Gotham Knights Review (PS5) – Knight of the Living Dead

The Arkham Games were a breath of fresh air to a fetid superhero games market back in 2009. Sure there were superhero games, but none that many people cared for. Suddenly Arkham Asylum burst onto the scene giving you Stealth Batman, Action Batman, Detective Batman and a beautifully designed and inspiring game to go with it. It was always going to be a tall order to follow them. Rocksteady themselves are trying to follow their own success with Suicide Squad, and Warner Bros Studios Montreal have pipped them to the post with Gotham Knights.

The premise is fantastic and startling – Batman is dead, killed by Ra’s Al Ghul. Without its protector, Gotham City falls to rioting, gang violence and supervillainy. And into the void, Batman’s successors must step; Batgirl aka Barbara Gordon, daughter of the late commissioner; Nightwing aka Dick Grayson, the first Robin; Red Hood aka Jason Todd, the second Robin, killed and resurrected from a Lazarus Pit; and the current Robin aka Tim Drake. Four heroes, four Knights. The Bat Family gon’ ride.

It sounds impressive – almost impossible to mess it up, right? Same core gameplay as the Arkham games, same world and lore, even better next-gen systems.

The trouble is that things often suffer by comparison. In a world where the Arkham Games didn’t exist and Gotham Knights hit the scene fresh, we’d probably notch up another point here. But in comparison it’s sadly a little disappointing.

So Gotham Knights starts with an action-packed cinematic of Batman’s last fight. Ra’s Al Ghul storms the Batcave, and proceeds to poison Batman. Unable, it seems, to defeat him, Batman sends out his death message, and uncharacteristically I think, self-destructs the Batcave, causing it to come toppling down on him and Ra’s. But are they actually dead? Well, yes, you see the bodies within the next few cutscenes.

Gotham Knights Review (PS5) 1

Batman has left a few leads as to what happened – some people he was researching etc, but in the main the first act of Gotham Knights is pretty convoluted and struggles to get started. The bare-bones leads don’t really coalesce into anything tangible for far too long. You’re left floundering in a huge city with access to almost everything immediately, but no course by which to steer. The Knights don’t really know what to do with themselves, apart from making a home of the Belfry, and while that’s understandable in the wake of their loss, it translates to you the player.

The promise of Batman vacating Gotham is that the villains come out to play, but there’s a conspicuous lack of them rushing to take over. Harley and Mr Freeze make themselves known, but the mission setups require multiple hours of play to get to any payoff with them. Ra’s is dead. Talia is mostly on your side, and the gangs are pretty faceless. Riots on the streets of Gotham, well, that’s just a Tuesday night. Beyond that, it’s the Court of Owls, faceless as well until about halfway through. Yes, between them, the League of Assassins and the Court are trying to take Gotham so it happens eventually, but I was just expecting more. I was expecting at least one major bad guy per Knight, targeting them, hunting them down maybe. Deadshot versus Red Hood for example. Where were the younger second-generation villains from Nightwing, Batgirl, Red Hood and Robin comics? Batman dies but only the Court of Owls really takes advantage? What it feels like is WB Montreal didn’t take advantage of their premise.

To give it its due, Act 2 is much better. When you get the chance to delve below the city and find the Court of Owls for the first time, the story suddenly gets a little more interesting. There’s more of the Bruce Wayne side of things (often missing from Batman video games) and a Masquerade ball with some stealthy voice identification to wheedle out members of the Court and I started to feel a false confidence return. However it’s not handled that well, and it’s too little too late. The setup for the latter half is exciting at least, with the Gotham Knights caught in the crossfire trying to protect the city beset on all sides by two rival villains. But from a narrative perspective it all just kind of falls apart from there on.

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The draw here is that Gotham Knights wants you to play as all four heroes interchangeably and at any time and it does everything it can to make it seamless. Story beats and missions seem to work no matter which Knight you play as. There’s a shared experience pot and ability points, so fighting as one for a while only means you’ll have accumulated points to spend when you switch characters. But while you can be any character you want, in order to switch you have to finish your night patrol, return to the Belfry, go to the suit, reload as the new Knight, and then go back out on patrol. Depending on how long since you last used them you’ll have points to manage, and gear to deal with otherwise you’ll go out on the streets and get yourself wiped fast. While it’s all possible, it’s maybe not the flick of a switch changeover it sounded like when first talked about.

