To enjoy Gotham Knights you must make peace not just with the death of Batman – slain by an old enemy during the prologue – but with the passing of the Arkham series, perhaps the finest video game comic book adaptations ever made. WB Games Montreal developed the third Arkham game, 2013’s Batman: Arkham Origins, but it has taken things in a different direction with Gotham Knights, which promotes four sidekicks to playable centre-stage, shifting the emphasis to levelling-up and co-op as you trace Bruce Wayne’s murder to a sprawling underworld conspiracy.
Arkham was about Batman in his prime, a godlike predator who doesn’t just knock opponents out but terrorises them, whittling their numbers down one dangling execution or crushing countermove at a time; the point was to feel overwhelming. Gotham Knights is a spirited work but gawkier, less assured, at once more expansive and somehow less immense.
Partly that’s because it casts you as a bunch of relatively junior heroes – Batgirl, Red Hood, Nightwing and Robin – struggling to find themselves and perfect their skills in their mentor’s absence. You’ll switch between them at your belfry HQ, setting forth each night to patrol Gotham by grappling hook or Batcycle, then heading home to discuss leads and trigger the next story cutscene. But it’s also that Gotham Knights takes cues not just from previous Batman games but an older, mercenary species of open-world RPG epitomised by Ubisoft’s The Division.
Arkham had its upgrades, but this game goes fully loot crazy with equipment stats, rareties, incremental mods and effects such as frost or poison. Missions have recommended character levels, and you must keep crafting more powerful versions of the same gear to stay competitive with villains who span a familiar range of categories: grunts, snipers, big ’uns with shields, drone-launching techies and smoke-throwing assassins.
It makes for a nightmarishly cluttered inventory screen, and the reliance on levelling requires you to spend a few hours attending to unremarkable side missions, such as hostage rescue or purging criminal strongholds. It also spoils the feel of combat, where differences in level between character and foe aren’t reflected in the animations. When you’re at a statistical disadvantage, larger fights may drag past 10 minutes, blow after blow connecting with opponents who stagger and tumble gratifyingly yet refuse to stay down.
It’s a shame, because when you’re evenly matched, the combat is springy, accessible and delightful, spinning out an easily understood system of light and heavy attacks, dodges, projectiles and special moves into four colourful styles. Batgirl is a lightning bruiser, cartwheeling through the melee only to pounce and tenderise somebody with unblockable combos. Robin is a sneaky gadgeteer, conjuring holographic decoys or placing mines with his catapult. Red Hood is the muscle, either grabbing throats or holding crowds at bay with 360-degree pistol salvoes, while Nightwing is a hyperactive flea, bouncing from head to head.
There’s overlap between roles: Robin is perfectly capable in a brawl and Red Hood no less menacing in the shadows, making it possible to play as any one hero for the entire game. They also share level-up points, so you can switch characters without leaving anyone behind. But each has a distinct flavour that carries over to the moderately engaging story scenes, where the cast squabble about methods and unpack their feelings about Bruce Wayne.
There isn’t the same chemistry in the much-trumpeted multiplayer, with few scenarios that require meaningful cooperation (it’s two-player only at the moment, but there’s a four-player mode coming via downloadable update). Stealth, however, is the biggest disappointment in Gotham Knights. Where Batman infested the city’s crevices, his underlings merely invade them: you can work together to set up terrain traps or create distractions, but it’s a world away from the older series’ puzzlebox intricacy and it’s always more fun to barge in swinging.
While later enemies with specific takedown criteria can be irritating, Gotham Knights improves over time, your heroes growing steadily more heroic as the story burrows into the setting’s uniquely troubled psychogeography. Those depths have always been Gotham’s greatest attraction, its propensity for grotesque villains both policed and amplified by the twisted persona of Batman himself. Sadly, Gotham Knights only flirts with the horror potential of this: it’s far more Scooby-Doo than Joker.
Similarly, the game’s architecture is arresting, with landmarks rearing from coloured fog like watchful dragons and a multitude of ominous interiors to pick through. But the open world diversions enclosing it all are mundane: optional races, backstory collectibles and laboriously unlocked fast-travel points.
It might seem unfair to relentlessly compare Gotham Knights with Batman and Arkham, but the game itself insists on this, its story chewing over Bruce’s memory even as it clings to signature Arkham ideas, such as spying from gargoyles. It can’t work out whether to become Batman or dump him, which is unfortunate, because in terms of how they move, at least, each of these erstwhile sidekicks could carry a game alone.