Batman is dead in Gotham Knights. No, that isn’t a spoiler. The Gotham Knights team has made it very clear that the game is being built around Batman’s death and that they’re not trying to trick people into falling for the Dark Knight’s surprise, playable protagonist comeback. This doesn’t seem to be a “Benedict Cumberbatch is definitely not playing Khan” situation.
It might seem strange that the team at WB Games Montréal is going out of its way to emphasize that Batman is really, truly dead in Gotham Knights, but their emphasis on that point actually makes a lot of sense. After all, Batman’s death is the cornerstone of Gotham Knight’s entire premise. With the Dark Knight gone, it’s now up to Batgirl, Nightwing, Red Hood, and Robin to step up, save Gotham, and perhaps become the city’s new protector in the process.
More importantly, Gotham Knights‘ players need to know that Batman is truly dead. Fans not only expect a game set in the Batman universe to let them play as Batman, but it’s now pretty clear that a lot of people see Gotham Knights as a sequel to Rocksteady’s Arkham games. Again, the Gotham Knights team has been very clear that the game is not some kind of Arkham sequel, but the longing for another Arkham game has generated quite a bit of wishful thinking.
That’s where I found Gotham Knights when I was invited to play the game for a couple of hours as part of a recent preview event: stuck in the shadow of two Batmans. The first is the in-game character whose death forces four young heroes to take on a big responsibility. The second is the video game star whose absence has forced the Gotham Knights development team to take on a big responsibility of their own. In both cases, the battle for Gotham’s future is as compelling as it is fraught with peril.
Gotham Knights Four Heroes Is The Game’s Greatest Strength
It’s inevitable that some gamers will brush off Gotham Knights because it doesn’t let them play as Batman. Others will simply be hesitant to embrace the game for that same reason. From what I saw, though, Gotham Knight’s new cast of characters really is the game’s greatest strength.
Taken on their own, Batgirl, Nightwing, Red Hood, and Robin have always been compelling characters. Each boasts a fascinating origin story that eventually grew into standalone stories that were certainly worth telling. It’s just that each character is inevitably tied to Batman. That’s obviously unavoidable from a lore standpoint, but it also means that some will look at those characters and expect to see Batman in some capacity at some point. I mean, they recently changed the name of Pennyworth to Pennyworth: The Origins of Batman’s Butler. It’s not exactly easy for a character in the Batman universe to stand on their own feet.
To its credit, Gotham Knights‘ story embraces that fact. The game’s heroes also aren’t sure what their life looks like in the post-Batman world. Yes, each is seemingly capable of taking over for Batman in some way, but they all have reasons to doubt themselves. Together, they would certainly be able to help protect Gotham, but various scenes of in-fighting between the four reveal that they have a lot to work out amongst themselves before anyone gives up on the idea of being the hero of Gotham.
Many of those scenes occur in one of Gotham Knights‘ best features: The Belfry. Essentially the game’s hub area, the Belfry is where our heroes gather to plan their next mission, regroup, and exchange a few (sometimes harsh) words and thoughts. It’s a concept that we’ve seen in similar titles in recent years (most notably the excellent Guardians of the Galaxy game), and it works well here.
While there aren’t a ton of little side things to do in The Belfry (at least based on what I was able to see of the area during the demonstration), watching those scenes between our heroes play out was certainly a highlight. Each of the four main characters has their own, engrossing backstory, and those backstories tend to bump up against each other in the wake of Batman’s death. Everyone feels like a substantial part of the story, which is nice considering that you’re supposed to feel compelled to play as all of them at some point. I’m genuinely interested to see what becomes of each character and the alliance they’ve formed as the title’s already compelling narrative progresses.
Indeed, the best thing about Gotham Knight’s new cast of characters may be the excuse they gave the game’s writers to dive a bit deeper into the Batman lore. While some usual suspects make an appearance in this game (Harley Quinn was the demo’s primary antagonist, for instance), I already saw a few hints of slightly more obscure villains, plot points, and references. At a time when Hollywood is obsessed with cramming the Joker into as many movies as possible like they’re Colonel Tom Parker trying to drag Elvis’ near-death body on stage, it’s nice that Gotham Knights reminds us that the Batman comics feature one of the deepest rogues galleries and mythos in the medium.
This is also the point where I’d love to tell you that each of Gotham Knights‘ protagonists are more than capable of handling Batman’s crime-fighting workload, but that’s not entirely true. Sure, each boasts the skills needed to take on the biggest threats to Gotham, but their efforts are undone by that the shadow cast by that “other” Batman.