It tries hard, but the seamlessness falters in odd places. For example to get each Knight’s coolest mechanics (like Batgirl’s gliding Cape, or Robin’s stealth suit) you need to complete a Knighthood challenge. Certain training, a kill list and dealing with some crimes in the city. Fine. But then in this case, it doesn’t translate to each Knight. You have to do it again and again – the same dull requirements 4x over. If you concentrate on one Knight you’ll earn it in no time – ten crimes is not much at the start. But 40 crimes is a lot and I was nearing the end of the entire game before I had earned it for everyone.

Even if it is a little overwhelming to suddenly have the whole of Gotham at your feet, it’s also a beautifully put-together open world. The PS5’s particle effects are apparent, with a gorgeous dirty fog coming off the central part of the city. Each Knight is equipped with a grapple and the basic traversal is the same in all four cases. And getting about in Gotham is a lot of fun; just getting boots on the ground/rooftop will help get you feeling right about this whole thing. There’s lots happening, and I was never at a loss for something to do. Indeed, often there was too much. Dropping to the ground and breaking out the Batcycle is a real treat – it’s a meaty, almost Akira-like bike, taillights and all, and roaring off with a wheelie never gets old.

As you progress the grapple can get a little slow. And while the Batcycle is fun, Gotham is massive and you likely won’t want to spend five minutes getting between each objective. Lucius Fox appears with fast travel glider points which you need to earn in a particular locale, and then it’s available from then on.

Gotham as a city may feel good, but it also doesn’t do much to differentiate itself from Arkham City or Arkham Knight’s open worlds. It’s there and it works. I never had any glitches or technical issues, so on that front, it’s a success.

Gotham Knights Review Bike

When you get down into the mission areas and levels however, Gotham’s interiors seem empty, utilitarian by comparison to the Arkham series. Where Arkham games had a lived-in quality, papers strewn, graffiti and debris, Gotham Knights often doesn’t have this. The interior areas will feel sparse – where’s all the stuff, the detritus of people living in an old city? It feels much more like a video game because in a less accomplished game that’s where you find sparse corridors etc.

And while we’re on the subject of interiors, Gotham Knights doesn’t feel particularly designed for stealth. Missions can feel a little rote. Go here, do this. When you’re on the ground you’re funnelled into encounter after encounter, with open spaces for combat. But I found I could go mission after mission without finding areas with adequate verticality, no gargoyles or lighting rigs, no rafters of a building for you to grapple up onto and then start stringing up perps from the shadows.

Most of the four Knights don’t have Batman’s arsenal for stealth, but it’s really the lack of perches to sit on. Don’t get me wrong, they do exist. There are some levels with plenty of it, but in Arkham, it felt like this was always an option. Similarly, there’s a woeful lack of air vents – a few, but not many. And most just for traversal, not as myriad more ways to disappear. I never once found a floor grate. Instead, stealth gameplay is more generic in Gotham Knights; sneak up and take someone out silent-like. It’s just not got the signature magic it had in the Arkham games.

The last thing I’ll say on the actual environment is there’s a funny ‘stickiness’ to walls, doors and prompts. You can be walking along and then find you’re stuck up against the door frame. Where modern games seem to let you slip past walls, Gotham Knights lets you get snagged. So much so that you have to back up or change direction to compensate. It takes you out of the immersion. It’s strange considering how good the animation and contextual combat is, how cumbersome it is to get stuck on walls and door frames so frequently.

The combat of Rocksteady’s Arkham games was a kind of button-prompt ballet; counters and throws and hits and blocks that had you almost dancing to your 50-100x combos without getting hit. It inspired a fair number of imitators. Gotham Knights is not one of those imitators. In fact, it has stripped back and changed combat to such a degree that it really feels like a different genre.

Things starts out fun, learning the new moves. The basic setup looks similar, until you start to play. Gone is the staple counter or defend with Triangle. Instead, now you are limited to evading with Circle when you see the warning prompt on an enemy limb. And you need to evade real good. You can put enemy thugs off with ranged attacks but you can only throw once you’ve also grabbed and even then only on half health or so.

Taking counter and block away fundamentally breaks the flow of the combat, even if ‘Momentum’ (timed attacks getting stronger) tries to shoehorn it back in. Evading might make sense as the knights are not batman, maybe they can’t take every hit. Arkham shone in requiring different move-types for different enemies, but without block, Gotham Knights puts you constantly on the back foot. Combat is too simple and so it gets very repetitive very fast. The enemies – especially later League and Talons – are hit sponges no matter how high level you get. Some do require a little strategy – such as the Talons evading everything unless you range hit them first but it’s too little in the grand scheme of 30 hours of play and the sheer amount of combat you’ll have to do. You can fight bosses for 10 minutes easily, just trying to wear them down. The overall effect was just that it wore me down.

