“This is how it happened… This is how the Batman died.”
-Commissioner James Gordon
The Arkham series is one of the most immersive and impressive series of games ever. Minus the minor hiccup of Arkham Origins. Out of the four, Arkham Asylum still stands out to me as my personal favorite because of its focus on the diverse personalities of the rogues gallery, the claustrophobia, the mind games, the classic versions of the characters, the deep examination of the psyche of Batman, and the “status quo” setting of its story. “Status quo” meaning it doesn’t have Bats pitted against highly trained SWAT teams or armies of mercenaries in tanks, but it puts the Dark Knight in his element, where he ought to be, fighting the warped supervillains, the superstitious and cowardly lot that are eating Gotham alive. Kick ’em to the curb, Caped Crusader.
That being said, even though Asylum is my favorite, I cannot rob Arkham Knight of recognition it deserves as the superior game in terms of gameplay, expansiveness, and world realization, the finality of it. Ladies and gentlemen, I do plan to get into the nitty gritty of this game, and I’ve got the screenshots to prove it. So there will indeed be spoilers ahead. We’ll be talking about plot from the previous games, as well. And trust me: I’ll do my best to limit spoilers as much as possible but this is the final game in the series (so far as we know) and you do not want this game spoiled for you.
Oddly enough, if I may open with a personal anecdote. I spoiled this game for myself. I watched a playthrough of the entire story mode (not the side missions) including both the “bad” and “good” endings. Shame on me. I watched it because I didn’t think I’d ever play it as I thought I’d never be able to get a PS4. But now here I am, having played through the game myself and having ruined a lot of the story beats, plot twists and the drama of what happens.
Word of advice: Save a Story. Don’t watch playthroughs.
Arkham Knight sees the return of the original developers for the franchise, Rocksteady Studios. In the vein of the previous games, Arkham Knight is a third-person, stealth action-adventure which puts you in the boots of the Bat. The motto is “Be The Batman” and every moment of the experience is designed around that idea, giving you the chance to see what it’s like to be the Night. That includes all the iconic awesomeness that makes Batman the coolest and most beloved superhero in existence: throwing the batarang, taking down mobs of enemies, gliding over the city, striking fear into the hearts of criminals, and driving the batmobile.
Taking down mobs of enemies, gliding through the cityscape, throwing the batarang, brooding in the icy rain, staring down the muzzle of a gun, feeling bones crunch beneath your knuckles, reigning in the madness, being the world’s greatest detective, striking fear into the hearts of criminals, and even driving “the car”. It’s exhilarating. Arkham Knight comes closer than ever to getting into the mind of the Batman.
Arkham Knight reveals that Rocksteady has honestly come to understand the character and what makes Bruce Wayne do what he does. Because, really, what would motivate a person to dress up as a giant bat and go out to beat up criminals in what would be the worst city in existence? But you can see their grasp of the character even from the announcement trailer with its poignant narration by the deceased Thomas Wayne.
Rocksteady rightfully concludes that Batman isn’t merely an action hero. He isn’t some frivolous macho-masochist who lives for taking pleasure in explosions and fights. They treat him as the layered, nuanced, dutiful, tortured and motivated character that fans of the literature know him to be. He’s Hamlet. He’s Shakespearean. He just so happens to also drive the batmobile.
The opening scene reminds us that the Joker is dead, having expired during the events of Arkham City one year ealier, and we’re treated to his cremation in the intro sequence with Sinatra crooning “Under My Skin”, an appropriate song considering what’s about to transpire. It’s just another Halloween in Gotham and everyone in the city really out to be on their toes around the holidays by now. From the eyes of an ordinary beat cop, we watch as the eventide metropolis is struck by a powerful wave of hallucinogenic terror. Civilians affected by the chemical weapon begin to rip each other apart. Moments later, the inevitable announcement taking responsibility for the unprecedented attack takes place.