Gotham Knights Combat Is a Problem With No Obvious Solution
While Gotham Knights may look like a sequel to the Arkham games at a glance, Knights actually separate itself from those games via a series of notable (if sometimes little) differences. Nowhere are those differences more obvious than when you’re diving into Knights‘ combat system.
Combat was relatively simple in the Arkham games. The average fight in those titles saw you dish out damage via basic combos while keeping an eye out for on-screen prompts that informed you when it was time to counter an incoming attack and change targets. The game occasionally mixed things up with a special “heavy” enemy or boss fight that demanded different strategies, but the Arkham games rarely needed to stray from what worked. There was a beautiful, brutal rhythm to the game’s combat that made even basic encounters seem satisfying. There’s a good reason why Arkham Asylum helped revolutionize the idea of 3D melee combat.
Gotham Knights retains many of the core elements of Arkham’s combat (dodges, switching between targets, and dealing with “heavies”), but it tries to spice up that old Arkham system by introducing a few new ideas. For instance, the game pretty much drops the “counter” mechanic that has come to define Arkham-like combat. You can still pull off perfect dodge maneuvers, but you won’t be hitting a button at the sight of an incoming attack prompt in order to keep a combo going. You’ll instead be relying on a series of more athletic dodges to get out of harm’s way and swap targets.
More importantly, Gotham Knights emphasize “RPG-lite” mechanics that directly influence the game’s combat. For instance, each hero is able to unlock a series of special moves that can be executed whenever you’ve filled your “Momentum Bar.” The basic idea is that the game encourages you to use dodges and simple attacks to generate some flow and feed the momentum bar. When you’ve filled the bar enough, you can utilize devastating abilities that often help end fights while showcasing the unique attributes of your chosen hero. For instance, Batgirl relies on drones, Red Hood uses his pistols, etc. Each character is also equipped with unique ranged, melee, and special moves (as well as different starting stats) designed to emphasize those same attributes.
It’s a fine idea on paper, and it occasionally works well. The few characters I played during my time with the demo each boasted relatively unique abilities that were certainly effective and relatively satisfying to execute. In some ways, it’s nice to know that the work you put into building and mastering your characters is regularly reflected via those special attacks.
The problem is that the game’s combat isn’t very satisfying. Arkham’s combat may have gotten repetitive from time to time, but again, there was a rhythm to the thing that made it so much fun. Bouncing between enemies and making them instantly regret trying to attack you not only put you in that “zen zone” typically reserved for games like Tetris; it made you feel like Batman.
While Gotham Knights’ combat features attacks and abilities unique to each character, it’s not especially satisfying to fight as any of them, and I can’t say I truly felt like any of them because of that drawback. Most fights in the game boil down to pulling off a series of basic attacks until you’re able to toss out a special or two. A few battles (like the Harley Quinn boss fight) introduce some welcome wrinkles, but those ideas implemented to add variety to the game ultimately add very little variety.
That familiarity could be forgiven if the core combat was more engaging, but without some of the mechanics that support that “zen zone” feeling you’ll experience in other 3D action titles, Gotham Knights instead often leaves you feeling all too aware of its prolonged combat sequences. I love the idea that each of these characters wouldn’t fight exactly like Batman, but in combat, they sometimes come off as the one thing that the game shouldn’t present them as: lesser versions of Batman. For as effective as they are, you’ll often find yourself thinking “Batman could have ended this fight sooner and with more style.”
I should mention that I did not get to try the game’s co-op modes during my demo, which could end up being a huge contributor to the quality of the final game’s combat. I suspect that this style of combat will ultimately work better in co-op scenarios (stringing abilities together, separating targets, etc.), and I’m very eager to see if that is indeed the case. Such as it is, though, the game’s solo combat does seem to suffer.
Of course, Gotham Knights has more to offer than just a combat system. The problem is that I’m not quite sure what to make of the rest of the game quite yet.
Gotham Knights Open-World, RPG, and Gear Elements Are Riddler-Sized Question Marks
Gotham Knights utilizes an open-world structure that allows you to explore the city at your relative leisure. Unlike the later Arkham games which used a somewhat similar structure, though, Gotham Knights feature many more “traditional” open-world activities. As you go out for your nightly patrols, you’ll be able to participate in those activities, which usually consist of side missions of various sizes.
Truth be told, I didn’t have much of a chance to explore that element of the game during my time with Gotham Knights. My path through the demo was slightly more structured and didn’t allow for a lot of open-world exploration. What I did see strongly suggested that Gotham Knights‘ open-world activities will feel pretty familiar to anyone who has played a modern open-world game. Some side-missions will be multi-part epics with their own storylines, some will be one-off tasks, and some will involve a series of collectibles.
