Powerless. Human. Afraid.
WARNING: Here be spoilers.
As of this writing, I am roughly 70% through my New Game + playthrough of Arkham Knight, Rocksteady’s final entry in the Batman series. Given that it’s been an entire week since release, this will be less an instant reaction piece and more of a response to the game as a whole, as well as popular reaction to the game as a whole. Before delving inside the guts of this game, which is massive, I’d like to say that, if nothing else, Arkham Knight truly achieves the feeling of finality it was looking for. Every last idea Rocksteady seems to have had for Batman, every concept of what Batman is, can be found here. From obscure side quest villains (Man-Bat! Professor Pyg! Deacon Blackfire!), to obscure DC references (Ocean Master! Royal Flush Gang! Simon Stagg!), this is it.
If Arkham Knight exists in some form as a wish list of Batman-related game concepts, the Batmobile is the final entry. It was obvious from the start of the first game, 2009s Arkham Asylum, that there was no way Rocksteady would be done with Batman until they got their own version of the Caped Crusader’s most iconic vehicle out into the world. First things first: as a means of conveyance, a thing to cruise around in, the Batmobile is amazingly fun. The engine growls and purrs, it handles well in pursuit mode (provided you don’t drift too much), and it generally crushes anything in its path in a welcome change from vehicle pathfinding in pretty much every other open world game in existence. Chase sequences are generally enjoyable, except when they’re not (looking at you, Firefly).
The oft-maligned Batmobile combat, on the the other hand, pretty much deserves its reputation. Mechanically, it’s not bad. I might even consider it good if not for how often its thrown into the game, and how stagnant it is. The first Batmobile fight in the game is functionally identical to the last, just with 10x as many enemies. There’s very little sense of progression or evolution to it, which stands in stark contrast with every other pillar of gameplay. When your only recourse is to just up the amounts of enemies (sometimes to a ridiculously implausible amount), the entire thing reeks of “video game-ness” — that is, a sense of artifice that pulls you out of the game and mostly feels like busy work. The stealth bits are slightly better, if only because they’re less common and rely more on movement, pacing and timing, all very “Batman” traits.
The other gameplay pillars (Predator sequences, fights, and general exploration) are as good or even better than they were in 2011s Arkham City. Despite some consternation on my part in regards to the new Fear Takedown system (i.e. that it would be too overpowered), there’s a nice balance to it, a give and take that honestly helps speed up the pacing of the Predator sequences nicely. If you’re good enough to get 4-5 goons to group together during these, perhaps you deserve a “win now” button to wipe them out of consciousness. In many ways, this game is an interesting combination of the two games that preceded it (there are several references to Arkham Origins, which was not developed by Rocksteady). The open world concepts of City are taken to their natural extension here, the game as a whole being of much bigger scale due to hardware capability and the inclusion of streets big enough to hold the Batmobile. There are, however, several more linear sequences that intimately recall Asylum, my personal favorite of the first three games, as they’re more claustrophobic and focused. It’s a more coherent game. ACE Chemicals, the movie studio, Stagg’s airships and the Arkham Knight’s hidden hideout all follow this design principle, and they exist as probably the game’s four best segments.
Perhaps the true star of the game from a gameplay perspective is Gotham City itself. During Arkham Asylum, Gotham was a faraway metropolis, detached from the horrors of the eponymous Asylum. In City, it was closer (literally and figuratively), a raw nerve on the verge of collapse, imminently threatened by Hugo Strange’s personal army and the cadre of villains trapped behind Arkham City’s walls. (Here’s Wayne Tower from the perspective of the Asylum, here’s Wayne Tower from the perspective of Arkham City, and here’s the entirety of the play spaces from the first two games from the perspective of Wayne Tower in Knight.)
The Gotham City of Arkham Knight is divided into three separate islands: Bleake, Miagani, and Founders’, and each one is resplendent in its own way. Each one, perhaps unconsciously, represents a distinct facet of Batman’s history and mythos. Bleake, the starting island, is comprised of brick and steam, home to districts like “The Cauldron” and “Chinatown.” It’s the Gotham of the past, the Gotham of the mob and of corrupt police, the Gotham of “Year One” and Batman Begins. It’s telling that one of the primary gameplay sections of this island is an abandoned movie studio, filled with remnants of the past (and a great shoutout to Batman: The Animated Series character The Grey Ghost, notably voiced by Adam West).
Miagani, the second island, is a Gothic thing, full of twisting metal and baroque structures like the Botanical Gardens and Grand Central Station. It’s the home of entertainment in the city, and stands as a representation of Gotham’s present, cruel and inscrutably gigantic. It is Tim Burton’s Gotham. It is the Joker’s Gotham.
Founders’ Island, the last to be unlocked and the base of operations for the Arkham Knight and the militia forces he commands, is Gotham’s future, half gleaming blue skyscrapers and monolithic commerce centers, half buried slums. In a way, it resembles Metropolis of Superman fame, but in true Batman fashion, hardly such an enlightened utopia. This utopia is built atop of centuries of abandoned buildings, overrun with mud and death and serial killers. This area, known as “Drescher,” most resembles some of the underground sections of Arkham City, which were easily the most visually interesting portions of that game, and they do not disappoint here. This is Bruce Wayne’s Gotham, the Gotham his parents lived and died for, and the dichotomy is not lost in the telling.
