Review: ‘Gotham Knights’ struggles to step out from the shadows

Review of: Gotham Knights
Gaming:
Eric Hall

Reviewed by:
Rating:
2.5
On October 20, 2022
Last modified:October 20, 2022

Summary:

There are plenty of moments in Gotham Knights that make for a good time - the camaraderie between the heroes is enjoyable, and the city itself looks great. However, the combat is too basic and monotonous to stand on its own, and the story struggles to get going before it falls apart.

Gotham Knights has been a long time coming. Or more specifically, it’s been a long time coming for WB Games Montreal. It’s been close to ten years since we last heard from the studio, and since the release of Batman: Arkham Origins back in 2013, it seemed like there were several rumors regarding what the team has been working on. It was worrying when nothing was announced for years, so ultimately it was a good sign when Gotham Knights was first revealed back in 2020. Even after that, though, it’s been traveling a rocky road leading up to its release. There was a year-long delay, followed by the cancellation of last-gen editions. After all this time, though, it’s finally arrived.

I suppose I should begin this review by talking about the one issue that has swallowed up coverage of Gotham Knights in the last week: the decision to have it capped at 30 frames per second (FPS) on consoles. PC owners will have the option to play at 60 FPS and above, but Xbox Series and PlayStation 5 owners are capped at the lower frame rate. Obviously, this is not ideal, and when the decision was made to cancel the last-gen versions, it was assumed this wouldn’t be an issue. The good news is that the frame rate does hold up for the most part. I didn’t experience any slowdown during combat sections, and grappling across the skies of Gotham was (mostly) smooth as well. However, there are areas where the frame rate struggles to keep up. I noticed poor performance whilst speeding through the city on the Batcycle, as well as, inexplicably, when looking at the evidence board in the Belfry, which serves as the heroes’ headquarters when they aren’t patrolling the streets. Ultimately, the performance is good enough, but when the decision was made to cap it at 30 FPS, I expected things to run smoothly in all areas.

With that out of the way, let’s get to one of the other big things about Gotham Knights: Batman is dead. Not like at the end of Arkham Knight where there’s still a glimmer of hope — the Dark Knight is dead dead. We see it happen, and the rest of the Batfamily confirms this by finding Bruce Wayne’s corpse. With Gotham’s favorite son and noble protector gone, though, the task of protecting this cursed city falls to his many apprentices. Nightwing, Batgirl, Red Hood, and Robin are now the only things standing in the way of the many criminal enterprises seeking to take over. As dangerous as villains such as Mr. Freeze and Harley Quinn are, though, the biggest threat to the city is a group that even the Caped Crusader struggled to track down: the Court of Owls.

Image via Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

For years, fans have been begging for the Court of Owls to make an appearance in a game, and for good reason. As opposed to the usual freaks and monsters Batman fights, the Court represents a different kind of threat. They have their hooks in every aspect of Gotham, and that makes them a unique group of villains to face off against. Unfortunately, like a lot of the stories in comics featuring them, this mystery is a bit of a bust. Outside of the Voice of the Court, there is almost no additional depth given to the group. They end up coming across as just another gang of faceless mooks to beat up. A late-game twist further pushes them to the periphery in favor of something even worse. WB Games Montreal delivered a great story in Arkham Origins, so I was excited to see what they could do when freed from that franchise, but this tale doesn’t reach their previous heights.

If there’s a saving grace to the story, it’s that the four main heroes are well-written, and each of their respective histories plays a role in how they approach the investigation into the Court. Barbara Gordon’s experience as Oracle and Jason Todd’s resurrection are important to their personalities, and it’s nice to see that the game weaves them into the narrative. The whole group (and Alfred) have good banter with one another, and I liked getting to see moments between them. In contrast to the Arkham series, Knights also cuts back on the number of side villains. It’s a bit of a mixed bag to be honest. Additional baddies probably would have added more flavor to the overall story, but with so few included, it does make each encounter that much more special.