It’s those collectibles that I’m most curious about at the moment, due largely to the way they will seemingly impact those aforementioned RPG-lite elements. Not only does Gotham Knights let you unlock new abilties and character upgrades through its skill tree systems, but it even allows you to acquire new gear of varying rarity and quality via quests, open-world looting, and crafting.
Again, I didn’t get to explore that much of the game’s gear system during my time with Gotham Knights, but I’m certainly interested to learn more. Honestly, my biggest worry at this time is that the game’s gear system just won’t matter all that much. The best gear systems can usually be found in games that demand you upgrade your character in order to survive and thrive. If you don’t need a piece of gear for anything more than cosmetics or to watch your punches generate bigger numbers, you’re probably not going to feel very accomplished for having acquired and equipped that gear. Such as it is, I never once felt “Wow, I need better gear to get through this section” during my time with Gotham Knights.
My hope is that Gotham Knights‘ gear system will end up feeling similar to Marvel’s Spider-Man’s costume system. In other words, I want the process of acquiring substantial gear to feel like an adventure all its own and for the gear itself to open up new combat and exploration possibilities. From what I’ve seen, though, I fear Gotham Knights is trending towards a Marvel’s Avengers-like gear system where loot exists to generate bigger numbers, look neat, and give you the illusion of always having something else to do.
Generally speaking, that’s my biggest concern regarding the elements of Gotham Knights I didn’t get to spend much time with. The game’s open-world missions, gear, and RPG elements certainly give you more to do in the game, but the jury is still out on how many of those activities you’ll feel genuinely compelled to participate in. At the very least, it seems that the game will offer some substantial side missions that come complete with their own stories. Beyond that…we’ll see.
Along those same lines, I should also say that I can’t really give you a final verdict on Gotham Knights‘ graphics and performance. I accessed the demo remotely via the Parsec service, which meant that my experience was occasionally impacted by network issues on my end. Generally speaking, though, the game seemed to run perfectly well when those network problems didn’t rear their head.
What’s a little more concerning is the game’s visual design direction. I know Gotham Knights isn’t an Arkham game, but it’s kind of hard to not compare the two when it comes to things like Knights‘ environment and character designs. Everything in the Arkham games just seemed to “pop” more. Character models felt more prominent and detailed, and Gotham itself boasted a fantastic aesthetic that blended elements of Burton, Nolan, and Timm’s visions of the city. In Gotham Knights, everything is…a little more generic. It’s way too early to offer anything close to final thoughts on this subject, but I will say there wasn’t a moment during the demo when I found myself wowed by any specific design elements. Well, I suppose there is this scene where a cover of “Livin’ La Vida Loca” starts playing during a riot:
To be honest, I smirked when that song kicked in and didn’t really think much about it beyond that. Judging by some of the reactions to that scene that have been shared online, though, it’s pretty clear that there are…strong opinions regarding it. I think that some of those reactions may say more about people’s attitude towards Gotham Knights in general rather than their reactions to that scene specifically, though. Of course, that does bring us back to the issue I raised at the beginning of this article.
Can Gotham (Knights) Survive Without Batman?
Expectations are high for Gotham Knights. Some of those expectations are based on what we have (and haven’t) seen of the game, but you’re lying to yourself if you’re trying to say they’re not also based on the standard set by the Arkham games and Batman’s surprisingly strong history of great game adaptations. If you release a bad Superman game or a mediocre Iron Man game, nobody panics. It’s all part of the plan. If you release anything less than a stellar Batman game, everyone loses their minds.
What I played of Gotham Knights strongly suggested that it will be a very fun game that is occasionally elevated by its absolute best moments and the potential of its co-op gameplay. In a world without the Arkham games and all the other great Batman games we’ve been treated to, Gotham Knights would probably feel a little more special than that. We don’t live in that world, though, and there’s no sense in trying to pretend we do even if Arkham and Knights aren’t directly related. That being the case, both the Gotham Knights game and the characters that game’s title refers to have been faced with the daunting task of living up to the nearly mythical reputation of their predecessors. At this time, I worry that the ways Gotham Knights most obviously distinguishes itself from what came before may not be enough to help it establish its own identity.
I sincerely hope that Gotham Knights steps out of Batman’s shadow and lives up to the potential that will be abundantly clear to anyone who plays even a little bit of the game. At worst, though, I think this game will face the fate that all “other siblings” must endure. On occasion, its best attributes and own accomplishments may be reduced to a sheepish grin triggered by the question, “Oh, do you know the Arkham games?”
Gotham Knights is scheduled to be released on October 21, 2022, for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC.