Disclaimer: The first half of the review will be spoiler-free. The second half of the review will include exceedingly specific praises/grievances and will very much have many, many spoilers.
When you first boot up Gotham Knights, you are treated to a 21-minute cut scene that deals with Batman’s final stand and the immediate aftermath of his death. The majority of the time is spent in the expansive Batcave, and my first thought was, “what an impressive set piece with an incredibly questionable foundation.” As the game went on, this became a more or less apt metaphor for Gotham Knights as whole.
After leisurely completing the main campaign and side cases over the course of the week, dabbling with endgame and co-op, and starting the New Game Plus, I hold two states of mind:
- When this game hits, it hits incredibly well providing a high strung power fantasy playing as different Batfamily members.
- When this game misses, it instills a deep-sated rage I have not experience in many years and wanted to throw my controller at the television.
Living Up to a Legacy
As you’re probably already aware, Gotham Knights is the latest action RPG from WB Games Montreal that lets you take on the mantle of four of Batman’s proteges as they take over protecting Gotham, uncovering various secrets, and taking down various criminal organizations and villainous fronts. And while it takes some cues from the Arkham games that came before Knights, it is very intent on making sure you know it’s a separate entity.
It certainly doesn’t help that even on a next-generation console (a PlayStation 5 in my case) that the 30FS look and gameplay took several sessions to get used to. Immediately after your introduction to combat, the game then forces to you to learn how to navigate with the clunky Batcycle mechanics and makes it your primary mode of transportation through the several boroughs of Gotham (for many hours) before you can unlock fast travel points and character-specific traversal methods.
Gotham Knights’ core gameplay cycles between instance missions, where you’re tasked with various objectives, and an open free roam, where you patrol around Gotham taking down criminal in both randomly occurring and premeditates crimes. Gotham itself is an expansive city and each of the districts has its own character and charm with different landmarks and enemy factions. In the moments of patrol and directed missions lies Gotham Knights‘ greatest strength: you get to really embody the characters as time goes on.
At the beginning of the game, the combat feels exceedingly similar between the characters. Given that you start with no abilities, Nightwing, Robin, Batgirl, and Red Hood are limited to a bare-bones melee/dodge/ranged attack kit, and the combat with the random fodder becomes a simple game of dodge repeatedly until an opening is revealed. After you get a few levels, you’re able to start distinguishing the characters’ kits in big ways. Red Hood’s able to invest in both “totally non-lethal ammunition” and a grapple heavy kit. Nightwing gets various acrobatic feats and co-op centric support baths. Batgirl’s surprisingly has the most health of all of the characters and features a straightforward bruiser style with some Oracle shenanigans mixed in. And finally, Robin has improved stealth combat capabilities and increasingly potent elemental effects.
A significant part of the Gotham Knights’ kit lies within the Knighthood skill tree which is unlocked individually for each character for clearing 10 premeditated crimes, three mini-bosses, and doing the basic. It’s a grindy looter-shooter relic that culminates with your character having an understated epiphany that doesn’t fulfill the promise that the Knighthood would be a unique experience that helps the characters grow, but further allows you to customize their playstyle.
That being said, the game writers very clearly love the characters. While the main story is fairly paint by the numbers as you pick up Batman’s last investigation case and eventually get involved with the Court of Owls, the character interactions are entirely point. The bits of dialog between characters perfectly captures each of the character’s natures whether it is Red Hood’s curt snark or Nightwing’s flippant quips. The contextual dialog in the different scenes is a great touch, and the various mini-cutscenes that show the Batfamily interacting with each other in different contexts were both laugh out loud funny and emotionally sweet.
None of this is more evident than when playing co-op. While the game struggles at times, the majority of the time either while playing with friends or randomly matchmaking in another player’s world, the experience was surprisingly smooth. Whether we stuck together to tackle harder missions or divided and conquered to maximize objective clearing, it became very clear that the game intended to be played with a friend, especially with all of the fun banter between the characters. The idle dialog and exchange really capture the spirit of the comics, and I personally adore it. And in particular, I want to highlight Stephen Oyoung’s performance of Red Hood as one of the best interpretations of the character right up there with the original Batman: Under the Red Hood.
It’s largely because of this fantastic distillation of the Batfamily that makes me want to love this game. But more often than not, the game made it very difficult for me to love it. Although, we ended up coming to an understanding.
The UI is clumsy on controller with several layers of prompts and button inputs that lead to several mistakes and mis-presses forcing you to restart the process of viewing a specific objective or a piece of gear. You randomly acquire loot while playing and have to individually check each piece or lore in order to get rid of the annoying blinking new item notification. Lesser mods can be fused, but the mods’ effects are hard to feel in the moment-to-moment gameplay. The loot itself feels entirely inconsequential while leveling up until it suddenly becomes mandatory and then again when the gear trivializes the encounter design entirely. There’s a weird five elemental affinity mechanics that is only ever explained during briefly loading screen tips that are able to make combat easier, but more crucially are able to completely neuter your ability to do anything to certain enemies. Some character progression is locked behind open world collectibles (a known anathema of mind) and others are locked behind awkward objectives. Later enemies completely mitigate certain combat tactics and at various times there are instant-kill mechanics that ruin otherwise interesting set pieces and moments.