Mass hysteria and evacuation occurs. Scarecrow was last seen during the events of Arkham Asylum when he was attacked by Killer Croc. He’s back and scarier than ever, even more determined to tear down the Batman and everything the Dark Knight stands for as a nocturnal source of hope for the city. Because the absence of hope is fear. Scarecrow’s favorite word.
I don’t know if there has ever been a more frightening version of the Master of Terror in any interpretation of the Batman mythos. Thugs on the street mention that after Dr. Crane was attacked by Croc in Asylum, his face was disfigured and he himself cut layers of his infected flesh away. The burlap hood and mask veil his features but you can catch glimpses of his pallid, corpse-like eyes and yellow teeth with a rictus, lip-less grin. Horrifying.
And it’s a good thing it is, too. Scarecrow replaces Joker as the ultimate force of evil in this game. Big shoes to fill. Unfortunately, ol’ Straw-Man was never really all that scary. It’s hard to be frightened by a skinny nerd (who probably had a lisp) in a costume that made him look like he just came from the 1939 set of The Wizard of Oz.
Maybe a few versions of the villain encroached upon actual nightmarishness, like the animated New Batman Adventures. That example is a good one, because it’s more how Scarecrow comes across here: collected, menacing, under-control and soft-spoken, almost whispering his lines. The success of his supervillainous presence is definitely due to the casting of award-winning actor John Noble (The Return of the King, Fringe) as the voice actor for Dr. Crane. Noble plays Scarecrow with icy calculation. His broadcasts are delivered with such hypnotic tone that they seem to wear you down, weakening your resolve, almost making you believe that what he’s saying is true. If your nightmares could be narrated, they’d probably have their scripts read by John Noble’s Scarecrow.
Evacuation turns Gotham into a wasteland. The sprawling urban jungle becomes a decimated no man’s land for criminals, gangs, looters and psychos to run rampant and unchecked through the streets. All that’s left is Jim Gordon and a few members of the GCPD holed up in the police station like its a fortress. And then there’s the Batman.
Meeting with Commissioner Gordon, Batman learns that there simply isn’t enough manpower left to take back control of the city and Scarecrow plans to detonate a massive chemical weapon that could affect the entire eastern seaboard merely to demonstrate the inability of the Batman to serve as a true symbol of hope. Batman’s failure will mean the despair of millions.
Tracking Scarecrow down, Batman uncovers Poison Ivy who was imprisoned by Crane when she refused to join the other villains. The Dark Knight finds an unlikely ally in Poison Ivy, who will fight alongside him with the aid of her unique abilities, calling up massive subterranean flora until (spoilers: highlight to reveal) her ultimate sacrifice as she dies while dispersing Scarecrow’s clouds of toxin later in the game.
Like a soup made of vengeance, the plot thickens. In pursuit of Scarecrow, Batman encounters an army of expertly trained and heavily armed militia under the command of a new villain with a mysterious identity: the Arkham Knight. The Knight seems to know everything about Batman. His weaknesses and shortcomings and history and techniques. But Batman is able to beat his way past the militia, though disconcerted by the Knight’s appearance and unknown identity, until he confronts Scarecrow in Ace Chemicals. There, he is exposed to the potent fear toxin while Scarecrow escapes and kidnaps Oracle, Barbara Gordon. Batman is able to stop the detonation of massive chemical weapon but is suddenly shocked by the appearance of the Joker!
The good news is Mark Hamill is back as the whimsical voice of the menacing Clown Prince of Crime. The bad news is the Joker follows Batman around everywhere as a mental projection, a hallucination, of the Dark Knight’s greatest nemesis. See, remember in Arkham City when the Joker transfused Batman with his infected blood in order to force him to find a cure? Well, he also sent samples of his blood to hospitals throughout Gotham where it infected four patients before it could be intercepted. Batman is keeping the four infected under observation in one of his hideouts, especially a certain Henry Adams who doesn’t seem to be exhibiting any signs of infection. What are the signs? The patients are slowly transforming mentally and physically into the image of the Joker.
