After what seems like an age we’re finally able to get hands on with Gotham Knights, the next chapter in Warner Bros DC licensed games, and an eagerly anticipated title in its own right. With the Arkham series over the last decade proving to be some of the finest crafted blends of story telling and gameplay, and knowing that there was a new adventure featuring multiple vigilante heroes set in an open world city, it’s fair to say that we wanted to play this. However, leading up to release it’s not felt like all has been rosy in the Montreal studio, and after a couple of delays there was the announcement it would be new console generations and PC only. Couple this with some lacklustre previews and there were clouds forming over the game before it had even had chance to make it into the public’s hands. So… has it turned out to be a soggy mess because it’s forgotten to pack its Rocksteady umbrella, or does it have the last laugh in a waterproof suit made of player engagement and solid mechanics?
Batman is dead. No spoilers, that’s just the way the game opens… or rather how the lengthy cinematic plays out. The hero we all deserve doesn’t survive his final criminal encounter and his four sidekicks – Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl and Red Hood – are left to pick up the physical and emotional pieces. With little time to mourn they’re back out into the shiny wet streets of the city to not only keep the gangs in order, but figure out why Batman was killed in the first place. It’s not long before they uncover the involvement of a secret society that’s been orchestrating all the moves from behind the scenes, with the sinister Court of Owls finally making a videogame appearance to spice up the underworld. There’s also the usual roster of Batman’s foes to contend with, all of which are deciding to make a grab for power and glory now their nemesis is gone. Picking one of the titular Gotham Knights, it’s up to you to head out into the rain soaked streets, battle the gangs and make the place safe for citizens again, as well as solve the cases thrown your way that the police can’t handle. Are you up to the task?
Billed as an action RPG, Gotham Knights is set in a fully open city with the ability to travel anywhere right from the start, and the structure of the game is all about heading out in the night time to suppress the criminal activity. Any of the four main characters can be picked, and there’s no demand to change unless you fancy trying one of the others out – progression and levelling is global. It breaks itself down into three core gameplay areas: combat, puzzle solving and exploration; and they’re reasonably well featured across each with some nice ideas on piecing clues together to make progress in an investigation. Fighting crime is the staple of the game though, and you can expect to be kicking ass across Gotham pretty much every time you head out into the world. Each character has the same controls and traversal skills, yet different move sets and abilities, and it’s down to preference on which you’ll spend the most time with. Batgirl is athletic and efficient, Robin is a tad more stealthy, Nightwing feels like an all-rounder, whilst Red Hood is built like a tank and has guns. That latter fact doesn’t really do much to help, no one is going down with a single shot. None are specialised for particular missions and that lets you experiment to your heart’s content with each one and to guess if any scenes with NPCs would play out differently as the dialogue does seem specific at times.
The combat works fairly well and can be quite satisfying when facing off against large groups as you dodge, weave and punch your way through the throngs of goons, but don’t expect the levels of solid fighting like the Arkham games. Gotham Knights is a much looser, free flowing affair, and means that whilst it’s visually impressive there are times things fail to connect, or your only option is to keep backing up to find space to get a hit in before it’s blocked or countered. It gets better as you level up each character and open up the special abilities, though on the lower difficulties they aren’t essential to win an encounter. Even with simple inputs like one button for light or heavy attack, one for evade and one for chucking stuff, there’s a credible variation to the combos and it’s not too shallow when it comes to managing the best way to deal with each enemy type. Stealth is part of the gameplay, and in most cases it’s optional. Being loud will make things tougher for you, whereas keeping it quiet can be rewarding as you make use of the vantage points and isolating the bad guys. There’s bonus XP to gain too if you stick to the objectives the game suggests, and that’s all handy in boosting your level.
Earning more XP opens up the additional skills and damage modifiers, and also makes it easier to take on higher level enemies. It also allows access to better kit and mods that will buff your clothing stats or weapons. You can add these at pretty much any time, and when you’re back at the Belfry hideout there’s the capability to create new items assuming you’ve found or earned the blueprints. It’s nothing revolutionary, though it works and gives quite a lot of customisation options for each of the core characters, even if it’s just transmogrifying the outfits. It’s in the Belfry that you can view case progress and speak to the other team members, and even have a game of Spy Hunter if you’re after a retro arcade experience. Leaving the lair starts the next night shift and puts you back on the streets ready for clean up action, or to continue the main story. Getting around the world uses either running and grappling, or riding the Batcycle (or whatever this version is called), and fast travel unlocks as sidequests are completed. It’s an interesting set of choices for the locomotion because it’s when you start exploring in earnest that the cracks in the game start to show.
Gotham Knights’ world is fairly large and the most convenient way to get around is via the bike, but it’s hardly what you’d call thrilling. There’s lots of noise and screen effects, but it suffers from not really conveying any acceleration even though the audio has you believe you’re going up through the gears. It also has a drift option for tight corners where the drift circle is larger the corner radius so you end up in the wall. Not the smoothest way about. The second best option is grappling, but that’s a random affair as the auto targeting sometimes shoots you off in the opposite direction without warning. Running about is just slow and shows up how barren the city actually is. Sure, the buildings are nicely detailed and the raytraced reflections in the puddles can be lovely, but there are vey few cars and almost no citizens about. It makes you think that you’re actually only cleaning up Gotham on behalf of the other gangs. The strange choices in design you’d think are a compromise for the co-op mode and to reduce the strain, but this is a new generation only title, and there’s little in it that would make you think it’s actually running on the latest hardware. Framerate drops and stutter are also present, which is worrying when it’s been locked to 30 fps deliberately. Interiors are exempt from this though, and often provide the highlight of the environments.
Underground or inside buildings, you’ll end up there pretty often in the course of investigating the mysteries the game has to offer, and largely they’re interesting places with good levels of detail and tightly scripted puzzles. These showcase the best parts of Gotham Knights and can be compelling, though still feel a little devoid of life. Enemy encounters aside, it’s almost like they’re there to showcase the art design and feel a bit static and not interactive. They also suffer from lengthy loading times (comparatively for this generation) to enter and exit, so it’s not even as if it’s a seamless experience. Occasionally there’s chatter amongst the team that moves the plot forward or expands on the location, and it’s a good effort, though the voice cast aren’t the most engaging, and it’s easy to find your attention span dropping when you get into some meaty dialogue. The story and comradery are meant to be the parts of the game that hook you and provide the impetus for pushing forward, and with them being a bit lacklustre it struggles to be more than “go to point A, beat up the bad guys, go to point B, beat up the bad guys, go back to base… repeat“. There are challenges to seek out, collectables to find, and Knighthood accolades to earn, yet that all feels like busy work and it’s optional with little more than an in-game bit of text to let you know it’s around.
Gotham Knights is packed with story, characters and gameplay options (as well as a full open world co-op mode), but it struggles to tie it all together to make something fun and compelling from. Graphically it’s nicely modelled, but not new gen levels of visual effects; the city is missing citizens; the puzzles are not challenging; and given the sheer accomplished vision of the last few Batman games, the combat stands out as just being a bit… meh. There are glimmers of good design, the whole game works, and I’m sure plenty of people will enjoy an excursion around one of the most iconic locations in comics, yet it all feels a bit soulless – almost as if it started out as a live service game and had to be retooled when they saw how The Avengers went down. Uber-fans of the comics, and the Court of Owls in particular, should consider it, though maybe leave it for now if you’re not, and let’s come back in a couple of months to see if it’s managed to towel itself dry and deliver on the underlying promise.
A PS5 review copy of Gotham Knights was provided by Warner Bros. PR team, and the game is available now on PS5, Xbox X|S and PC for around £50 depending on platform.