Released as a portable system cash-in cousin to the console cash-in that is Batman: Arkham Origins, Blackgate should by all accounts be a completely disposable and useless game. However, against all odds and expectations, this Metroidvania style Batman platformer might even be a more enjoyable experience than its console big brother. The game is small and simple, but succeeds thanks to those modest ambitions and a clear love for the source material from the developers. By taking all the recognizable elements from the Arkham games that fans love and combining it with old school side-scroller conventions and a splattering of fan-friendly visual designs, the folks at WB games created probably the finest portable Batman game ever made. It’s still far from perfect and was clearly thrown together in a rush, but for those who have always wanted to live out their Dark Knight fantasies while in the middle of a lengthy commute, you can consider Blackgate an answer to a prayer.
Story-wise, the game takes place three months after the events of Arkham Origins. Blackgate prison has been taken over by the prisoners, with The Penguin, Black Mask, and The Joker, each claiming one section as their own. It’s up to Batman to get in there and set things straight, but there’s also this pesky Catwoman character he’s never heard of who shows up to cause trouble and help out in equal measure. So that’s the plot of Blackgate and it’s about as generic as it gets. However, the designers tell the story with style. The cut scenes are done entirely in 2D animation to look like a graphic novel; it looks quite nice and keeps the story pumping when backed up by the stellar Arkham Origins voice cast. You won’t be surprised by any twists in the tale, but the presentation ensures that it’s always fun. The graphics pull from the Arkham Origins engine, though are obviously scaled down as well. On Vita, the game looks nice but was clearly held back a bit so that it could easily be ported over to the 3DS as well. That’s not ideal, but it’s still a pretty game that gets the job done.
In terms of gameplay, it’s a mix between the Arkham mechanics we know and love and a classic Metroid/Castlevania-style exploratory platformer. Fights are done the same way as in an Arkham game, just on a 2D plane. It still feels as fun and fulfilling to take down a group of baddies, just obviously done with less variance in the animation. You’ll also be using detective vision to spot clues and solve crimes. This is done using the touch screen to manipulate a circle that reveals secrets. It’s a surprisingly effective mechanic that makes the game feel like its console big brother while also carving its own path. Levels are laid out like a Metroidvania game, with lots of backtracking once you’ve unlocked new items (for some reason Batman shows up with only a batarang and there are Waynetech boxes filled with his weapons hidden throughout the prison. Best not to consider why. It’ll make your brain hurt, just go with the old school gaming convention). The levels are detailed and atmospheric, yet can feel a little repetitive. That was probably due to the rushed development and is forgivable, but the samey-feeling levels can get frustrating when you’re trying to backtrack to find a room you missed, and everything looks so similar.
Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate is what it is: a console port/tie-in designed to milk money from an established fanbase. However, it’s also a good justification for that greedy gaming practice. In trying to combine Arkham and Metroidvania conventions to make a quick buck, WB Games stumbled onto a magic formula for portable Batman games. The mix of beat em’ ups and exploration works perfectly for the detective warrior that is Batman. With an established universe to play in, the designers also have an evocative world for players to get lost in and their additions to the formula (like the comic book cutscenes) all work well. The only problem with the game is that it was clearly put together in a rush, but only cynically discerning players used to those tricks will notice. Blackgate is far from perfect, but what works is brilliant and the groundwork is in place for a franchise if WB Games want to explore one. With an original setting and story executed on a more lenient production schedule, there is an amazing portable Batman game to be mined from this design. What they’ve done this time is still very good though, so hopefully enough units are shifted to justify a more carefully conceived sequel. Either way, the game is just as satisfying/mildly disappointing as Arkham Origins and should definitely be picked up by anyone desperate to have some Batman action in the palm of their hands. Blackgate could have gone so wrong in so many ways that it’s remarkable the design team ended up with something this successful. Let’s hope they get another crack at a portable Arkham title because this team definitely deserves it.