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Review: Gotham Knights steps out of Batman’s shadow for DC’s best gaming narrative
Technical blemishes take some shine off a great superhero adventure with excellent characters
- Creative director
- Patrick Reading
- Key Credits
- Geoff Ellenor (Game director), Fleur Marty (Executive producer)
Gotham Knights is a game about living up to the legacy of a Bat shaped icon in a world where everyone assumes that nothing you can do will ever match the standard left behind. A team of characters thought of as all also-ran sidekicks, desperate to make their mark on the world, while also coming to terms with the fact that no matter how much they excel, they’ll always be compared to the Batman.
So you can imagine why this project would appeal to a studio like WB Games Montreal. The Canadian studio responsible for the often-forgotten, but highly underrated Batman: Arkham Origins has stepped out of the shadow of Rocksteady with a game that delivers plenty of comic book fun and one of the finest DC comics stories in a game.
Batman is dead. In spectacular fashion, the caded crusader bows out at the start of the game in an incredible action sequence, leaving the extended Bat-family to be called in to pick up the pieces. The game starts with the atmosphere of an estranged family forced to reconnect for a funeral, but instead of the awkward conversations about settling a will, Nightwing, Robin, Batgirl and Red Hood have a city to protect, a city that’s becoming keenly aware that the days of Batman are over.
Gotham Knights Red Hood PS5 gameplay
Gotham Knights is an open-world action game where you can play as any of the four main characters at any point in the game. While initially, we wondered if this would weaken the story, being that it would have to be written from the perspective of any of the four interacting with the cast of villains, it’s far from it. In fact, we were constantly impressed with how dialogue scenes would naturally be altered to specifically reference that character.
Speaking of those characters, they’re the stars of the show. The interplay between the four of them meant that every time there was an optional character moment in the Belfry, we made sure to do them before we left on our next patrol. They’re heartfelt, funny and each of the four characters are well realised.
Nightwing (Dick Grayson) is dealing with the fact that’s now the de-facto leader of the group, the second in line to the Cowl, and instead of running his own show in Blüdhaven, he’s back in Gotham. Red Hood (Jason Todd) is still coming to terms with the aftermath of being murdered by The Joker and then resurrected in The Lazarus Pit. Far from the anti-hero Red Hood, he returns to the family to resolve his trauma and attempt to return to normal.
Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) is dealing with not only the fallout of Batman’s death but also the loss of her father, Jim Gordon. And Robin (Tim Drake) is by far the youngest member of the team, now without a leader and his training incomplete, the boy wonder leans on his group for support in the journey he couldn’t finish while Batman was alive.
The main threat to this new Gotham is a shadowy Illuminati known as the Court of Owls. A relatively new entry in the comics pantheon, they control governments and senior figures of power across the world and are so secretive that most don’t believe they’re even real. Cross that with old Batman sparring partner Talia al Ghul being back in Gotham, and two of DC’s most powerful factions are at war.
Each night, one (or two in online co-op) members of the team head out to patrol Gotham City. During these patrols you can progress the main missions, take down some side villains in their extended quest lines, such as Harley Quinn’s career change from criminal underboss to life coach (which is a lateral move, morally) or Mr Freeze’s story which sees him turn Gotham into a Scottish winter, totally terraforming the city with a weather machine. We’d have loved a few more of these, especially with the sheer number of top-tier villains the Batman universe has, but the rogues they pick (including a few surprises) are great.
“The interplay between the four characters meant that every time there was an optional character moment in the Belfry, we made sure to do them before we left on our next patrol. They’re heartfelt, funny and each of the four characters are well realised.”
The rest of the open-world activities show promise, but we feel like they’re somewhat undercooked. There are random crimes happening all over the city, which are mostly used for gaining experience, but they also lead to further crimes being uncovered that night. You collect clues, which fill a meter and unlock further crimes. While we liked the idea of interrogating low-tier criminals to then unlock harder missions, the actual missions themselves are very copy+paste, and it’s here where the game feels at its most generic.
