Mindless Diversions Extra: Gotham Knights First Impressions
Well, let’s talk about Gotham Knights. This is an “extra” because, about an hour into the game, I realized that I could not talk about the game without getting into, sigh, The Discourse.
If you want to avoid spoilers for the nigh-perfect collection of Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, and Arkham Knight games, just get a copy for the PS4 for $20 and play those and then come back to this post in a year when you’ll likely be able to get Gotham Knights on sale.
But let’s not go there quite yet. The first thing there is to talk about is the game itself.
And, well, before I can talk about the game is that I have to talk about expectations and how any disappointment I may be experiencing might not be the fault of the game itself. Not the gameplay, not the story, not the voice acting, not anything.
The thing about Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, and Arkham Knight is that they were nigh-perfect. The gameplay was smooth. The voice acting used many of the voices from the Batman Animated Series from the 90’s including Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamill as Joker, and Arleen Sorkin and Tara Strong for Harley Quinn. The storylines dragged you. You always felt like you needed a second to breathe and like you were wasting time by collecting those silly Riddler trophies instead of, you know, stopping Joker or Two-Face or Penguin or Firefly or whathaveyou. The character progression had some ludic problems, I guess, but those are easily swept aside. Arkham Asylum was the first game that made me say “holy cow, this is an actually good superhero game”.
And City was better than Asylum. And Knight was better than City. (Origins is a sentimental favorite but the general consensus is that it is the worst of the bunch.)
Holy cow. Were those games awesome. At the end of Knight, there’s reason to believe that Batman retires. Like, “no more batsignal” retires.
As such, when I saw Gotham Knights have the basic storyline of “Batman is dead and his protégés have taken over his job. Play as Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, and Red Hood!”, I got excited and said “GOTHAM KNIGHTS!!! THAT’S A SEQUEL TO ARKHAM KNIGHT!!! FINALLY!!!”
Well, lemme tell ya: This game ain’t a sequel to the Arkham Series.
I suppose if I had done less to avoid spoilers, I could have gotten that information earlier, but avoid them I did and so when I saw the opening event that centered on Batman fighting an old non-Joker nemesis and the fight ending with Batman’s “death”, I began to suspect that we were in a different universe. We had a funeral where we learned that James Gordon had passed a short while before. Then, when the game kicked off proper and we heard the voices of our protagonists, I said “that’s not the voice actors from Arkham” and then Alfred shows up and his voice actor was neither Martin Jarvis nor Efrem Zimbalist Jr, I finally began to accept that we weren’t in Arkham anymore.
Okay. So this game is not a sequel to the Arkham universe. Fair enough. Let’s face it, the voice actors have started to get expensive.
So the game works like this: You are in “The Belfry”: One of the many non-Batcave command/control centers that Batman had set up before… well, before. You can play as Robin or Nightwing or Batgirl or Red Hood. During the day, you’re Tim Drake or Dick Grayson or Barbara Gordon or Jason Todd (respectively). You can pick which one you want to be:
Then you can wander around the Belfry and visit the training center or talk to Alfred or interact with your vigilante comrades. You can also check out the crime board:
And fiddle about on the Batcomputer:
When you’ve done all your prep in the Belfry, it’s time to hit the streets:
Wander around and prevent petty crimes and, if you prevent enough petty crimes, you can learn about bigger jobs that are going on… prisoner escapes, ATM robberies, so on. There are also bigger Plot Missions going on. Visit the Penguin and find out what’s going on with him. Visit Harley Quinn in Blackgate and try to figure out what’s going on with her.
When you played the Arkham games, after any major event, Batman had a second to catch his breath and he healed back up to 100%… but you are not Batman. When you get hit, you take damage and you don’t get it back. What you *DO* have is a small number of healing kits. These kick in instantaneously so you can use them in the middle of a fight (and thank goodness!). There really isn’t a way to restock these… I mean, there are tough mini-bosses that give you free ones but you’re likely to use one or two when taking one of them out so it’s not a good way to get more.
You’re far more likely to run out of healing kits and then say… well, time to go back to the Belfry. Where you can pick one of the other three vigilantes and talk to Alfred and upgrade your gear and read your email and then go out for the *NEXT* night. Don’t worry, some of the crimes will change but it’s Gotham. There will always be new ones and you’ll still have your old over-arching plot missions to look forward to.
Now there were a number of things that the Arkham games did very well. Hand-to-hand combat was smooth. It rewarded getting good at parrying and dodging and it was possible to get into a big fight with 20 bad guys with knives and bats and guns and come out unscathed at the end leaving all of them on the ground.
