Taking place three months after the events of it’s companion title, Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate is a Metroidvania style game with the Caped Crusader taking care of yet another incident at the Blackgate Penitentiary. Initially made available for the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita, the deluxe edition has been released on the Wii U eShop, Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and for Microsoft Windows. Rather than taking the “will it/won’t it be good” path, I’m just going to be forthright. Right here, we have a game that saddens me. It saddens me not because it’s bad, not because the developers, Armature Studios, didn’t care or even that the publishers, Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment, were trying to cash in. Blackgate is a game that is grounded in fear, something that should be right up the Dark Knight’s sleeve but sadly, he doesn’t seem to be the only unafraid guy in this whole situation.
The story is kind of slapdash. Batman is prowling the streets of Gotham when he encounters Catwoman up to her usual sticky fingered, double entendre riddled deeds, and in pursuit he quickly discovers and becomes enveloped in an incident at the prison. Based on my understanding of the timeline that makes this the third situation now. Upon arrival at the prison, he learns that there’s been a riot and prisoners have taken control of the facility. Each wing is controlled by a different enemy of ol’ Bats. His job, naturally, is to head in and recapture each villain, restore order and find out how it all happened, why it all happened, and take precautionary measures to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. In other words, an entirely disposable formula so that you, the player, can assume the role of Batman doing Batman things because he’s Batman and that’s what Batman does… Batman. You’ll find all the corruption, deceit and grizzled voices/overacting you expect to find, and that’s fine. For a lot of people, myself included, it’s nice to see the cowl with a scowl going in new and interesting directions, but given that he is only in around his third year of operation it’s OK for him to be doing fairly samey stuff as long as he’s doing Batman stuff… because Batman stuff is cool.
However, it doesn’t really feel like it here. The developers clearly had a lot of passion to take the Metroidvania style in some interesting new directions, but sadly lacked the financing and (originally) time. With a faux 2.5D design, it leans more towards the 3D than the 2D. It’s still a platformer, of that there is no doubt, but the map will twist and turn to simulate a fleshed out building rather than simply a bigger building for the sake of more content. You’ll leap into the fore/background and at times it will be really cool. But herein lies one of my biggest problems with the game – when you’re doing the platforming there is one place you can stand, and that’s the centre of the hallway.
When combat begins, naturally, Batman can’t fight one-on-one, it’s unfair on them. So a bunch of guys will be thrown at you, and later on, tougher enemies and combos will be introduced and mixed up for increased challenge. Unfortunately they operate more on the 2.5D field than you do, which causes some really uncomfortable combat when they can circle one another, but you can only target whoever is closest to you, even if you really need the guy behind him gone first. It doesn’t mutilate the combat as bad as I may be making it sound, but it does cause more than it’s fair share of frustrating moments. Enough to say that it’s there and you are very likely to see it. Aside from that, the combat is going to be familiar to anyone who has played any of the games in the Arkham series even if gadget use is downplayed and you can only counter one assailant at a time. The stealthy up-in-the-rafters gameplay is still there, but also in “lite” mode.
As the series has grown, one of the hallmarks the franchise has held onto is the interesting approaches to boss battles, and that has not been forgotten here. Without giving anything away, each time you encounter the Joker (come on, of course he was going to be in it) or one of the other bosses, you’re made to think about what’s going on, what you have at your disposal and how best to implement it into your strategy, rather than just diving on in and beating the living daylights out of them. And, as with all the previous Batman games, the player will see the same places repeatedly as you make progress, then hit a wall and realise you have to be in a place you’ve been before to acquire something that is only now available.
The overall design of the facility is unsurprisingly bleak and rundown, and the Joker’s area takes care of the void of blacks and greys found elsewhere. You’ll get lost from time to time and that only serves to compliment the style. Interestingly, the big change here is the detective mode. For the first time in the series there is a lot more emphasis on detection. Missing something could mean a lot of aimless wandering around wondering where the hell you’re supposed to go next. So, it would help to know early on, that not only do you have detective mode to see hidden paint or electricity boxes on the walls, but you also have a scanning mode that will allow access to a deeper version of detective mode that can only be performed while stationary. This not only allows you to see things such as weakened walls, floorboards or ceilings, but also gives you to option to analyze things and determine exactly what the more obscure things are and how you can best interact with them.
In each of the three areas: Industrial, Administration and Cell Block; you’ll find a set amount of items strewn about the place that relate to the person in control of that area, and spread across the entire map are chests containing either Gadgets, Gadget/Armor upgrades or parts that when complete unlock various iconic outfits, a personal favourite being the Superman: Red Son Russian Anarchist Batman,“Batmankoff”. Unfortunately, equipping said outfits upon completing the sets renders your progress invalid for any leaderboard tracking.
Visually (and audibly), the game is a port from the handheld version, that’s fine. It – understandably – looks a damn sight better than the 3DS version, but only marginally better than the Vita version, in some cases a little worse due to being stretched for a screen 40 times its intended size. That’s fine, too. Some may say “Why didn’t they just remake the game? They have the engine!” and therein lies my main problem here. The reason this game has an overall feel of lacking in the first place is, as I said, not due to lack of passion on the developers part, not because the publishers were trying to cash in, but simply because they knew their limitations. They knew that, while many of us would, most of us wouldn’t buy this. And that sucks. That’s why it didn’t get the great financial backing it deserved. That’s why it likely didn’t get a lot of time to be developed and most of all, that’s why they had to port it. Because profits matter.
If we want good games, we, at times, have to buy games that just miss the bar but were so clearly trying. If we don’t, then all that promise and potential stops being profitable and goes away. I don’t say that as an apologist, I say it as a gamer. If I want new things that will be awesome, I have to try new things that may be bad in the pursuit of that. Many will like it, some will not. It’s not the best game I’ve played, but I’m glad I got to see it and for that reason, Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate comes with my recommendation.
A digital review copy for PS3 was provided by Warner Brothers PR team. Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate is out now for digital download from PSN, XBLA, Wii Shop and Steam.