Gotham Knights has been in a rather unenviable position.
The Warner Bros. Montreal-developed Batman game is coming off Rocksteady’s beloved Batman: Arkham trilogy, which is a high bar to clear. There’s also been a general apprehension towards the game, especially amid the recent controversy surrounding a 30fps framerate cap. People have even drawn unfavourable comparisons to Square Enix’s much-maligned Marvel’s Avengers.
So, how is Gotham Knights? Well, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. It’s certainly not on the level of any of the otherwise unrelated Arkham games, even WB Montreal’s own Arkham Origins, but it’s also far better than Avengers. Truth be told, such comparisons actually do Gotham Knights a disservice, as the Canadian developer has done an admirable job in giving this latest Batman outing its own sense of identity, warts and all.
A Death in the Family
There have been countless stories about Batman, so WB Montreal’s decision to instead focus on four of his closest allies is perhaps the single greatest one it could have made. Our tale begins with Batman’s untimely demise while attempting to crack a tough case, leaving Nightwing (Dick Grayson), Robin (Tim Drake), Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) and Red Hood (Jason Todd) to rise up and finish what he started. It’s an exceptionally strong premise, as it gives lead roles to four characters who are all too often relegated to the sidelines. As someone who grew up following Dick Grayson’s journey from Batman’s first sidekick to becoming his own man as Nightwing across comics, Batman: The Animated Series and Teen Titans, I’m overjoyed to have one of my favourite DC heroes be such a prominent character in a video game. But really, all four of the Knights are likeable and full of personality; on top of the charming and playful Dick, we have the intelligent and reserved Robin, determined and cunning Batgirl and gruff but earnest Jason.
WB Montreal also makes good use of Batman’s top-notch rogue’s gallery, featuring fun takes on characters like Harley Quinn (who’s refreshingly on her own following the death of the Joker), Man-Bat, Penguin and one pleasantly surprising figure I won’t dare spoil. The absolute highlight, however, is The Court of Owls. A relatively recent entry to the Batman mythos, this ancient clandestine organization significantly elevates Gotham Knights‘ somewhat slow-starting narrative with a healthy dose of suspenseful mystery and eerie romps through Gotham’s deep underground.
Above all else, though, Gotham Knights‘ narrative succeeds by offering up a Bat Utility Belt’s worth of engaging cutscenes that flesh out the Knights, particularly when it comes to how they’re each mourning their mentor and friend. This is easily Gotham Knights‘ greatest strength — quieter, emotionally-charged moments that further endear us to this dysfunctional family. Alfred and Tim fondly remembering Bruce as they play chess with his old pieces. Dick dropping his flippant façade to lay bare his feelings to Barbara, his ex-girlfriend. Jason using what he’s learned about anger to empathize with Barbara’s pent-up emotions about her father’s death. While some flashbacks with Batman and the Knights to give deeper insight into their relationships wouldn’t have gone amiss (the Caped Crusader is only seen after his death in training missions to spout generic instructions), Gotham Knights won me over by exploring the humanity of its four leads, and it’s all the better for it.
Endure, Master Wayne
WB Montreal also took great care to make each Knight distinct from a gameplay perspective. While they all fundamentally control the same, there’s a surprising degree of nuance with respect to how each feels. Being a trained acrobat, Nightwing is by far the most agile, gracefully flipping, twirling and tumbling around with his dual escrima sticks. The staff-wielding Robin, being the smallest hero, is afforded unique stealth abilities like an Arkham-style Inverted Takedown that can help you avoid direct combat altogether. Batgirl, meanwhile, mixes up tonfas and nunchuks while also being able to hack security cameras. Finally, Red Hood is a brawler who leverages guns and mines into his rough and tumble playstyle.
Admittedly, combat can feel basic at first, forcing you mash the melee button to see RPG-esque numbers chip away at enemy health. What’s more, the absence of the stylish fluidity of Arkham‘s popular Freeflow Combat makes Gotham Knights seem a bit slow by comparison. But eventually, I came to appreciate how this isn’t Arkham; instead of racking up a big combo, it’s more about timing your attacks and dodges and leveraging character-specific skill trees to maximize your damage potential. For instance, Nightwing has an unlockable and upgradable ability that lets him leap off one enemy to grapple kick another, springboard off him and then repeat a couple more times. It’s fast, frenetic and incredibly effective at giving you some breathing room when dealing with larger groups of enemies. On the flip side, Red Hood has a move that lets him attach a mine to enemies before throwing them and leaving them open for a well-timed shot that causes a wide-reaching explosion. There’s also a gear system to spec out your hero, which I initially thought felt tacked on but ultimately proved useful as I was able to give my attacks elemental add-ons like ice effects to freeze enemies.