The combat in Gotham Knights? Well, the first thing you notice is that they remapped the buttons. More than that, they changed what the remapped buttons do. The trusty parry button no longer exists. That button now throws a batarang or dart or whatever your character is using. Instead of jump/dodge, you mostly have dodge (but the timing has completely changed and the lack of a useful jump means that it’s tougher to get across space to get to the guy pointing a gun at you). So the thing where you waltz in and out and between multiple baddies fluidly? That’s gone now. Your strike button has two functions: tap for light hit, hold for heavy hit. And that *COMPLETELY* changes the flow of combat.
I admit: I got really good at the Arkham fighting and when I found out that the Lord of the Rings games had a similar button setup, I was sold on those games too. Like, to the point where when I tried to play Assassin’s Creed? I sucked. I just kept pressing the wrong buttons and just wandered back to Arkham because everything just *WORKED* there. So I am not good at combat in Gotham Knights yet and it feels like I’m not going to get good at it. Maybe I just need to practice more.
Another interesting thing is that you can actually fail to do stuff. You might have a mission to prevent some goons from freeing a comrade from a prison transport van. As you fight multiple waves who are alternately trying to hit you and free him, sometimes you will find yourself not able to prevent one or the other from happening. And you just have a crime in progress that succeeded. Yep, you failed. You can continue to fight crime again tomorrow, I guess. (Who do you think you are? Batman?)
As for the interaction with the world… how is that? Well, in the Arkham Games, you had a cape that would let you glide over long distances and, in Arkham Knight, you got a Batmobile. Man, that made traversing Gotham *FUN*. Flying over the city, using the Batclaw to give yourself a lift and a boost and glide further and further each time? That was a delight. Moreover, they established in each game that if you saw a person, you could beat them up (and the ones you couldn’t? Well, you had a cutscene with them instead). So if you’re running around Arkham City? Feel free to get in a fight! Driving around Gotham in Arkham Knight? Blow up a car or two! It’s all good! There are riots going on anyway.
Seriously, it never occurred to me that I might want fast travel in Arkham Knight. The Batmobile was just that much fun. The cape was just that much fun.
In Gotham Knights, you mostly have a Batclaw. You don’t have a cape. So you can’t really glide over the city the way Batman did. What you *DO* have is a Batcycle. So, instead of gliding, you can motor about on your cycle. This is somewhat less than ideal given that the majority of the people on the streets are civilians. Not civilians who intend to get in a fight with you, mind… but just, you know, normal Gothamites running around having little conversations about their day. Sometimes they’ll see you and mock you or compliment you but, for the most part, you don’t interact with them. Unless you’re on your bike at which point you’ll have to dodge them on the streets because they drive around a lot and you’re going to have to not get in accidents with them.
Early on, you can have a mission with Lucius Fox who gives you an *AWESOME* Batjetpack:
But don’t get too excited. You use that for fast travel rather than for gliding around and seeing sights. Well, maybe get a *LITTLE* excited because it’s pretty helpful from getting from the South part of Gotham to the North part. It gets tedious riding your bike that whole way.
As for the story? Well… there’s a golden rule in writing that goes something like “Show, Don’t Tell”. In one scene, for example, there’s a discussion about Harley Quinn. Now, Harley Quinn is the ex-girlfriend of Joker in this universe too. However: I haven’t heard the word “Joker” yet. Jason Todd refers to Harley’s ex- as “the guy who killed me”. Alfred makes reference to Harley’s former associate. In the bio for Batgirl in the game, it makes reference to “a spinal injury” that she suffered. The passive voice is used. Jason Todd/Red Hood? It makes reference to that he was murdered… but Joker’s name never comes up. Again with the passive voice. The words “The Joker” haven’t been uttered yet. Probably just as well. He kinda sucked all of the oxygen out of the room in the previous four games.
But there’s sort of something else going on. In Arkham Knight, they give us a cutscene where we see the scene from The Killing Joke where Barbara Gordon receives her spinal injury at the agency of the Joker. We see a cutscene where we see Joker shoot Jason Todd in the head after a year of torture. The Joker loomed large in the Batfamily. And this game doesn’t mention him except obliquely.
And now we kind of get to the Discourse part.
There’s a scene where Alfred is talking about Harley Quinn and points out that she is a brilliant psychologist and perhaps even more dangerous than her former beau.