At various times, I questioned whether or not I actually liked the game or whether I was just playing because of the specific itch to want to play Red Hood. I’d play for a few hours reluctantly grinding through objectives and then spend several hours gleefully domineering over groups. My enjoyment oscillated so much it was almost as vertigo inducing as the finicky camera or the awkward grappling hook that always picks the worst possible anchor point. But I did indeed find myself itching to play more and more once I got through the low lows.
Spoilers Inbound (Not the Batfamily One Though)
In this section, I shall be discussing some specific instances of the game that constitute as spoilers and if you’d like to avoid that, you can just skip to the summary.
The game constantly teeters between “good idea, rough execution” and an exasperated ask of “who hurt you,” which is probably no better emphasized with the three major side missions in the game. At some point in the story, you go head to Harley Quinn, Mr. Freeze, and Clayface in a little sequence that takes you through a small reflective journey.
Mr. Freeze’s introductory mission takes you through the hall of S.T.A.R. Labs and eventually through various missions and petty crimes that brake up progress until the point where you scale a frozen Eliot building to confront Freeze while a storm engine blares in the background. An incredible set piece that is immediately ruined by the bullet sponge nature of the fight and unforgiving area of effects of charged freeze beams that can track you aggressive and homing missiles that need a very wide berth to avoid.
This fight took forever as a solo player, at least in part due to the fact I had inadvertently equipped cyro weapons, but the second and final version of the fight where Freeze had a mecha was similarly infuriated and despite being over-leveled and using the correct fire weapons, I had to turn the game difficulty down to keep my sanity and even then it still me twenty minutes.
Harley Quinn’s route was less rage inducing but only by a hair. After breaking into a theater, the game eventually places you in a death pit with two large bruisers of mini-bosses, wave after wave of re-spawning adds, and then on top of that has the audacity to introduce insta-death mechanics in the forms of one to three bombs that have to be disabled, all of which can be easily interrupted by the camera or any enemy attack in the small arena. That particular encounter was so painfully obvious designed with two people in mind, and once I did hop onto co-op, it was manageable and fair in a way that the solo-ing could never.
With Clayface, I had reached the max level of 30, so combat wise nothing was too egregious, but in the final Clayface there was a mandatory auto-scroller bat sequence that killed me about 7 times because I hadn’t used the Batcycle after unlocking fast travel points and heroic traversal methods. Most of the fails were due to user error, but at least three simply felt that the game decided to kill me randomly for being hopeful.
And the main campaign isn’t exempt for this nonsense, as higher end enemies seem to have a much more responsive dodge command than mine. The Court of Owls in particular have ridiculously mobile Talons, and the League of Shadows units straight up can’t be grappled which is terrible as 50% of my skill tree as Red Hood is dedicated to being able to grab enemies. This high variance and parity in encounter difficulty really hampers the play-through, and at any given point, I am either fighting for dear life or causally clearing mobs, freaks, and regulators with ease.
But the small story beats are absolutely incredible. Between an exchange between Dick and Jason over an incident with a can of tomatoes, the different lines of dialog, the memory of Batman encouraging his proteges with post-mind’s eyes training, to the the most endearing cut scenes between the cast, coupled with a somewhat satisfying endgame grind, it is all enough to keep a semi-vested interest.
At the End of the Knight…
Ultimately, I liked the time I spend with Gotham Knights. The foundation is admittedly shaky with what feels like weak technical optimization and various questionable design choices intended to prolong play time, but the game itself is fun. When the game isn’t swinging wildly between ends of its challenge, getting to play as your favorite Batfamily character is a ton of fun, and playing with a friend as you utilize different skills to tackle a surprising variety of objectives is very cool. But, it’s hard to wholeheartedly recommend this game to anyone outside of the dedicated Batfanatics. While the game is fun, it also suffers from repetition, and there are long stretches of the game where I was engaged only on the promise of it getting better. But it was fun, and there are several opportunities for continuation and more playable characters that make it even more enticing. While the game isn’t a true live service game, the fact remains that DLC introducing other members of the Batfamily and adding more factions and villains to the mix would definitely be welcome.
So while I can’t endorse the full $70 price tag, I do think that Gotham Knights is worth picking up at some point in the future, and perhaps the Heroic Assault game mode will also add some much needed life to the game, but that doesn’t come out until the end of the month. At the end of the day, you have a fun adaption of the Court of Owl mythos in a game that as fun as it is infuriating at times. As I slog through the New Game Plus making me replay the worst parts of the game with the same number of enemies, I question why there was a NG+ in the first place, but the end promise of a more powerful Knight has me invested just enough to play to a point where my friends and I can eventually partake in co-op and enjoy the frenetic streets of Gotham as WB Games Montreal intended.