Batman himself was once infected and coupled with the fear toxin, the Joker’s persona manifests as the personality that Batman risks developing should he cross the line and take a life tonight under the extreme circumstances before him. There are moments throughout the game when the Joker-mentality threatens to overcome Batman’s body and take control. It’s Bruce Wayne’s worst nightmare to become the monster he tried to stop.
The Dark Knight will need to overcome his own personal demon, hunt down the Scarecrow and disarm his ability to launch his chemical attack in Gotham with his new dispersal device called the Cloudburst, and rescue Oracle, while discovering the true identity of the Arkham Knight. Batman will face more than he ever has before and this night will push him more than any other ever has until the final, fateful moment of truth.
That serves as quite enough of a premise! This story is best experienced for yourself, for all of its tension and terror, twists and turns.
Besides for the Arkham Knight, the classic supervillains are an importance aspect of the game and Rocksteady demonstrates that they understand them too, for all their wide and varied personalities.
“No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.” -Aristotle
These characters seem like they have something to say now. Many of them have been able to grow and mature and degenerate into their worst possible forms over the course of these games. This was apparent to me when I undertook the Riddler and Two-Face side missions. Of course, the Riddler has always been a pest in the Arkham games, but now there’s a real sense of obsession and hatefulness to him, and his manic-compulsion and narcissism comes across clearer than ever when he decries Batman as a charlatan and derides the hero at every moment. I remember thinking that his dialogue is perfect for a man who genuinely believes he’s better than everyone else but can’t stop giving clues and pointed taunts that eventually lead to his own capture.
And they do more with the character of Two-Face than they did with him in Arkham City, where he was simply a gruff ruffian. Here, the voice wavers between the smooth tragedy of Dent’s recollection and the harsh, grating brutality of Two-Face. There’s more of a sense of history to the character and his belonging in this universe.
DC comics are known for their excellent villains (and iconic heroes) and Arkham Knight is full of them: Man-Bat, Riddler, Hush, Penguin, Two-Face, Firefly, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Deacon Blackfire, Deathstroke, Professor Pyg (a truly horrifying addition to the rogues), and tons of lore that explains what happened to villains missing from the Arkham Knight. There is also an expansion pack featuring the likes of the Mad Hatter, Killer Croc, Mr. Freeze, and Ra’s al Ghul.
The game is also chock full of characters, riddler trophies and riddles, new AR challenges (combat, predator, and batmobile) easter eggs, and an arsenal of fresh upgrades and equipment. Side missions which deviate from the main story include disarming the militia by taking out their fortifications, curing Dr. Kirk Langstrom, working with Nightwing to destroy the Penguin’s weapon caches, investigating mutilated remains left around the city, and rescuing an explosive-collared Catwoman as bait being used by the Riddler.
Something should be said about the batmobile. As awesome as it is to fulfill the boyish fantasy of driving the most iconic super-car there is, the game’s emphasis on the batmobile has become the single largest complaint from gamers and reviewers. It was something I was well aware of when I bought the game.
I knew there’d be a lot of driving. I’m not a fan of racing games, like at all, so it was something I assumed I’d just have to stomach in order to get to the meat of the game. I even theorized that I’d never make any attempt to platinum Knight since I believed I’d never want to put any effort into the riddler race tracks and batmobile AR challenges.
While there is indeed too much emphasis on “the car” (they refuse to call it the batmobile in-game) and not enough emphasis on Batman’s other skills, I realize I was terribly wrong about this emphasis taking away from the experience or ruining any aspirations of playing all the game’s content. It took me a good length of time to get any good at driving the batmobile but the car-that’s-more-like-a-tank can just plow through most obstacles anyway. A few more non-batmobile boss fights would’ve gone a long way. I wish there were more complex battles that tested Batman’s combat and predator skills. As it stands, most of Batman’s skills and equipment seem practically obsolete with the focus on the car.
