This is the second Batman: Arkham Knight review to go up at Birth.Movies.Death. Alex's review can be found here and is a decidedly different take to this one.
There ain’t no sixteenth notes like Batman sixteenth notes. Since Batman Begins, rapid musical rhythms have become synonymous with the Dark Knight. Fittingly, Rocksteady’s return to the franchise, Batman: Arkham Knight, packs more notes into its measures than ever before. It’s a game of technical excellence, skilled storytelling, and disappointing tedium.
The opening hours of Arkham Knight are spectacular, dramatic, and fun. A tantalising narration from Jonathan Banks’ Commissioner Gordon, and a horror-tinged, first-person opening, set the stage for a high-stakes story worth paying attention to, even if it borrows liberally from both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises. John Noble’s genuinely menacing Scarecrow brings the Batman out from retirement, and very quickly, you’re beating up criminals, driving the Batmobile, and screaming “WHERE IS [NAME]?! WHERE IS HE?!”.
The first thing you’ll notice - unless you’re playing on PC - is that Arkham Knight is made with superlative technical artistry. Gotham glows with all the colour and texture of the Burton and Schumacher Batman movies, packed with detail and Easter eggs. You can spend an age just walking around looking at the beautiful environment. The in-engine cutscenes are told with exceptional craft, transitioning seamlessly into equally gorgeous gameplay. All the game’s various mechanics - stealth, rhythm combat, driving, grappling-hook traversal - have been honed and melted into each other, producing a game that plays as a satisfyingly consistent whole.
The banner feature in this instalment is the Batmobile. Like Batman’s other gadgets, it’s a tool for traversal, combat, and puzzle-solving. Driving through Gotham is intensely pleasurable, great sound design and little graphical touches making the vehicle feel fast and formidable. Even getting in and out of the Batmobile feels totally badass, the Dark Knight swooping onto the road and boarding his ride upon landing. Unfortunately, the Riddler's car puzzles are frustrating, and the tank combat - which forms a drearily large portion of the gameplay - is noisy and tiresome. You’ll groan every time you see a phalanx of tanks in your way.
Arkham Knight is very story-driven, improving upon the unmemorable story of Arkham City while not quite reaching the tightness of Asylum. It's the most outlandish of the series, straining credibility even for Batman. The main story - that of brand-new character the Arkham Knight taking over Gotham - is an intriguing, surprise-filled mystery that its eventual reveal can never live up to, but it’s not the most intriguing part. The Joker, killed at the end of Arkham City and incinerated in the opening moments of Knight, technically stays dead, but the Clown Prince (a welcome return from Mark Hamill) makes a significant and strange reappearance. It’s a very comic-booky twist, a fantastically weird scenario borne of a bizarre psychological state. As Batman’s evil conscience, he supplies the game’s best moments, providing interesting character notes - such as Batman’s continual lying to everyone close to him. Between Joker and the Arkham Knight, the story makes you want to keep going.
But as much as I loved the first stretch of Arkham Knight, as the game wears on it becomes clear that it has been artificially extended by repetitive side missions, tedious busywork, and more endings than Return of the King. It’s a classic example of a studio spending all its money on the start of the game, since that’s the only section players will see for sure. Arkham Knight has a dozen sidequests that range from rescue missions to Ubisoftian watchtower takedowns to the most maddening Riddler trophy collection yet. Some sidequests are interesting at first - a Weekly World News scare story; a serial killer investigation; some fun single-player co-op with Catwoman and Nightwing - but even the best quickly become repetitive and annoying, and the worst (about half) are just challenge rooms corralled into the vaguest of narratives. More irritatingly, these side missions are the only real way to unlock the bewildering web of upgrades that make the game more enjoyable.
But the worst thing about these sidequests - a problem with many open-world games - is how they rob the main story of all of its urgency. These games’ taking place over single nights gets more farcical with every increasingly enormous and activity-rich installment. While it’s good of Batman to lock up Gotham’s most wanted, it feels like small potatoes to go after bank robbers when there’s a scary dude holding the city hostage with tanks, and especially when the only thing in his way is a Batman slowly being poisoned by Joker blood.
Oddly enough, the sidequests could’ve been better integrated by borrowing a mechanic from fellow WBIE adventure Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. That game’s Nemesis system (one of the best things in games from 2014) would work wonders in Gotham’s criminal underworld. There’s lots of entertaining thug chatter, suggesting individual characters (even gay ones!) who could have been a great, organic system if they were allowed to develop. As it is, they’re anonymous goons waiting to be pummelled into submission by the heavily-armoured Batman.
Those who find Batman uncomfortably fascist will find little to change their minds here. Batman is incredibly violent in this game, his hand-to-hand beatdowns reaching a new level of savagery. Arkham Knight’s Gotham is pretty densely-populated for a city with only criminals left in it, creating plenty of targets for Batman’s dubiously non-lethal pugilism. Though the Batmobile is ostensibly non-lethal - the game takes great pains to remind you that you only fire pacification rounds at individuals, and that the tanks besieging Gotham are unmanned drones - there’s a serious Man of Steel effect going on. The volume of destruction wreaked by the Batmobile suggests serious collateral damage. More distressingly, “interrogating” Riddler informants feels an awful lot like torture, the takeaway being that torture works. Through its slow-motion finishing blows, clever gadgetry, and one-liners, Arkham Knight is committed to making you believe Batman is cool, fascism and all.
Arkham Knight treats its female characters like shit. The series always has - see Poison Ivy’s perennial lack of pants and Harley Quinn’s sexualised outfits - but at least in previous games, women had active roles in the story. Catwoman was even a playable (if also sexualised) character in Arkham City, with missions of her own that felt distinct and interesting. In Knight, she’s literally trapped in a collar by the Riddler for nearly the entire game, waiting for Batman to rescue her. Barbara Gordon fares even worse: she’s used as kidnapped bait multiple times, and operates solely as an emotional motivator for Batman (as does the deceased Talia Al-Ghul). We’re even treated to a lurid flashback of her maiming from The Killing Joke. This stuff is supposed to be emotionally affecting, but within the context of the game’s silly, borderline-supernatural story, it plays as cheap exploitation.
There’s an argument to be made that the constant kidnappings and brutalisation of everyone dear to Batman is part and parcel of the game’s themes, which centre on Batman failing Gotham and his loved ones and seeking redemption. The Arkham Knight is central to this theme even before his identity reveal, constantly berating Batman for his failures, and testing his thesis by pushing him towards even more failure. The Joker, now emblematic of Batman’s inability to hold to his code, joins in, tempting Mr. Wayne towards the life of violence and chaos that his violent psyche subconsciously desires. Batman, then, is made even more desperate to prove he can succeed. It’s just a shame that this theme comes at the expense of every non-Batman character's agency.
Like Batman, Arkham Knight feels desperate to prove itself. There’s lots going on in this game - too much. It’s bogged down thematically and in its gameplay by a desire to offer more, more, more. At its best, it hits its desired “one more mission” highs, but outside the story missions, it quickly becomes boring. The mindless, repetitive - and mandatory, if you want the game’s “real” ending - tedium of Arkham Knight made me long for the focused storytelling of Arkham Asylum - still the best Batman game ever made. This series has fully succumbed to the feature creep that plagues Assassin’s Creed.
Arkham Knight is the ultimate expression of Rocksteady's vision of Batman, for better or worse. There are hints that Superman will show up in the next instalment, but maybe it’s time to take a break.