I posted my first impressions of Batman: Arkham Knight about a month ago. The game took me longer to complete than I expected, and my playtime must easily have run to over 40 hours. On the whole, I felt it was pretty good in its own right, though very frustrating at times; but looked at as the conclusion to a famous trilogy, it felt like a disappointment, failing to realize its potential due to some poor design choices.
As I see it, the makers of this game faced two substantial challenges: differentiating the game from Arkham City; and providing a compelling narrative conclusion to the saga, which streteches back to 2009’s Arkham Asylum. For a while, it felt like the game might be able to answer the first challenge by meeting the second. About halfway through, I was surprised and impressed by the lengths to which the game was deconstructing Batman’s psyche, as his personality and sense of self started to disintegrate under pressure coming from several directions. Ultimately, though, the game pulled back from that dark path and instead opted just to do things bigger and better than Arkham City, and with a Batmobile. I don’t think it worked.
The game is set over the course of a single night, with Batman seeking to stop Scarecrow from releasing a toxin that will devastate the Eastern seaboard of the United States. Of course, a host of other bad guys come out of the woodwork as well, and Batman receives a number of side missions to take down various enemies. Some of these work better than others. There is one mystery about a series of murders which is paced reasonably well over the course of the game, and one mission where you work with Nightwing to take down Penguin, who is running guns to Scarecrow. But others, like stopping a series of bank raids by Two-Face, just seem totally perfunctory and don’t relate to anything at all. There is a plethora of other, generic side missions, like rescuing civilians or taking down enemy watchtowers and checkpoints, which pad things out, and these are the weakest part of the game.
The main story is paced reasonably well and the game gives you breathers from time to time when you are encouraged to explore Gotham and take on side missions. As I mentioned in my previous post, Scarecrow is attempting to destroy Batman through a sort of “psychological death by a thousand cuts” by targeting those close to him in an effort to turn them against him, and to turn Batman against himself. It’s made worse by the fact that Batman fears his mind is slowly being taken over by Joker, having been infected by some of Joker’s blood during the course of Arkham City. This is one of the game’s major plot points, and Joker (with an amazing performance by Mark Hamill) is a constant presence and one of the game’s highlights. As the story progresses, there are times when the writers do a very good job of building a mature sense of adult fear, as Batman starts to regret the price paid by his friends for his actions. There is one moment when he takes off his mask, revealing the face of Bruce Wayne beneath, and I was really moved by the expression of pain and despondency. The story felt much bleaker and more poignant than I expected. Unfortunately, the game never fully commits to this path, which is probably the right commercial decision, but disappointing from an artistic point of view.
The Batmobile’s role in this game has been a source of some controversy and I have to say that overall I wasn’t a fan. As the game gets on, there is a lot of driving to be done, including in the main story. It can be fun, but the handling of the Batmobile can feel inconsistent, and it’s frustrating that your enemies will generally drive flawlessly and their vehicles, improbably, normally perform as well as the Batmobile itself. There are several semi-optional Riddler missions that involve absurdly difficult driving sections, too. For someone like me who never plays driving games, it’s a real turnoff, and it’s a shame as it can stop people from enjoying the rest of the game.
Similarly, some of the combat feels wrongly balanced. Even on normal mode, some of the fights are very difficult. In a single fight, you can encounter enemies with guns, knives, bats, and swords, as well as enemies you can’t hit because they’re electrified. The camera angle and targeting system are just not well-suited to managing large groups where you will be damaged if you touch the wrong person. Again, it’s unfortunate as the combat in much of the game is good fun, and its always been one of the best parts of the series.
The ending is another peculiar part of the game. The way the main story ended felt a bit anti-climactic, but that is because you are supposed to activate something called ‘Knightfall Protocol’ to get the proper ending. There are supposed to be two stages of Knightfall: one you can trigger when you complete a majority of the side missions, and one when you complete them all (including finding all the Riddler trophies). Now, when I completed the game, I had 7/14 missions completed, and a total game completion of 82%. Bear in mind, I had been playing for over a month and must have easily racked up 40+ hours. The game said I needed to finish 4 more side missions to activate Knightfall. I spent another few hours dusting up some of the side missions, only to find that the last one I needed actually had three parts (bomb disposal, watchtowers, and checkpoints). Considering there were stil about 20 checkpoints and watchtowers to clear, most of which have armed goons and turrets and take about 10 minutes to complete, I decided to give up. Other people online have said even after completing this tedious mission, the game wanted them to do all the Riddler stuff as well–ie, they couldn’t activate the first part of Knightfall, and had to do the second. The idea you should need to do all this just to get to see the ending is, frankly, ridiculous. I ended up watching the endings on Youtube, which is a pretty lame way to end things; and they weren’t even very good, anyway.
So, in conclusion, Arkham Knight was an ultimately disappointing way to end the series. It’s not a bad game, and indeed many aspects of it are very, very good; but it lacks the artistic cohesion and clarity of purpose that made the first two games special.