There are a few: the predatory fight against an unmasked Arkham Knight late game or the climactic battle against the Riddler and his mechanical monstrosities. But not being able to fight Deathstroke hand to hand? Why even put him in the game at all, then? The Excavator and Cloudburst battles are quite enough for batmobile boss fights.
The “car” engaging the militia’s tanks and armored vehicles gets pretty old pretty fast. It’s merely dodging line of fire and returning fire, with little variation compared to Batman’s combat and predator skills. It is rightfully the biggest complaint about the game but it is far from its Achilles’ heel. The game is near perfect and you really need the mode of travel in order to get around the gigantic spaces of Gotham’s Founders, Miagani and Bleake Islands. You actually will come to depend on it and switching between running, gliding and driving is seamless. You can even launch yourself right out of the driver’s seat.
I got Batman: Arkham Knight together with the PS4 and I’ve never regretted choosing that bundle. Even if there’s never ever another Batman game made (though of course there will be), I got to “be the Batman” with this dramatic conclusion to the great Arkham series. When the curtain finally falls, it leaves us wanting more. And there can be no better measure of success for a finale.
The 8-Bit Review
This is probably the best looking game I’ve ever played, bearing in mind that I’m fresh to the eighth generation console scene. The weather effects, the rain and the wet slick over everything is something I couldn’t get enough of when I discovered the photo mode. These are individual frickin’ raindrops in 3D. That blows my mind. Everything is so well textured in grime and dirty and filth, and there seems to be far less recycling of visuals than there were in previous Arkham games. The city of Gotham has never looked better (or worse) than it does crowded with intricate armored vehicles and mobs of looters in Knight.
One of the big visual complaints I personally had with earlier Arkham entries were the rigid, stiff character models. This was true of the facial animations too. Especially with Batman. But a lot of that is a thing of the past with Arkham Knight. This is the best Arkham Bat-face and the least bug-eyed. His new armored suit removes the issue of the strangely-wrinkled, furrowed brow.
The same is true for every other character, too. They are all vastly more articulate and expressive in terms of their animations. These are by far the best character designs out of all the Arkham games, too. Even the Joker, who has appeared through the entire quadrilogy, is somehow still even more magnetic and energetic than ever. That’s despite being dead. Put that on your resume.
The music is quintessentially Batman: morose strings, primal and industrial, steely, at times dissonant, full of minor keys, gloomy brass, and choral sighing. The Arkham series has developed its own voice musically that comes into fruition here in Knight as the best example of their version of the Dark Knight theme. It is impressive that Nick Arundel was able to build upon the Batman theme he developed through Asylum and City, creating a distinct musical take on the character that is unmistakably different that the Elfman or Zimmer themes used in film and other media throughout the years.
If one thing can be said about the score of Arkham Knight, it emphasizes tragedy. Yes of course there is still the energy and manic action tracks but songs like “All Who Follow You” breathe the careful measured breaths of an old man who has done his work for far, far too long. The Scarecrow theme is the menace that branches out of this sadness, brooding and plotting in the lowest of notes.
Upon completing Arkham Knight, I realized that there were no tracks that actually stood out to me. That’s unusual. Generally when I beat a game there are at least a few songs which I know are going to make it into the review. But in the case of Knight I had to listen to a majority of the soundtrack over again, and even then most of the songs are homogeneous. At no point is the music ever terrible or terribly executed, and it certainly adds to the tension and emotion of the game. It just isn’t a very varied soundtrack.
What rockets the audio points to the stratosphere is the excellent voice work of the entire cast of Arkham Knight. I’ve already lauded John Noble, but the ensemble wouldn’t be complete without Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill’s one-two punch performance. They’re now concretely confirmed as the definitive voices of the Batman and the Joker. Conroy never dials it in. He’s all in. He plays his Batman with the fierceness and brutality that this franchise demanded, but also with a layer of weariness and loss only to be found in Knight. And of course, not even being dead could stop Hamill from reprising the Joker. The Batman’s hallucinations of his archenemy might be a fairly obvious way of forcing the Joker back into the game, but hey, who’s complaining? Not me.