As mentioned, Gotham Knights gives players the option to select from any of the four heroes for a mission. Each of the four handles roughly the same, but they do have their own styles that will appeal to different types of players. Batgirl and Nightwing are probably the easiest to use from the get-go. They offer up a good amount of agility and are proficient when it comes to hand-to-hand combat. The main difference between the two is that Nightwing puts his acrobatic background to use by easily bouncing around foes, while Batgirl is better at utilizing her tech skills to deal with trouble. Robin also has a strong tech background, but as the weakest of the four, he’s best when it comes to sneaking around and stealthily taking out enemies. Finally, Red Hood is the brute of the group. His large frame is great for taking on larger criminals, but his long-range repertoire also opens up unique combat opportunities.

Image via Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

In order to further separate itself from the Arkham series, Gotham Knights ditches the combat system that defined those games. And while I understand wanting to do your own thing, this feels like a mistake. Instead of the now iconic rhythm-centric bouts, this feels like regular meat and potatoes brawling. Combat often just boils down to mashing the attack button, and occasionally using the dodge button to avoid a strike. It doesn’t help that enemies tend to soak up a lot of punches before going down, with bosses being exceptionally egregious in this regard. Their deliberately high health is presumably to allow you to build up your momentum meter, which is used to unleash special abilities that you unlock as you level up. The problem is that these attacks may look cool, but they aren’t particularly fun to use. For example, one of Batgirl’s abilities has her focus on one foe and deliver a series of punches to him in a single burst. However, this boils down to mashing the same attack button you were just mashing for your regular attacks. It’s all sizzle no steak, so to speak.

Gotham Knights attempts to shake up the rather rote combat with its gear system. As you take out enemies, you’ll be rewarded with bits of crafting material, which can also be found in chests scattered across Gotham. You can then use these materials to build new outfits, hand-to-hand weapons, and long-range weapons. Upgraded items are not only stronger, but some come with additional perks as well. For example, you can craft a staff with the chance to do toxic damage or non-lethal bullets with freeze damage. It’s an easy enough system to use once you start finding material in bunches, and I enjoyed perusing the multitude of costume options that become available to you over time. However, all of the perks and bonuses in the world don’t really change the fact that the combat is still bland overall.

When you’re not cracking skulls, you’ll spend your time wandering around Gotham looking for trouble. The game breaks things down into daily shifts, with a shift starting once you leave the Belfry for the night, and ending once you return to it. During your nightly shift, you are free to travel across the multiple boroughs of Gotham to finish missions or to just seek out other activities to complete. The primary method of uncovering new things to do is by stopping small crimes that occur on just about every block. These show up on your in-game map as small icons, though you can also stumble across them during your travels. Stopping criminals during these moments will lead to them dropping clues, which can then be used to uncover pre-meditated crimes. These are more complicated crimes such as bank robberies, hostage rescues, or stopping criminal deals. Preventing these crimes will generate more experience, and typically reward you with new gear material as well. You do need to clear the premises quickly upon completing them, though, as Gotham PD doesn’t particularly want vigilantes saving the day.

Image via Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

There’s a decent amount of variety in the number of pre-meditated crimes that pop up throughout the game. However, most of them end up being solved the same exact way — with a fist to the face. Some of them offer a little more variety, such as getting to investigate a murder scene or having to deliver an organ to an ambulance, but they still begin to blend together after a while. It ends up reminding me of one of my least favorite aspects of Insomniac’s Spider-Man. Completing these tasks over and over again is good if you want to grind out experience, but that doesn’t make them consistently enjoyable. I don’t want to keep bringing up past Batman games, but those titles felt like they gave you more to do for these smaller crimes. Even if the game expanded upon the investigation segments, that could have gone a long way toward alleviating some of the tedium.

