REVIEW: GOTHAM KNIGHTS

DEVELOPERS: WB Games Montréal (primary), QLOC S.A., and other support studios

PUBLISHER: WB Games

REVIEWED ON: Xbox Series X from a copy purchased by the author.

“We did 20 takes, and that was the best one.” – C. Montgomery Burns

In 2012, WB Games Montréal released their first game with the “Armored Edition” of Batman: Arkham City for the then new Wii U. A year later, the studio got the chance to prove what they could really do with their first original title, Batman: Arkham Origins. Though both were largely built on the foundation established by Rocksteady Studios’ work, Arkham Origins, though polarizing at launch, has since become accepted into the pantheon of the beloved Arkham series due to its terrific story and performances. Since then, the studio has mostly been quiet, having only produced a short expansion starring Batgirl as part of the Season Pass content for Batman: Arkham Knight.

Nearly 9 years since the arrival of their last original title, WB Games Montréal has returned with Gotham Knights, the latest chapter in Batman’s video game legacy that for the first time sees the studio working outside of the vast shadow cast by the Arkham series. Their desire to differentiate themselves couldn’t be more apparent with the studio choosing to bench the Dark Knight himself, instead choosing to promote Bat Family members Batgirl, Nightwing, Robin and Red Hood to the spotlight and adding 2-player co-operative play to boot. While it’s great to see other Batman adjacent characters play more than a supporting role for a change, Gotham Knights makes a case that perhaps WB Games Montréal is at their best when restricted to supporting the work of others. Misguided in its story, combat, and open world design, Gotham Knights is a slog to play and easily one of the biggest AAA comic book video game misfires in recent history.

The Batman is dead. Left to wake the loss of their mentor, Batgirl, Nightwing, Robin and Red Hood must continue to defend Gotham from those who wish to do her harm while also working on Batman’s last incomplete case. Throughout the course of their investigation, the team come to realize that the culprits are a hidden threat to even the Dark Knight himself, the mythological Court of Owls, who are looking to expand their secret empire as part of their own twisted way of safeguarding Gotham. Unlike the city’s late defender though, the Court doesn’t care who gets caught in the crossfire in their quest for power.

Inspired by the now iconic Court of Owls story written by Scott Snyder and illustrated by Greg Capullo at the start of DC’s “The New 52” initiative, Gotham Knights does a poor job in adapting the material to the interactive medium. There’s no mystery to speak of as late game reveals are obviously telegraphed, and the writers clearly have no respect for the audience as they bludgeon the player with obvious lessons delivered with all of the subtly of an after school special in the endgame. Even villains like Harley Quinn, Clayface, and Mr. Freeze could be cut and the game would lose little as they mostly exist to extend the length of an already padded game stuffed with banal distractions. The most disappointing of the lot is Freeze who Snyder smartly wove into the Court of Owls mythology during an early annual. Here they wish to do nothing more than make a Cobra style weather machine and freeze everyone with the help of an army of henchmen.

There are some great character beats between the protagonists where you got to learn about their personalities, but all of these take place in within the Belfry, your base of operations, and never in the field. When compared to something like last year’s Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, the presentation comes off as pedestrian. The more interesting story bits found in Gotham Knights come in emails that will assuredly be a treat for DC Comics lovers, and a mission chain where you get to listen to select parts of Batman’s career. As both are optional, neither really play into the grander story though, and you can miss a lot of messages if you stick with mostly one character. One of the best parts of all of the Arkham games was exploring the city and listening to the flavor text from the street criminals, which is also in Gotham Knights, it’s just written much worse, performed just as bad, and rarely show up too.

About the only real connective tissue between Gotham Knights and the Arkham is that both take place in big explorable open worlds. Whereas Rocksteady and WB Games Montréal previous titles played as action-adventure titles with a lite sprinkling of gated off Metroid style traversal, Gotham Knights is an RPG where street crimes feel more like random encounters. If you want to stand any chance in besting Mr. Freeze, you can’t come at him with ice themed weapons and expect to see large numbers pop up. Immersing yourself into this game comes from unlearning over a decade of Arkham muscle memory and engaging fully with its systems, but baffling decision choices threaten your enjoyment at every turn.

Combat still has you dancing between enemies and knowing when to dodge out of the way – the Arkham counter system is gone completely – but as punches are essentially dice rolls, enemies become obnoxious damage sponges and your hits feel like mere slaps. New enemy types are introduced as the Court of Owls become integrated into the plot, but they don’t create any sense of fear in the player as aside from a few extra steps in combat, they don’t feel that dissimilar from the lowlifes sprinkled about the street. As your approach the end, you start to become exhausted with using a heavy attack to stun a brute to open them up and dealing with the same few mobs of foot soldiers. You rarely feel like a predator during stealth encounters either as dimwitted enemies turn their backs while following no patrol routes just wanting to be taken down.

