending I expected. There’s no big boss battle, the identity of the Arkham Knight is painfully obvious, and the rogues are nowhere to be found. For all its moving plots, very few of them interact with each other and it’s because Scarecrow is absent for the entirety of the game. So much is centered around Batman going toe-to-toe with the Arkham Knight that by the time players get to Scarecrow there’s nothing left. Even then, Scarecrow gets tossed aside as players must deal with the Joker inside Batman’s mind. There was the need to answer the ending of Arkham City, but the Arkham Knight team had to fit Scarecrow into the equation. Priority went to Joker leaving Batman’s final encounter with Scarecrow anti-climatic. Rocksteady did not balance the two plots well and it put a dent in Batman’s shiny ride.

Moreover, after everything players have worked through the full ending isn’t available and a full experience requires the purchase of DLC. Jason Todd, the Arkham Knight, disappears after a lackluster fight with Batman leaving players high and dry unless they purchase the Red Hood DLC. The Knightfall ending can only happen after completing 90% of the game and tracking down the rogues gallery is a chore. Knightfall didn’t feel like a reward, it felt like a requirement because none of the side missions were entertaining enough to encourage players to get there.

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Much of my personal disappointment in the game stems from the treatment of important minor characters. Fear is the reoccurring theme of Arkham Knight. We are our own worst enemies and the way Rocksteady uses Joker to incessantly bring up Batman’s failures is brilliant. Batman can’t trust his own mind let alone save Gotham, but attempts to visualize his fears come at the expense of many important Batman characters, especially the women. Selina Kyle, a fully playable character in Arkham City, is reduced to the damsel of Riddler’s revenge. Her treatment in Arkham City didn’t fare better, but the fact she exists as an extension of Nigma’s plot is frustrating. Saving Catwoman has no effect on the overall story and she exists for the purpose of dual play. In fact, most of the characters advertised in dual play only appear in side-missions, which is a waste of new game mechanic. There’s no sense of urgency to save her even though Joker taunts Batman with the possibility of her dying. The idea of another person dying should drive Batman and players to do everything possible to save them, but none of these emotions is felt. Batman’s fear of loss, which stem from his parents death, is never contextualized in the game. Not to mention the damsel-in-distress trope is old and worn. Simulating fear should occur through the absence of ability, but nothing about Catwoman’s situation implies inability. Players never have to worry about Catwoman dying because it’s not a possible outcome in the game—she exists as another bland rescue mission.

Catwoman’s shafted role doesn’t even come close to what players face with Barbara Gordon. For those unawares, Barbara Gordon was shot by the Joker, paralyzing her. This was the subject of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joker, which is regarded as an essential Batman book because of how it changed the universe. Barbara was to be retired for good, but editor Kim Yale and writer Joe Ostrander brought her back as Oracle. Oracle has been Batman’s constant companion throughout the entire Arkham series and Arkham Knight was going to give players the chance to see Oracle in person. She was no longer just a voice. However, this excitement quickly fades in the wake of what players must experience. On two occasions, Batman must stand witness to scenes of violence against Barbara and because it is a hallucination Batman is powerless to stop it. The first involves the events of The Killing Joke and while it is less graphic than the comic players must figure out how to escape the room with Barbara paralyzed on the ground. I understand it was a horizon event in the Batman universe, but it is nothing more than a violent set piece. Worse is the second event where players must watch Barbara put a bullet in her head. It’s demoralizing to see such a beloved character give up and kill herself, even though players discover she’s still alive. Neither of these scenes helps players visualize how powerless Batman is—how he’s literally seeing his worst fears come to life—because it’s shock value. Players are not going to really fully empathize with Barbara’s “death” because the minute the cut-scene ends players must continue the story. Her death doesn’t dramatically change players ability to finish the game and the violence has little purpose to the game’s plot.

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Batman: Arkham Knight is an exciting, but flawed ride. It’s an ending to an amazing franchise that succeeds in design and scope but fails to blend its beautiful individual parts into a full-length captivating game. It is for this reason, the total score doesn’t match the average of the individual scores. Sound, graphics, gameplay, and controls are all solid, but the story just did not have the magic I expected for a finale. The game is fun and its exploration into the mind of Bruce Wayne continues to be the best part of the game. Arkham Knight might be the most in-depth attempt to visualize Bruce’s darkest fears, yet it deviates from core mechanics that emulate the feeling of being Batman. Style is not substance and the game’s emphasis on shiny new toys leaves an unsatisfying feeling.

TL;DR: It’s an ending just not the one I was hoping for. 

[Images from Batman: Arkham Knight Official]

Positives

+Lots of DC related Easter eggs
+Batmobile battle mode is wicked
+Moving through the city is much easier
+Unique game mechanics
+Story utilizes the theme of fear well
+Inventive interpretation of a fan favorite
+Mark Hamill as the Joker
+You're freaking Batman

Negatives

-Repetitive side missions
-Rogues Gallery takes a back seat
-Damsels in distress
-Traumatizing scenes of violence/suicide
-Shoehorned Joker
-Lackluster ending
-DLC is needed for full experience

Editor Rating
 
Controls
85%

 
Gameplay
80%

 
Graphics
90%

 
Sound
95%

Author Score
80%

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User Rating
 
Controls
85%

 
Gameplay
85%

 
Graphics
95%

 
Sound
100%

User Score
91%

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Bottom Line
 

While many story elements miss their mark, Batman Arkham Knight is a fun and shiny final ride for fans of the Arkham series.

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