On the plus side it feels meaty. Each Knight feels different. Batgirl and Nightwing are probably the most similar taking tonfas and dual rods to the skulls of their enemies. Robin feels different again with his extendable pole, and Red Hood does a kind of ranged and melee punch gun kata that reminded me of that old Christian Bale Matrix-wannabee film Equilibrium. Contextual moves abound and the animations and finishers look superb. Ambush stealth moves to start a fight can be skull-crushingly impactful.

Careful if you die though, because respawning is painful on your crafting materials – taking a hefty cut of everything. We should talk about Gotham Knight’s other major departures from the series – crafting, gear and RPG mechanics.

Gotham Knights Review (PS5)

Gotham Knights is close to becoming an RPG lite, a bit like the most recent Assassin’s Creed games have been. You can pick up common, uncommon, Rare and Heroic gear to clad your Knights with, and each item has damage and defence outputs among a few other stats and a level. Your Knight has a level stat that grows with experience earned through missions completed and combat/kills – complete special parameters etc for more. You can also craft using the bucket load of different material types that drop off each enemy every time you get a KO.

Because of these systems you’ll be constantly gear-changing like you’re playing Destiny or similar ‘Games As A Service’ titles. Much confusion lies in the crafting system where there are multiple ‘hero’ suits you can make, but each part you craft is somehow a part of a larger suit, but doesn’t let you know how much you’ll need to craft to unlock said suit, only that it’s related to it. The materials you collect could be anything, the mods you collect are barely ever pointed towards as a system.

This highlights the last major issue I want to talk about and its UI. Gotham Knights has a lot to do and a lot of mismatched overlapping systems. It wants to make sure you can keep track, but its UI only makes everything seem more overwhelming, not less. Press and hold the touchpad to get your map and menu, but press it lightly and you get a task and challenges list, set out in a confusing series of dropdowns that obfuscate things you need to do, and place the same emphasis on everything whether it’s the next main storyline mission or a tiny incidental piece of basic training you still haven’t done. By ten, twenty hours in I had almost more tasks than could be fit on one screen. Menus are the same – far more confusing than useful.

That said there is a ton of customisation on offer. One thinks perhaps too much effort went into having dozens of variations of suits and suit parts, and a half-ton of colour palettes, instead of on the base systems. If you like changing costume, and nods to previous suits for these Gotham Knights, there’s a bunch here, enough to give Miles Morales a run for his money.

I don’t have a lot to say on sound and music. There are a few nice tracks but they largely fade into the background. There’s a few club tracks that are fun. The music was largely forgettable. Voiceover work however is pretty stellar especially from the main Gotham Knights and support characters. Each has their own quips and lines, and each one has been recorded for each mission. Which means their must be 4x the normal amount of lead character voice acting in Gotham Knights, just to accommodate that play-as-all-four ethos.

We should talk about framerate before we finish as it’s become a point of interest and even of preorder cancelations. If you’ve cancelled your preorder based on 30fps you are a strange individual. Yes, Gotham Knights is 30fps and sometimes less – you can see the tech videos on it. However, to the average player, it is not something that impacts play. Framerate does stutter, on occasion – mostly during cutscenes at the start of the game – but the game generally performs pretty well when there’s a lot of action and enemies. I never noticed any real dips while riding my bike through Gotham which has to be the fastest it’s being required to work.

I had a lot of fun with Gotham Knights. Enough fun that 30fps was never a limiting factor. The game’s actual design is where it falters.

It’s a serviceable Batman game, made more interesting and fun by changing up the formula and giving you multiple Knights to have fun with. It was refreshing to play as Batgirl and Robin, instead of only Batman. If you’ve got a mate on hand, Gotham Knights is going to be even more fun than the single-player Arkham games, thanks to some pretty great and accessible co-op throughout.

However, in comparison to its predecessors, it’s a little disappointing. The RPG mechanics and crafting feel strange, the UI is just noise, Gotham can feel overwhelming and less welcoming than ever. Missions and design feel like they are getting the job done, but they aren’t interesting or tangible. Gotham is an open world full of busy work. Some games make all the tasks you take on seem important, necessary and above all, fun. Gotham Knights’ tasks rarely feel worthwhile, and the sheer number of them can feel daunting.

A worthwhile entry into the DC/Batman game series, Gotham Knights can be a fun experience in single-player or co-op with its strengths lying in variety and its four-Knight team. However, its confusing UI, repetitive stripped-back combat, and lack of stealth options leave it unable to reach the glorious heights of the Arkham games.

Gotham Knights is available now on PlayStation 5 (review platform), Xbox Series X|S, and PC.

Developer: Warner Bros Montreal
Publisher: Warner Bros

Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code. For our full review policy, please go here.

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