Now, I understand that I had just very recently replayed Arkham Knight and re-watched the cutscenes with Joker in them so that memory was fresh in my mind… but I couldn’t help but think that Alfred was saying that Quinn was more dangerous than Joker in front of the woman who Joker shot through the spine and in front of the guy that Joker killed.
My take on it was not “oh, we’re not in Arkham anymore” but “Dang, that’s pretty insensitive.”
Now, sure. This is a game that is trying to reboot the Gotham experience. It is *NOT* a sequel to the Arkham games. You know what? Harley Quinn was not only treated poorly by the Joker, but by the writers. They made her be a doormat. Sure, later on, she was able to wield the authority of the Joker and was a “bad” (in the Michael Jackson sense of the word) woman. She had authority and wielded it well. Joker even had a line in Arkham Knight when she took the fight to one of Batman’s hideouts. “It’s like someone was holding her back!”
So I appreciate that they’re trying to establish that Harley Quinn is a formidable person in her own right. It just kind of felt like they were telling, not showing.
But there seems to be a bit more. One of the multitude of little side-quests includes finding some of Batman’s old caches hidden around Gotham. Some of these caches include little audio diaries from Batman where he talks about just getting started, little things that he had to learn the hard way, how he was a member of a team rather than doing this alone… and there’s a discussion about meeting Lucius Fox and getting him to help with the tech that Batman required. One of the lines in the diary was where Lucius told Batman “Justice defined by a white man with wealth and power is hardly Justice. It’s a crusade.”
So how are the cops portrayed? Well, the game really equivocates a lot. It seems to be really uncomfortable with these children of privilege running around town hitting poor people… but it also seems to want to communicate that the cops are corrupt. Like, there’s a line where you hear one cop berating another cop for turning off his bodycam in front of Detective Montoya (Montoya, of course, is one of the few good ones that Jim Gordon trusted). We know that the cops are bad. But vigilantism is kind of bad too. It seems to want to have the player not enjoy being a vigilante *TOO* much. I mean, the Arkham games had it be *FUN* to be Batman. It was a delight to be that skilled, that competent, that good. But this game seems to want you to play but also check your privilege as you do.
As you play, you get the opportunity to read emails from various shining stars in the DC Universe and read emails between the teammates. Like, Bart Allen writes Tim Drake, Clark Kent writes Dick Gordon, that sort of thing. It’s nice to see these. There’s also an email between the team where Barbara asks if everybody is going to the Pride Parade. Jason Todd, who has been a wet blanket in all of the other emails to this point, says that he normally hates parades but he’ll go to this one.
And that’s where I thought something to the effect of “the combat isn’t as good, the voice acting isn’t as good, running around the city isn’t as good… they put the Discourse stuff in there to be able to say that the people who didn’t like the game are just being “frathouse dudebros”. And just when you think they can’t lay it on any thicker, then they switch from the small spoon to the ladle.
But then you get back to being a vigilante who is hitting poor people.
Now, is the game *FUN*? Well, when it’s not being a wet blanket, it’s pretty fun. I’m enjoying figuring out the combat and doing the sidequests. They didn’t include the Riddler in this game (or, at least, haven’t yet!) and so I’m not running around finding trophies but, instead, finding historical buildings and interesting graffiti (the graffiti that celebrates Green Energy! the graffiti that celebrates the Diversity of Gotham!) and some of Batman’s old batarangs lying around rooftops from when he was first training the kiddos on parkour.
But the Arkham games were nigh-perfect. This game isn’t just different… it’s not as fluid. I mean, “it’s not nigh-perfect” has a *LOT* of distance before you get to “it’s bad”. If the Arkham games were an A or A+, Gotham Knights is a B or a B-. That’s not *BAD*! It’s just not nigh-perfect. I’m enjoying visiting old friends, I’m enjoying seeing the new takes on the villains such as Harley and Penguin and… well, I don’t want to spoil anything. But that part is pretty good.
But it’s not nigh-perfect. And I have very recently re-beaten four nigh-perfect games that told a nigh-perfect story. So this game is a little bit of a disappointment. It’s not so much of a disappointment that I don’t want to see where it goes. I do. (Penguin has just given me a hint about the main storyline and it appears to be a doozy.) Heck, maybe it’s unfair of me to compare this game to those games. This isn’t a sequel! It’s merely a game that takes place in an alternate universe with very similar events to the events in the Arkham universe. It should be looked at as it’s own game and not be compared to a nigh-perfect one.
But, even so, it’s not nigh-perfect.
(All images are screenshots taken on the PS5 by the author.)