The 4 heroes each have their own unique abilities, Robin for example is great for stealth and Nightwing is acrobatic, and sidelined heroes do at the very least keep up with your levels if you want to switch. There’s very little incentive to do so, however, and even something as simple as introductory missions for each before you decide who you want to main for 20 plus hours is absent. Also, unlike the Arkham games, you have to earn your bonus traversal abilities, like Batgirl’s glide, by completing tedious side-content and if you switch to another hero, you have to do it again. Your grappling hook allows you to reach rooftops, but it lacks the punch found in the Arkham titles and like combat, feels weightless. All of these problems are made worse by Gotham Knights’ map design.

Gotham, is big, too big in fact and also lifeless. There’s no walled off city here nor incident causing people to be quarantined in their homes, the streets are just empty save a few cars and a citizen found walking about every now and then. There’s a colorful neon tint to the city, but Gotham here doesn’t feel like, well, Gotham. Save places like the GCPD, this could be any city really and it wouldn’t make that much of a difference. In the introduction, it mentions about crime spiking as people realize the Batman isn’t coming, but you wouldn’t know from how pristine everything looks. There’s simply just that little personality to the world built by WB Games Montréal here.

To get around, you have the Batcycle, and if you hated the Batmobile in Batman: Arkham Knight, you’re going to perhaps think you judged it unfairly in comparison. It’s slow, doesn’t receive any upgrades that aren’t cosmetic, and has little in the way of physics. You can careen full speed at a car and just come to a dead stop when you hit it. One of the best sequences has you chasing Clayface on it, but other than that you’re just following arrows to your next destination or doing some races through rings that wouldn’t be out of place in a LEGO game. Music is largely absent and mostly forgettable, save the baffling use of an on the nose pop song that’s double downed on in the credits.

In the opening hours, crimes you need to complete are spaced so far apart that you’ll find yourself riding for minutes with nothing to do other than pop a wheelie. Mercifully you do get the ability to fast travel, but, like your traversal skills, it too requires you to complete some boring tasks in a few districts. Oh, and when you unlock New Game+ you have to do these again to get the privilege of saving time. Just as you settle into a groove, Gotham Knights can’t help itself by throwing up another wall to halt your fun.

What makes the systems found in Gotham Knights that much grating is that it leans heavily into the crafting trappings of modern AAA games. Your reward for taking down gangs is junk, which you combine with more junk to create armor, weapons, and mods to enhance your gear. Unlike say Marvel’s Avengers, these do reflect on your character model and you can customize different parts of your armor to suit your own style. But, you’re rarely keeping any one suit on long enough as there’s nearly always a better one just around the corner. What this means is that you cease putting any effort into your appearance, or applying one of the skins from the comics like those that come in the Digital Deluxe edition.

As you fights enemies and complete missions, you gain experience, levels, and skill points that you can use to upgrade your heroes. Some of these are useful, like increasing the potency of health packs or allowing Robin to stealth take down heavy enemies, but many feel negligible at best. Some of the better abilities are found at the bottom of the 4 trees you have to work through, and getting there often means buying abilities you may not want that cost 2-3 points each to unlock. As you only get 1 point per level, you’ll simply run out of game before you even get to them unless you’re wanting to grind levels for stronger encounters.

Super-villains like the above mentioned are best saved for when you reach the appropriate level the game recommends because if not, you’re going to have a miserable time. For those expecting something like the excellent Mr. Freeze battle in Batman: Arkham City, be prepared once again for disappointment as bosses here come in 2 varieties: one-on-one encounters where you wait for tells and giant punching bags with long health bars. The latter could perhaps be better with a friend, but they feel not too dissimilar from Abomination fights in Marvel’s Avengers where you await for your opening and dodge the red missile barrage indicator on the ground. The best that can be said about the rogue’s gallery in Gotham Knights is that the tech behind Clayface is absolutely stunning to behold. The way their mud moves about is grotesque, but also mesmerizing to behold as they change shape and move about Gotham when you eventually have to chase them down.

The controversy that arose close to the launch of Gotham Knights was that it was locked to 30 FPS on consoles. This wasn’t something that really bothered me during my time with the game at all, but I did experience some bugs. More than once the game crashed to the Xbox Series X main menu, and I had to reset a boss fight with Mr. Freeze as they became locked in a hilarious T-pose.

In 2009, Rocksteady Studios raised the bar for not only what a DC Comics game should be, but comic book games in general. Over the years, that quality has been upkept not only by Rocksteady, but by the various LEGO outings developed by TT Games and the Injustice franchise from NetherRealm Studios. Gotham Knights is not just a disappointing title by modern standards, it can’t even match the quality of software released over a decade ago on inferior hardware crafted by the same studio. From its lackluster combat, predictable story, questionable design choices and progression, Gotham Knights isn’t exactly the worst comic book game, but it’s certainly of the most disappointing and not worth its current asking price.

If this is what WB Games Montréal, it would be fascinating to see what got thrown out.

via DC YouTube

Gotham Knights is available now on PS5, Xbox Series S/X and PC.

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