There isn’t a single other member of the cast that doesn’t seem to be aware that they’re extremely privileged to take part in Arkham Knight. The tired Jim Gordon, the tender Alfred, the sneering Riddler, the Southern twang of the Deacon, the rhyming Hatter, the cocky Nightwing, and the crazed Pyg (who I suspect is voiced by the same man who played the old tour guide with the Pope-hat in FFX!)… they’re all the best they could possibly be.
The city of Gotham is represented on a massive, multi-layered scale for free-roaming at any point in the game. It’s size makes the batmobile essential, as well as the new upgrades to Batman’s mobility like faster grapnel gunning and more possibilities with line launching. They really did a spot on job with making the transition between all of Batman’s modes of travel seamless. The batmobile isn’t a hindrance.
cheap useful new gadget is the Voice Synthesizer, which can be used to imitate character voices like Harley’s or the Penguin’s or the Knight’s to lure individual enemies into traps. Pretty devious. It makes singling out armed foes a breeze in most cases, though alerted enemies will ignore the Synthesizer commands.
You can also now dual battle with some of Batman’s allies: Nightwing, Robin, and Catwoman. When I first caught wind of the concept, I thought it’d be tedious in terms of being too much to learn in addition to all of the dozens of things Batman can already do. Turns out it’s easygoing and enjoyable. When dual battling, you merely have to tap a shoulder button to switch between fighters mid-combo, and it’s even possible to execute a dual takedown that finds both Bats and his comrade juggling the poor enemy like a limp ragdoll. Combine that with environmental and silent takedowns feeling fluid and less cumbersome and you’re in for some smooth Free Flow combat.
The last new addition to the gameplay I’ll mention are the Multi-Fear Takedowns. These are cinematic and frickin’ amazing. Sneaking up on a group of enemies, Batman can trigger the Fear Takedowns and time slows down, allowing the Dark Knight to well… take ’em down really quickly. Like in a few seconds. Before any of them knew what hit them.
For all of the stealth action in Arkham Knight, this is a game with its narrative at its heart. The Killing Joke scenes represent the best possible homage at the conclusion of this story. Never a dull moment.
As a fan of the comics for decades now, it was pretty obvious who the Arkham Knight turned out to be. I didn’t play this game until a year after its release, but when it was announced with the mysterious, masked antagonist and his vendetta against Batman, I already said: (spoiler: highlight to reveal) “Well of course that’s Jason Todd.” Anytime it’s a surprise bad guy from Batman’s past with an axe to grind against him, it’s the poor Robin that got his brains beat out of him when Batman failed to swoop in to the rescue. But just because you saw it coming doesn’t mean it isn’t played to good effect. For all his detective skills, Bruce doesn’t see the truth until it’s standing in front of him, and the tragedy of what happened to Jason strikes with shocking violence watching the Joker’s “video recordings”, the “memories” of the embedded Joker mentality in Batman’s mind. Clearly these images are what pushed Arkham Knight over the edge into a solid M rating.
It’s a story of redemption, a theme that resonates strongly if done well.
Besides that, it’s clear that this plot will serve as the Batman’s final night in Gotham. (spoiler: highlight to reveal) when the Scarecrow unveils Bruce Wayne as the man beneath the mask, an entire world recoils in shock. Batman’s power as a symbol is gone and all seems lost and hopeless. Of course Batman gets his comeuppance but the figure of the Dark Knight striking terror into the hearts of criminals is no more. He simply can no longer function the same way that he has for years. All that’s left is to pick up the pieces one last night and then execute the Knightfall protocol.
If I could have a single strike against the character-driven and suspenseful narrative of Arkham Knight, it’s that Batman says adieu too easily to those who have known him longest. There is poignance to his farewells with the Cat. When she tells him to call her if he should ever need anything and he replies “I won’t”, she can only say “I just wanted to say it”. That’s a pure Batman moment if ever there was one. But his goodbye to Dick Grayson, the closest person to his son in this universe, is brief and even calloused. Given that Bats isn’t exactly a gushing, emotional father figure. He clearly holds to the philosophy that quick goodbyes are best. But it feels like the ball dropped there.
