At this point it’s difficult to remember what a pleasant surprise it was to play Batman: Arkham Asylum back in 2009. After years of disappointing and lazily tossed-off superhero games, here was one that didn’t just get the source material right, but was also a genuinely brilliant game in its own right. Arkham City satisfyingly expanded on the model, Arkham Origins was a thing, and now we have the grand, next-gen finale in Arkham Knight. It is quite simply the Batman game that anyone who obsesses over the caped crusader always dreamed would exist. The open-world Gotham City is absolutely beautiful, the story is compelling, the mythology is treated with reverence while also filled with risks, and the batmobile…god damn. For anyone who has a special place in their heart for the most psychologically damaged of all superheroes, it’s hard not to feel waves of respect and gratitude while rollicking through the game. Sure, there are flaws (mostly the same flaws shared by the rest of the series), but the developers got so much right that it’s hard to complain about anything that went wrong.
So, the game takes place in the worst and longest night of Batman’s life (boy, that poor guy has a lot of those, doesn’t he?). Scarecrow has developed a new fear toxin that kills off a few city blocks through random acts of violence when he takes it for a test drive and then he announces plans to cover the entire city with it. Obviously, mass panic ensues and anyone in Gotham who is even kind of a nice person skips town. That means that the city is completely in the hands of the criminal element and as usual, only that Batman guy can set things right. This time, though, he’s got the Batmobile, which should help. Unfortunately, in addition to Two Face, The Penguin, The Riddler and the rest of the usual cast of colourful scumbags causing a ruckus in the commotion, a new villain appears known as The Arkham Knight, who seems to have all of old Batty’s skills and fashion sense, but lacks his interest in justice and disinterest in murder. So there’s another mystery Bats will have to solve, and to make matters worse, he also gets infected with a touch o’ the fear gas at the start of the night, meaning that hallucinations pop up on the regular and an old friend thought long-gone starts to natter in his ear about all sorts of insanity. Yep, it’s going to be a long night, so buckle up.
In general, Rocksteady have taken the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to this game. It feels pretty much exactly like the previous entries in this series only with an increased scale, a new narrative, and some other accoutrements. Gotham is finally playable in all of it’s glory and is absolutely astounding to simply glide or drive though. The rain soaked and bleak design feels very much like the non-period specific gothic lightshow of Tim Burton’s Batman universe and the city has been crafted down to minute details even if you’ll usually be flying past those tiny details on the prowl. The combat is just as comfortably thrilling as always, with Rocksteady increasing the speed and ease of the design to make it even more simple, addictive, and powerful. The design team really struck gold with their fight dynamics back in 2009 and haven’t done anything to muck it up, only adding to the fist-smashing joy with some great new additions like a team-up fight dynamic that brings Nightwing, Robin, and Catwoman into the fold for some satisfyingly ridiculous rounds of fisticuffs. The Batmobile is, of course, the biggest new addition and it doesn’t disappoint. When flying through the city at full speed, it climbs up walls and smashes through cement like a bat out of hell with silky smooth controls. In battle mode, it essentially transforms into a tank with machine guns and rocket launchers, which feels a bit weird at first, given Batman’s strict no-gun policy, yet is such a blast to play that it’s hard to complain. The Rocksteady folks clearly fell in love with the Batmobile as well and the biggest drag is that they perhaps use it a bit too much during the adventure, forcing players through a vast number of tank battles that border on tedious by the end.
The writers dig into all of the usual big Batman themes like the weight of a Bruce’s responsibility, the parallels between the hero and his villains, the danger that inevitably befalls his friends and family, and the inescapably tragic ending that his story must have, given it’s tragic beginning. Sometimes the story beats can feel a little inelegant and obvious for longtime fans (in particular, it doesn’t take too much brainpower to solve the Arkham Knight’s identity once you realize that he’s another character with a new name), but Batman narratives are about perpetuating myths rather than reinventing them and the Rocksteady team have found some wonderful twists on old tropes to explore. In particular, tainting Batman with hallucinogenic fear gas early on was an inspired choice that allows the story to go anywhere, revive characters at-will, stage obscene shock moments never intended to be real, and openly delve into the hero’s twisted psyche in visually compelling ways. What makes the main storyline especially satisfying is that the designers use the hallucination dynamic to build a surreal finale driven by narrative sensation and perverted psychology over the usual ho-hum final boss battle that qualifies as one of the most unique climaxes to a game that I have ever experienced.
The main narrative is so strong that all of the wonderfully designed side quests and online additions can’t help but feel like superfluous add-ons. Don’t’ get me wrong, pretty well everything in Arkham Knight is fun and it’s easy to kill hours living out all of your embedded Batman fantasies through this gorgeous Gotham sandbox. It’s just that the game has been designed to tell a great Batman story and that’s the undeniable highlight. It was a bold move in a franchise-driven medium for Rocksteady to design this title as a concluding chapter for their series, and even though they left room for the world to continue, I hope that they stick to their guns. Taken as a trilogy, the Arkham series isn’t just the greatest superhero video game series ever mounted, but one of the greatest interpretations of the Batman mythos in any medium. It’s clear that everyone involved with these games truly loved and respected this universe and delivered to fans something that will be tough to top. Arkham Knight is a more than worthy climactic chapter to a great Batman tale, one that delivers a satisfyingly epic finale to the Dark Knight’s story that even Christopher Nolan couldn’t quite nail. Well played.
Look for Phil's extended review in the June 2015 issue of CGM.