Where Gotham Knights lost me at times, however, is with its structure. Those heartfelt scenes that I mentioned earlier? They take place exclusively in the Belfry, the Knights’ base of operations in between missions, and many of them are completely optional, at that. For pretty much the rest of the campaign, Gotham Knights‘ single-player experience is an awkwardly solitary affair. Before setting out from the Belfry and venturing out into the open-world Gotham, you’ll select one of the Knights to play as. The catch? Only the Knight you’ve selected will actually leave the Belfry, so any cutscenes or gameplay moments you’ll experience will only feature them. It’s a baffling choice that squanders much of the potential of having a story centred around a group of heroes. Unless you play co-op, you’ll never actually see the Knights, you know, actually teaming up.
What that leaves you with, then, is a suite of missions that all play out the same but have slight dialogue variations depending on the character you selected. That in itself is fine, as it’s unreasonable to expect different stories for each character, but it’s frankly bizarre to not even have other Knights show up here and there — if not as a computer-controlled ally, then at least in the occasional cutscene. So strange is this “single hero” approach that beating the final boss as Nightwing yielded me a series of cutscenes only featuring Dick; it was as if WB Montreal forgot about the other heroes.
Instead, all we get is the remaining Knights alternating between talking to you over comms as you play as your chosen hero. While this decision surely was made to accommodate the drop-in/drop-out co-op (in which cutscenes are framed from the perspective of the host’s character), it leaves the single-player experience with a sense of disjointedness. Co-op itself is also quite entertaining, although it currently only lets you have a second character to play the same single-player missions; with nothing specifically designed for you and a friend to take on, it doesn’t drastically change the experience. A free four-player co-op mode, Heroic Assault, will launch in November and have unique arena-based challenges.
World’s Okayest Detectives
The campaign further suffers from rather painfully dated mission design. Often, progression in a given questline is locked behind unbearably tedious busywork, like “stop five premeditated crimes” to find out what Mr. Freeze is planning or “interrogate three gangs in different districts” to locate a person of interest in your investigation. It’s annoyingly frequent and can really kill the flow of the narrative.
This spotty design applies to both main and sidequests. The perfect example of this can be found in an optional Harley Quinn mission. Sure, it starts off promising, with some city riots leading you to a hospital overrun by the deranged doctor herself. And when I first entered the building, I was enamoured with the eerie, run-down atmosphere juxtaposed with Harley’s vibrant, jester-themed aesthetic sprinkle throughout. But that novelty quickly runs out when practically every single room consisted of groups of enemies to clear out, with nothing meaningful to shake up each encounter outside of the occasional electrical trip mine. At times, it feels like WB Montreal was afraid to let you go very long without punching something, and it can become grating.
This is quite a shame, honestly, because there are some exceptional levels that exhibit a bit more restraint in this regard. Take the mission that has you infiltrating an aristocratic Court of Owls gala — this is just as much about sneaking around and locating specific targets as it is combat, giving it a nifty espionage vibe. Another Court quest, meanwhile, takes a psychological turn, evoking the spirit of the fantastic Scarecrow nightmare sequences from Batman: Arkham Asylum. If only the campaign was able to sustain this level of variety.
Special shoutout must also be given to the city itself. While not as visually stunning as Arkham Knight, it’s certainly the biggest and densest Gotham we’ve seen. Unlike the Arkham games’ various story justifications to awkwardly explain why there are no NPCs, this Gotham features plenty of NPCs throughout the rain-soaked streets, shouting cheery words of encouragement or angry protests as you pass by. Even without a cool gliding mechanic à la Arkham, it’s certainly fun to drive around on the Batcycle and soak in the moody atmosphere. Indeed, whenever the missions proved dull, I found myself having a blast exploring Gotham as Nightwing, somersaulting off rooftops, stopping random crimes and hearing the ever-lovable hero crack wise. And despite the furor over the lack of a 60fps option, the game looked and ran decently for me on PS5 — it’s pretty polished and bug-free on the whole.
A Knight to Remember
I’ve come away a bit torn on Gotham Knights. Frustratingly archaic and repetitive quest design and missed opportunities with our titular heroes hold back the experience from greatness. But even if Gotham Knights didn’t quite live up to the promise of a Bat Family team-up, it graciously let me live out my fantasies of fighting crime in an open-world Gotham as Nightwing while telling a memorable story about Batman’s larger supporting cast. Gotham Knights is certainly imperfect, but like its lead characters, it’s got a lot of heart, and that’s ultimately what counts.
Gotham Knights will launch on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S and PC on October 21st.
Image credit: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment