During this console generation, the superhero that we affectionately call the Caped Crusader has cemented himself as gaming’s favourite fictional crime fighter, thanks to the release and resulting popularity of two incredible games from Rocksteady that set the bar for future genre efforts. Of course, we just recently received a third entry in said Batman: Arkham franchise, entitled Batman: Arkham Origins, though it’s something I cannot comment on personally as I’ve yet to sit down and lurk my way through it as Bruce Wayne’s alter ego. What I can talk about, though, is the third iteration’s complementing handheld title, Batman: Arkham Origins – Blackgate, which hit store shelves on the same day as its console-based peer. I’ve stealthily scoured through its dingy prison setting, and have emerged with quite a few thoughts regarding what is a cheaper, plus different, take on the beloved formula.
Set after the events of Batman: Arkham Origins, Blackgate sets its sights upon Gotham’s titular prison, wherein many of its most heinous and crazed criminals are kept. However, being that this is a superhero video game, things expectedly turn from good to bad, as our hero finds himself called to action within the penitentiary after being summoned there with news of a riot and a related hostage scenario. As such, players must utilize his stealthy skill set in order to try to set things straight and keep the bad guys from hurting innocent guards.
What’s most notably different here is that this PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS release eschews its peers’ 3D worlds for a more constrictive 2.5D design. What that means is that you’ll find yourself traversing designed routes, as opposed to having the freedom to explore every inch of the game’s environments. If this is an unfamiliar term to you, then it’s best to think of the Castlevania and Metroid franchises, because this experience mimics them in many ways. In order to succeed, it’s pivotal that you keep a close eye on the in-game maps, and try to memorize the areas that you’ve visited. Of course, that’s easier said than done and, if you’re like me, you’ll encounter some frustrating times while playing, due to getting lost and not knowing where to go. Needless to say, your hand won’t be held.
As you explore the four different sections of Blackgate Prison – a list that includes an industrial complex, an administration building, a cell block and a lighthouse district – you’ll need to keep your eyes peeled and your mind engaged. That’s because this is a more open-ended campaign than what most will be used to. Searching and exploring are the keys to completion, as is scanning each area for hidden pathways like crates and weakened construction. It’s a rather simple idea, which works well in some ways, but places far too much emphasis on scanning and results in frustration. There were several times where I scanned areas and missed something minor, which ended up being the key to my progression.
Those aforementioned rooms and routes are, as expected, home to dead ends and secret passageways that reward players’ sleuthing with skill set upgrades and collectable Bat Suit pieces. Additionally, those who scour every inch of the decrepit, dingy and generally drab locations will find themselves completing secondary detective cases, which allow for concept art to become unlocked. These aren’t as fleshed out as they could’ve (and should’ve) been, but they add a bit of extra content to a game that can be completed in six to eight hours by those who avoid getting lost regularly. Then again, they’re based around finding hidden clues, which show up when scanned, and add to an already collectible heavy campaign.
Only a select group of gamers will want to spend the amount of extra time that is needed in order to find every last clue and collectable, because it’s a rather boring quest to undertake. That’s especially true given the fact that Blackgate‘s guards do not respawn, meaning that areas that have been cleared stay barren forever. Combat isn’t a heavy focus here, outside of occasional engagements and the game’s several boss battles (which can apparently be undertaken in any order), but the lack of respawning foes results in blandness.
Please note that the aforementioned combat system will be very familiar to those who’ve played any of the other Arkham games. In fact, it’s nearly identical despite the more constrictive locations. There are a few areas where high perches can be used for stealthy means, but most of the engagements are hand-to-hand and require strategizing. While some foes are basic grunts, who can be taken down with several hefty punches, some are armoured and others carry guns or electrical prods. As such, knowing when to strike, stun, hop over and evade baddies is key. Still, it’s the same FreeFlow Combat system that we’ve become accustomed to since 2009′s Arkham Asylum, so it’s not like players will have to re-learn anything noteworthy or substantial outside of how to properly use each provided gadget.
Speaking of gadgets, they play a large role in this general quest, which pits the Caped Crusader against kingpins Joker, Black Mask and Penguin, all of whom have taken a part of the prison for themselves. At first, you’ll only have access to Batarangs, but will earn new tools of the trade as you make your way from beginning to end. As with the ‘Metroidvania’ formula, those new pieces of equipment are the keys to exploring new areas and finding new secrets, prompting a lot of backtracking.
The best thing about Batman: Arkham Origins – Blackgate is that its developers paid attention to what systems they were crafting their game for, and created an experience that is well-suited for those devices. However, that’s not to say that the final product is a masterpiece, because it doesn’t live up to the quality bar that its peers previously set, and ends up merely being above average and decent, as opposed to great and memorable. Still, those who thoroughly enjoy ‘Metroidvania’ style experiences should check out this detective case, because it’ll surely be up their alley, even if it’s not the cream of its genre’s crop. Others may not find this experience as interesting, because it lacks excitement and can be quite dull at times, as well as unfairly difficult. I truthfully came away from the boss fight against the Penguin thinking that my victory had as much to do with luck as it did with skill, which isn’t a vote of confidence for its design.
Now, as far as its presentation goes, this Armature Studio-developed title scores positively. I was provided with the PlayStation Vita version of the game, and played through it over the course of a weekend. During that time, I was impressed by some of the things I saw, though I admittedly made concessions because I knew that the game was also created for Nintendo’s less powerful 3DS handheld. Generally speaking, Blackgate looks pretty good, and there’s little to really complain about. It sounds good, with full voice acting during and outside of its motion comic cutscenes, and runs well, too, though some dated textures surely assist with the latter. I did, however, experience once progression-halting bug, which required two checkpoint restarts to get rid of, and had the game freeze on me once.
Going further, it’s important to note that the Vita’s touchscreen is employed relatively well here. You can use it to turn detective mode on, or to switch back to the normal viewing mode. Also, in order to scan different environments, one must simply move a finger across the screen while looking for coloured blips. You’ll also be interested to hear that the system’s gyroscope can be toggled on and off during hacking mini-games that require a trio of numbers to be outed and then lined up in order.
After reading all of the above, you’ll hopefully have a good idea of whether Batman: Arkham Origins – Blackgate is the right handheld game for you. It’s a decent experience that some will like a lot, but it’s certainly not for everyone due to its occasionally unforgiving difficulty level, boring locations, disappearing enemies and emphasis on backtracking.
This review is based on the PlayStation Vita version of the game, which we were provided with.