Not helping matters is the fact that getting around Gotham, and honestly movement in general, feels off. Starting out, your main tools for navigation are your grappling hook, Batcycle, and some hero-specific travel gear, such as gliding via cape. The grappling hook can scale just about every building and can be used to slingshot you around the city. When you need to travel a greater distance, then the Batcycle would make sense to use. Its compact size allows you to travel through areas a bulkier vehicle might not be able to, and being able to eject from it immediately leads to some cool opportunities. There are moments where moving around feels sluggish and unresponsive, though. Issues such as your grappling hook indicator not popping up, or your character not being able to properly hop onto a ledge, were frequent occurrences. These issues, in turn, affect the opportunities you get to silently take out enemies, or sneak past something. Three of the four playable characters are supposed to be known for their agility, but they end up feeling as bulky as Red Hood in moments.

Aside from the generated crimes and main story missions, there are several other activities you to complete. You can track down lost Batarangs, take photos of street art, or unlock caches hidden around town by Batman prior to his passing. Allies such as Lucius Fox and Renee Montoya pop up as well in order to give you optional quests to complete. The side-villain missions are also separate from the main story, but they are handled a little differently. These quests tend to need to be triggered from the Belfry first before you can take them on. From there, you’ll be transported directly to the objective location. You can’t access these from Gotham proper, as they take place in their own little levels. There will be times when you can get back out into the city to advance them, but the big moments are separate from everything else. It’s an odd setup, and I’m confused as to why you can’t just travel to them normally. Alfred or any of the other heroes should just be able to relay you the location from the Belfry instead of you having to do it yourself.

Image via Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

For a game that is seemingly based around it, the co-op in Gotham Knights feels like a half-baked inclusion. There’s a quick play option available, as well as the option to directly invite a friend from the in-game menu. Once you have a partner join your session, you can tackle just about every challenge the game throws at you. It’s definitely more enjoyable to fight alongside a friend, and the addition of two-person finishing moves is great. Having played through a campaign mission both solo and together, I didn’t really notice any massive changes. It still seemed like the game threw the same number of enemies our way, and the mission still played out exactly the same both times. The fact that the non-host character doesn’t appear on-screen during major cutscenes is disappointing, and oddly enough, when the cutscene ends, the camera pans to reveal that the other player was standing right off to the side. You’re telling me that Harley Quinn wouldn’t have an extra quip available for the second hero? The inclusion of co-op is a nice bonus, but it doesn’t feel integral to the experience.

Rather than copy the grungy style of Gotham from the Arkham series, Gotham Knights gives the city a makeover. It’s a lot brighter and shinier than I would have expected — you know with all of the rampant crime and whatnot. There’s a surprising variety to the world, and the game makes sure to take you around and explore it. One mission could lead you to a seedy bar, while another has you exploring a graveyard. I will say there are not a ton of civilians hanging around the streets, and when compared to something like Spider-Man, the city feels rather empty. Traveling around with the Batcycle looks slightly off as well. There are effects used to make it look like you’re moving faster than you are, but it comes off as hokey rather than impressive.

Character designs are the strongest part of the visual package. All four heroes look great both in and out of costume, and the aforementioned suit variety is great. This level of polish extends to the notable selection of villains as well. The Voice of the Court looks appropriately rich and regal, while Clayface is disgusting in all of the best ways. There’s a ton of repetition when it comes to basic criminal designs, but that’s not entirely surprising. The voice acting for the key characters is great too, and I even enjoyed the random quips from civilians as you move around Gotham. A drunk witness exclaiming “You go Batgirl!” in between vomit sessions was absurd enough to elicit a laugh from me.

Ultimately, Gotham Knights is the very definition of okay. The main story has potential, and some interesting moments, but never really gets going before it falls apart. The combat engine is capable enough but substitutes style for substance. And Gotham makes for a pretty location to visit, but moving around it is clumsier than it should be. Gotham Knights struggles to get out from under the immense shadow of previous Batman video games. Perhaps if the co-op mode had been left on the cutting room floor, WB Montreal could have spent the extra resources refining the rest of the package.

This review is based on the PlayStation 5 version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.

Gotham Knights
Middling

There are plenty of moments in Gotham Knights that make for a good time - the camaraderie between the heroes is enjoyable, and the city itself looks great. However, the combat is too basic and monotonous to stand on its own, and the story struggles to get going before it falls apart.