Borrowing from another WB studio title and incorporating a nemesis system in the game would have been incredible, especially with the interrogation mechanic already built-in to the game. You never kill your enemies (although, I’m not sure many people could survive being clotheslined off 15 floors), so their reappearing later in the game, in another part of the city would have been great, as it stands while the random crimes are cheap fun, after a while, they fall a bit flat.
Combat-wise, the game will take some getting used to if you’re an Arkham fan. The rhythmic style of ‘attack, reverse, attack’ is gone, instead you’re dodging between larger numbers of enemies, and charging momentum to pull off special moves. There’s also a larger focus on ranged combat with some characters.
For example, with the right gear set up, Red Hood’s pistols become so effective that the game comes over all third-person-shooter for large portions of fights. While we felt the combat never reached the zen state of the Arkham games, it’s varied enough between the four characters, and the elemental-based loadouts that players can build add some variety.
On console, Gotham Knights is locked, disappointingly, to 30FPS. While this doesn’t have huge impact in the moment-to-moment gameplay, it’s a shame that such a beautiful city doesn’t get the full 60FPS performance mode we’d hoped for. Some framerate dips also occur when flying through the sky, but even then we didn’t find them to be overwhelming, and when fighting on the ground, they were rare, the caveat being that even when it’s running perfectly, it’s still frustratingly 30FPS.
Curiously, we found that taking our console completely offline actually steadied performance significantly, perhaps pointing to the fact that the game being connected to a server, in order to allow players to drop into other games, could be hampering the performance of the game further.
“Combat-wise, the game will take some getting used to if you’re an Arkham fan. The rhythmic style of ‘attack, reverse, attack’ is gone, instead you’re dodging between larger numbers of enemies”
Gotham Knight’s narrative and characters are definitely its strongest asset, and arguably among the strongest portrayal of DC characters in a video game. While you can go through story as any of the four characters, we found ourselves drawn to Red Hood as we progressed through the final chapters of the game.
The story elements that echo Jason Todd’s own story made the game feel at times like it was made specifically for him, which is a great achievement when working with four possible characters that will fill each scene. We wish there were an easy way to replay key missions, outside of the new game plus, because there are some interactions and sequences that we’d love to see unfold as the rest of the family.
While Gotham Knights can be a generic open-world game when you’re prowling the streets, that doesn’t mean it isn’t extremely fun to take down huge groups of baddies as Batgirl, or infiltrate a base as Robin. The gear system, while a bit clunky and not brilliantly explained, provides some combat depth, and the number with a number of fleshed-out side mission chains with some of Batman’s A-tier villains, there’s plenty to do.
But it’s the story that really sold us on Gotham Knights. Not only does it juggle exploring four characters well, but it also manages to make each of them feel unique, which is a great achievement considering all four share the burden of being former Batman sidekicks.
The vocal performances are excellent, the writing is sharp, reverent to the comics, but not overly reliant on having spent your life in a forbidden planet. We’d have happily taken many more of the short out-of-spandex cutscenes in the Belfy.
While some open-world fatigue may blemish Gotham Knights, its core campaign of missions and extended side quests make for a very enjoyable open-world prowl through DC’s most famous city. The Bat-family are an absolute highlight, providing not only one great main character but four. The shadowy dealings in the background of Gotham City make for a compelling story that manages to hang its hat on some of the newer parts of the Batman canon, elevating them to stand alongside the Two Faces and Riddlers of the world.
Gotham Knights provides a blueprint for a world of great Batman-verse games outside of Arkham. While it may not hit the highs of Rocksteady’s series in some aspects, the ways it excels in narrative and character development match, or in some cases supplant the Arkham series, proving themselves, appropriately, as more than worthy of wearing the cowl.
Gotham Knights steps out of Arkham’s shadow to provide a great super hero game full of excellent characters. While some open-world fluff remains, it’s still gaming’s best take on Gotham that we couldn’t stop exploring.
- Compelling narrative
- Four brilliant main characters
- Gotham is stunning
- Gear system makes for unique
- 30fps lock is disappointing
- Some open-world fluff