Still, the plot of Arkham Knight is the best in the quadrilogy. I’m looking forward to New Game+.
Alright, so accessibility. Here’s the thing. I’ve already reviewed Asylum, City, and Origins. With each subsequent game I’ve expressed that adding more gadgets and more takedowns and more skills to Batman’s extensive arsenal means that the accessibility of the sequel is exponentially lowered. Not only do you have to remember and execute the list of abilities Batman had in the previous game, but now you have whole new button inputs on top of that.
While there are teaching moments in each game that feature new gameplay elements to walk you through how they work, it eventually becomes too much. Gadgets become obsolete and fade into disuse. You’ll have your go to combat variations because it becomes increasingly hard to remember how to use all of them. I gave Asylum a 7, and City and Origins both a 6 for accessibility.
So why the higher score for Arkham Knight? Even though there are more upgrades, gadgets and techniques than ever, especially with the batmobile, there isn’t as much of an emphasis on utilizing all of them. Knight comes to the realization that Batman has an extensive Waynetech arsenal and you just have to accept it. Therefore, the unused tools in his utility belt become not so much obsolete as they do layers of history. In Knight, Batman is at his peak performance, at the summit of his crime fighting career. The icing on the cake is there are subtle and helpful new ways to include old tricks and equipment in fresh ways: such as being able to use multiple gadgets while gliding.
It was a smart choice on the part of the development team to keep all of these abilities in the game but take the focus off of all of them by looking to the new rather than trying to ham-fist in the old.
I’ll say right off the bat (heh) that the hardest part in the story mode for me was the fight against the Arkham Knight’s Excavator. I hated being forced to be passable as a batmobile driver in order to beat the boss. But as I said, there aren’t many unique boss fights in this game. Some of the combat situations will prove to be quite the challenge, mixing together soldiers armed with knives, shields, tasers and guns.
The riddler trophies are back with a vengeance. There are more of the little green rewards to collect than ever. Some of them are just lying around but many of them require solving some truly tricky traps. It’s a testament to the designers’ talents that they can still come up with unique riddler puzzles after four whole games. Even though there are so many, and the Riddler Most Wanted mission is probably going to be the last side mission you’ll complete, it’s all completely doable. It’ll take time, but it’s doable, as my screenshots testify.
And besides: it’s an Arkham game. If you die you get to watch those iconic game over screens where the villain gloats.
As a sequel of a sequel, what could Arkham Knight have going for it in terms of uniqueness? It has this: that it closes out the Batman mythos. Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is the only other non-comic book example I can think of that successfully ended its take on this character. That propels it miles above most incarnations that fizzled out or failed to end with a bang: Burton’s, Timm’s, West’s, Schumacher’s (thank God!), and statistically-speaking Snyder’s, as well.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
Batman: Arkham Knight is great because of everything that’s come before. It doesn’t have the claustrophobia of Asylum or the shocking death at the end of City, or thankfully the glitchiness of Origins, but it encompasses all of those stories and ties them up and bows out while the emotion is high. It deserves a standing ovation.
There is plenty of replay value to be found in a project as broad as Arkham Knight and I for one know I’ve got plenty of reason to return to it’s challenges and DLC.
Arkham Knight is a monument to the characters that inhabit Bruce Wayne’s world and his nightmares. It climbed all the way up to being one of the definitive versions of the Batman. It feels like the crescendo of a legend begun 20 years earlier with Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill in Batman: the Animated Series that has culminated here. By ending on a high note, it punctuated the words of Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. How often that’s true of so man gaming franchises. The Arkham series had the wherewithal to end itself before it became the villain, a game panned by critics that nobody wanted to play. Instead, we’re left with the striking images such as the one below, Bruce Wayne taking off the mask and leaving it behind, standing in front of the bat-signal one last time.
Aggregated Score: 9.1