The Baddest Bat in Town
Right now, no superhero is experiencing as wide a range of success as Batman. He's got a critically and fan adored trilogy of movies out, a TV show in the works, he's enjoying a fantastic comic run, and he's now had four games come out in one of the best superhero video game franchises of all time. The latest entry in that video game franchise, Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate, has been released as an HD port of last year's 3DS and PS Vita title of the same name. This game trades in the traditional 3D open world of the franchise's previous entries in favor of a 2.5D Metroidvania experience and while it does some things well, Blackgate fails to capture the same sense of awe that gamers have come to expect from the Arkham name.
Been There, Done That
Since it debuted in 2009 the Arkham franchise has done a ton right, but, at least in my eyes, their greatest success has been their narratives. Each one has done a great job of delivering a memorable journey through Batman lore. It's disappointing then that the narrative is one of Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate's bigger disappointments. Early in the game the Dark Knight catches wind of some trouble inside of Gotham City's Blackgate Prison, home to some of Batman's most nefarious foes. After a large explosion, Black Mask, Joker, and Penguin have all broken out of holding, acquired a small army of thugs, and taken control of territory within the prison walls. Gotham's finest have gathered en masse around the prison but, as the case always seems to be, it's up to the Caped Crusader to infiltrate hostile territory, save the hostages, and bring vengeance upon all his foes. If this sounds familiar, it should. Despite taking place between the events of 2013's Origins and 2009's Asylum, almost everything seems like a rehash of things we've already done. We've infiltrated a prison already, we've seen the turf war thing play out on a bigger scale, and we've faced these villains. At no point did I ever really care about why anything was happening, which is a shame in such a traditionally solid narrative franchise. Luckily the story is kept from being a complete failure by the talented voice cast, all of which are the same used in Arkham Origins. They do their best to add drama and gravitas to the situations at hand even though they're fighting an uphill battle.
Little Sibling Syndrome
Despite being a sidescrolling platformer, there's no doubt that Arkham Origins Blackgate is in the same canon as the three games preceding it in the series. Combat, for example, still works similarly on the surface. Land multiple strikes in a row to build combos and counter enemy hits when the right indicator pops above their head to avoid taking damage. Unfortunately fights don't work quite as well on the 2.5 dimensional plane as they do in full 3D. There's still fun to be had with the combat. When everything clicks and the combos are flowing you really do feel like a creature of pure fear mowing through mere peons. That being said, movement and gadget placement have previously been a huge part of what made brawls difficult in past Arkham Games but without that factoring in as much here, fights become too easy. The only real difficulty comes from the controls, which get a little clunky when multiple enemy types are present. While the standard enemies can be punched and countered with near quick-time-event ease, special enemies require specific button combos to beat. This becomes a bit of an issue when the game fairly frequently assumed you're trying to aim at a different target than you are.
Anyone who's played a Metroidvania game knows that exploring the environment can be just as fun and important a part of the game as the story or combat and luckily it's here I had the most fun. It's a shame the game doesn't feature more diverse environments -it's pretty much the greys and browns of concrete the whole way through- but there's still a nice sense of discovery and accomplishment as you try to unlock the secret nooks and crannies of Blackgate Prison. The game doesn't do much hand holding with pointing you where to go. You're given a general area that belongs to one of the three main bosses of the game and then you're pretty much on your own. You won't be able to get everywhere right away but through finding new gadgets you'll acquire the abilities needed to move around (don't ask why Batman's gadgets just happened to be stashed around a prison in convenient storage crates). Detective vision also makes its way into the game to help, here being most useful in finding hidden chambers and interactive environment pieces. My only gripe besides the relatively uninspired visual design of the map is that the mini map -crucial during your exploration and backtracking- isn't always as clear as it could be. Some of the twists and turns of the 2.5D plane, as well as level verticality, aren't always represented well, which can lead to some confusing situations but it never got bad enough for me to be detrimental to my experience. I actually felt my most Batman-like while exploring, using my brain to solve puzzles and find the right tool for the job, and I would have happily traded out some of the combat for more focus on exploration and deep puzzles.
Even to those that don't know about it being a port, Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate is clearly a lesser game than it's bigger brothers. While it does some things well, namely its exploring and parts of its combat, almost everything seems like the “lite” version of what they should be. The story seems like a phone-in, the environments are largely forgettable, and the villains don't really add anything new to the series. For fans of the platformer or Metroidvania genres there are games out there with better mechanics and worlds, and for fans of Batman there are at least three better games in the series to play that better encapsulate the character. The only group I can really recommend this to are the most die-hard of the Arkham series fans who can't bear to miss any of the story's cannon, but beyond that this is probably one game that should stay sneaking in the shadows.
Combat is fun when it works; talented voice cast; Batman’s gadgets and lore make for fun exploring.
Finicky combat control; forgettable narrative; repetitive, unexciting environments.