I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the Gotham Knights review as an avid Batman Arkham series fan, but Warner Bros Montreal endlessly throws gameplay mechanics at the wall to see what sticks, making it feel like the open-world RPG version of Frankenstein’s Monster. Rather than distilling what makes Rocksteady’s Arkham series so popular, it believes that bigger is better. The result is a bloated game, but one in which a colourful cast of characters tell an engaging story that’s worthy of its predecessors.
Bruce Wayne’s dead, Gotham City is even more crime ridden than usual in Batman’s absence, and the Bat Family must come together to uncover the mystery that led to their mentor’s demise. He leaves big shoes to fill, but Nightwing, Red Hood, Robin, and Batgirl all step up to the challenge as your new playable characters.
The story explores their hero personas as much as their grieving alter egos, giving Gotham Knights more of an emotional core than stories concerning the big brooding brute we’re used to seeing take on the world alone. It treads the wrong side of the line between endearing and mopey at times, but it’s inspiring to see a healthy support network help each other through grief – or as healthy as crime-fighting vigilantes can get, I suppose.
Batman’s gone, but far from forgotten. Gotham Knights reminds you of him pretty much every chance it gets, from citizens heckling that you’ll never live up to the Dark Knight to opportunist villains that have a wealth of off-screen history with the character. The fleeting references to their past are more rewarding to existing fans than newcomers, but that comes with the territory in any modern superhero game.
Familiar faces make a welcome return, with side missions centring on Mr Freeze, Harley Quinn, and Clayface. There’s no crossover between them, and there are tonal inconsistencies as you flit between saving Gotham from certain doom and chasing a balloon to a pop-punk cover of Livin’ La Vida Loca. Some will find the lack of cohesion distracting, maybe even cringeworthy, but I see the charm in each of these mission chains mirroring a one-shot comic book. They each culminate in enjoyable boss fights, and it’s a shame that there aren’t more of them. It’s an approach that would lend itself well to potential DLC, so perhaps that’s what we can expect.
The Court of Owls is your main foe in Gotham Knights. Although this makes a refreshing change from the revolving door of recycled Batman villains, the Court isn’t developed in quite the level of depth it deserves – not as the main antagonist, nor in light of its backstory in the comics, and nor by its in-game merits as a shadowy organisation that’s enacting a centuries-in-the-making grand plan. Most of its members also suffer the same mask-induced muffling as Bane from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, making them difficult to understand without cranking up the volume.
It’s pretty difficult to tell a new story when Batman has 83 years of history, including the best Batman games, but Warner Bros Montreal’s bold move of putting him in the ground mostly pays off. The twists and turns in the story are somewhat predictable, but it’s told in a sufficiently satisfying way that it’s more about enjoying the ride than clutching your chest and gasping in shock.
Getting through the story is a mixed bag. The Gotham Knights characters all share the same basic combat as the Arkham series, but the Momentum bar makes these heroes feel like they’re trained by Batman and not clones of him. When you level up or complete certain missions, you earn action points (AP) that you can use to unlock different skills. Fill up the Momentum bar by fighting, and you can tap into each Knight’s unique abilities. Nightwing is the acrobat and plays well with others by buffing teammates in co-op; Red Hood is the ranged brute that brings dual pistols; Batgirl is the techie that can hack into gadgets; and Robin relies on stealth.
Each hero has four skill trees, but since AP mostly goes towards stat buffs that don’t always feel tangible, budgeting them isn’t as important as it normally is in the best RPG games. I’m sure it all adds up as my Knights are tremendously more powerful now than when I first set out, but that’s more down to new gear.
The gear system is rudimentary, with outfits, melee weapons, and ranged weapons. You can get elemental resistance on your armour and elemental damage on your weapons, split between frost, shock, fire, and concussion. Each piece comes with stats you could spend your time comparing, but considering how drastically mods can buff your stats, whichever has the most mod slots will always ‘win’.
You don’t just get gear as rewards; you’re occasionally gifted schematics to craft your own, but again, this system appears deeper than it is. Finding schematics is random, as are the materials, which look like they come straight from Destiny 2. If you’re patrolling regularly between upgrades, you’ll almost always have what you need ready when you need it. On the occasions when you don’t, you’ll simply need to continue playing until the next phase of the game, as your current missions likely won’t reward you with the materials you want. No real choices arise from this system and I’m left wondering what the point is.
On the plus side, Gotham Knights gives you ample room to change your style, from the colour scheme to your mask, symbol, gloves, and boots. If you’re not a fan of your current look, you can unlock cosmetic suits that come straight from the pages of the comic books. These don’t have the same degree of customisation, but that’s a small price to pay to look like an actual medieval or a Titan. Better yet, you can switch between them whenever you want, giving you the freedom to alter your look between each cutscene.
We’re meant to believe that the protégés are seasoned professionals, but they’ve forgotten more than they’ve learned for the sake of in-game ‘progression’. Despite having a cape, Batgirl doesn’t initially know how to glide like her mentor; that’s an ability you need to unlock through a gruelling quest (which the game doesn’t make clear). Worse yet, you need to repeat the same challenges with each hero to unlock their unique travel abilities, making you feel more robbed than accomplished. It’s possible this is a balancing decision because it’s far easier to find collectibles on rooftops with a bird’s eye view, but it has the effect of demotivating me to switch between characters.
Collectibles are plentiful, with Batarang locations, street art, landmarks, and Court of Owls symbols to discover. It’s both overwhelming in sheer quantity, and underwhelming when all your hard work scouring Gotham City amounts to meagre XP gains. I haven’t yet discovered all 60 Batarangs, but without so much as a pat on the back for completing one region of the map, I’m not encouraged to locate the rest. Scanning all the graffiti in the city netted me a single action point, which comes in handy early on but is useless in the endgame. Say what you want about Riddler Trophies in the Arkham series, but the brilliant conversations with the narcissistic yet insecure Edward Nygma go a step further in rewarding you for your effort.
If earning travel abilities or collectibles doesn’t disrespect your time enough, you can only unlock Gotham Knights’ fast travel points by waiting for a drone to fly around them until it lands for a little rest, at which point you can scan it. There’s no challenge to spotting the drones or risk of them spotting you, it’s just a minute or two of utter nothingness, and one of the most bizarre design decisions I’ve seen in 2022.
Fortunately, Batgirl plays much like Rocksteady’s Batman once she’s kitted out, which makes it a cathartic pleasure – after the other frustrations of traversal – to take the scenic route. This will depend on your frame rate, though, as the Gotham Knights system requirements are pretty demanding. My RTX 3070 has a hard time running it at 1080p on medium settings, and regularly drops frames when grappling from one building to the next or speeding around on my Batcycle.
Co-op, on the other hand, is surprisingly flawless ahead of release. Exploring the vast open world with a friend is pretty much limitless, as you can both go anywhere in Gotham, either together or independently. You can even play as the same character so there are no arguments over who gets their favourite hero. The strength of enemies scales so you’re not stomping goons any easier, but you can perform team combos to give you the edge in a fight. You might want to adjust your lobby settings before you start a new game, though, as it’s open to matchmaking by default and there is potential for griefing on stealth missions.
Gotham Knights has a bit of an identity crisis on its hands, mixing half-baked RPG features and perplexing progression decisions in an apparent attempt to differentiate itself from the Arkham series when deep down it feels like – and would work fine as – another iteration. Deriving from one of the most beloved comic book game series around isn’t a bad thing, and Gotham Knights’ sentimental superhero story will scratch the Arkham itch for many.
Its colourful cast of characters handles Batman’s absence well, but mismatched features and puzzling progression means it trips as much as it triumphs.