In Arkham Knight, there’s no more shielding Gotham from danger. Danger is here. Scarecrow, notably absent in City, returns after having been “defeated” in Asylum by fellow villain Killer Croc (in fact, one of the most biggest advantages Batman’s famous Rogues Gallery has on other collections of comic book villains is their general willingness to go to war with one another. This is a strange and eclectic group of dangerous psychotics — of course they aren’t always going to get along). In general, Scarecrow is one of the better parts of the game, wonderfully voiced by John Noble, perhaps best known to you as Denethor in 2003s Return of the King, perhaps best known to me as Walter Bishop in FOXs Fringe. Menacing, intelligent, and simpering, he’s a constant and consistently threatening presence amongst the game’s three primary villains.
The second of those primary villains, the eponymous Arkham Knight, is voiced, as most video game characters are, by Troy Baker. In a neat bit of meta-textuality, so is his alter ego, Jason Todd, the second Robin and future Red Hood, whose fate in the Arkham-verse is revealed in a series of mid-game flashbacks on Batman’s part. The joke is that, since both characters are angry white youths, the fact that both are voiced by Troy Baker isn’t *immediately* a tell, even if it should be. Anyways, Baker does good work, as is his calling card, and the Knight, if roughly sketched and somewhat disappointingly obvious, comes off as a worthy interpretation of the character. Even if the character being interpreted is, as a friend of mine called him, “the Wesley Crusher of Robins.”
The third major villain, and leave now if you don’t want to know, is the Joker, voiced once again and for likely the final time by the glorious Mark Hamill. Given that Joker died during the climax of Arkham City, his involvement in this game is limited to being a part of Batman’s psyche. I say “limited” as though he doesn’t have what seems to be the most lines in the game, since the combination of his tainted blood still in Batman’s system and Scarecrow’s fear toxin bring him to life in the game’s margins. Throughout the main campaign, Joker is there with Batman, whom he now knows is Bruce Wayne thanks to them sharing a mind.
Joker leers at Batman from grates and gargoyles and railings, Taunting him with every failing, past and present, making fun of the deaths of Thomas and Martha, even serenading the Dark Knight at one point… except for the several sequences where the Joker takes a more insidious role and tries to wrest control of Bruce’s mind from it’s owner, turning the Batman into a killing machine. He very nearly succeeds several times, including during the game’s climax, where he actually does control Batman for a brief period, resulting in a nightmare sequence featuring Joker brutally murdering the rest of the Rogues Gallery and burning Gotham. Some of the best parts of the game occur when the Joker briefly asserts control over Batman’s mind, skewing his (and the player’s) perception of his surroundings. “I’ll write my name in blood in the streets,” Hamill growls at one point. If this is truly his final performance as the Joker, it caps off nearly 23 years of excellence, and the definitive version of the character.
You can’t talk about Mark Hamill as the Joker without thinking of Kevin Conroy, and, despite some strangely desultory sequences, he’s in perfect form again as Batman. Conroy’s range as Batman has never been fully appreciated, but he brings the heat in this final installment. It’s not immediately clear, even to someone who considers themselves fairly knowledgeable on voice acting, that Conroy is talking to himself in the brief sequence where Batman confronts side villain Thomas Elliott, aka Hush. One would have to imagine that Conroy will continue voicing Batman in the future, given how good he is at it and how in demand the character looks to remain in the future, but if this was the end for him, it would’ve been quite a good one, culminated by perhaps his best iteration of his most classic line, uttered to the Joker after an entire game spent ignoring him.
Before moving on and wrapping up, I’d like to also give credit to the supporting players of Arkham Knight. Jonathan Banks brings gravitas to Jim Gordon, despite perhaps being less involved than one might think (this is a role now played by Gary Oldman, Bryan Cranston and Jonathan Banks. Quite the departure from the bumbling dipshit Commissioner of the Burton and Schumaker films). Ashley Greene is very good as Oracle, and despite nearly being marginalized by her role in the story, she gets a couple great scenes to work with, calling out her father and Batman for their patriarchal overtones. Wally Wingert as the Riddler is, once again, nearly as much of a presence as Batman or Joker, if you actually feel like taking the time to finish his challenges (I have 149 of 243 trophies as of this writing). His snide, bitter, and even slighty fatuous Riddler is pretty easily the definitive version of the character, and the character-based Riddles scattered around the map remain both informative for DC neophytes and immensely rewarding for longtime fans, who know exactly what to look for when the names “Ferris Boyle” or “Solomon Grundy” are invoked. The game and series as a whole are enriched by them. Riddler’s gameplay challenges, then, are from an objective standpoint, completely insane. It doesn’t make any sense for someone like the Riddler to have had the time to construct what amounts to life-size Hot Wheels courses in the sewers of Gotham City in only a few months, but never mind. They’re consistently fun, surprisingly varied and never anything but a welcome diversion, while also making good use of the Batmobile as a puzzle-solving tool, which I honestly would have liked more of.
I haven’t yet unlocked the apparently final version of the game’s second “Knightfall” ending, wherein Bruce Wayne retires the cowl and fakes his death(?), so my general opinion might change, but certainly not enough to change my general impression. Despite some strange gameplay choices, despite several overt references to the Flash and Superman, it’s a pure Batman game. It’s the biggest and baddest Batman game of them all, and perhaps the best looking game I’ve ever seen, but it never quite lost the sense of propulsion and empowerment one gets from, for all intents and purposes, being Batman. It’s a power fantasy, sure (what video game isn’t?), but it’s one intimately rooted in the depths of the Caped Crusader’s mythos, a singularly unique piece of entertainment that, at this point, seems hard to top for Game of the Year honors.