Batman: Arkham Knight walks a thin tightrope. It wants to be a very particular kind of narrative-heavy game while also being an open world experience. It wants to stress the immediacy of everything, at all times, while allowing the player to do whatever she wants between those moments of immediacy. It wants to dwell on deep psychological issues for minutes at a time while also giving me a chance to punch a bunch of baddies. It wants to let us all be The Bat while understanding that he isn’t someone we should all want to be. Arkham Knight is a rat king of a game, and much like an actual rat king, it has a very hard time sustaining life.
From mechanics to narrative, soup to nuts, Arkham Knight has garbled DNA. On one hand, the game expects you to have extensive mechanical knowledge of how Batman is supposed to function in the moments leading up to, and during, a fight. Without much fanfare or education, Arkham Knight hands you the reigns to a complete arsenal of crime fighting equipment and demands that you use them all for their explicit and extensive purposes. And you have to, because if you don’t, each fight will be a grueling encounter with enemies that also have their own far-future technology that seems to think that electrified gloves are just as useful as giving every militia member a rifle and a sidearm.
My first few hours spent with Arkham Knight were spent trying to juggle this preparation-then-fight cycle that is at the core of “Combat Batman Simulation.” This game expects me to have a couple Arkham games already sliced into my muscle memory, and that expectation that I’ve already been the Bat a few times meant that the barreling full force hours were often spent trying to take out a group, failing, and then trying that again.
And maybe that’s my fault. Maybe my problem is that I am not already the Bat, have never been the Bat, and don’t really care much about simulating the life of this dude. I have a strange relationship with Batman. I don’t consider myself a “fan” in any traditional sense, but I have read every major comic story alongside quite a few nonmajor timefillers. I’ve seen every Batman film, and I’ve watched the much-loved animated series. I’ve even been made uncomfortable when standing too close to a Joker cosplayer who was just a little too in-character. But I’ve never played the Arkham games.
One reason, if I were to dig down deep, is that I think Batman is an interesting vehicle for stories, and contemporary blockbuster games are just not great at delivering both a high concept (U CAN BE BATMAN) and the actual, nitty-gritty of making plot points follow one another in a believable and useful way. I knew that I would have to interrupt crime solving with criminal punching. I knew that I would have to listen to monologuing from famous Batman villains. I knew that it would be lots of contemporary game design tropes embedded within a Batman skin, and I just didn’t think that I needed that in my life.
In a purely negative sense, I was right. Arkham Knight is a fairly small open world peppered with things to do. It follows the Assassin’s Creed model of giving us some mission types and then placing twenty of those missions all over the world for you to do at your leisure. And they’re, well, they’re just fine, I guess? There are roadblocks for you to clear in the form of small arena fights. There are puzzle boxes in the shape of watchtowers for you to gadget up and clear. There are mines to disarm so you can have a tank fight with the Nolan-esque Batmobile-uh-tank. They are all designed down to a very specific parameter. None of them take too long, and by the end of the game you will have done so many that you and your massive upgrades will be able to do them one-by-one all in a row.
And you will have to. Unlike other open world games in something like the Ubisoft model where you can mostly take or leave the objectives, Arkham Knight requires you to complete them all if you actually want to see the five minute closing cinematic of the game. You can beat all the big bads you want, but if you really want to find out what happens, you need to clear out five mercenaries huddled beside a bridge in the rain in the middle of the night. Batman is nothing if not thorough.
On a purely mechanical level, that’s the game. It’s polished to a sheen at this point. Every little bit of visual, haptic and audio feedback is milked of everything it can produce so that you feel like a big strong Batman. The Batmobile roars, the cannons shake the screen, and the punches make a meat-smacking sound, and if you’re comfortable in this frame you’ll excel and have a grand time. If you’re like me and you aren’t? The game will bludgeon you into shape enough that you will be able to awkwardly waddle your way through the game. Everyone gets to be this particular kind of Bat, whether they want to or not.
The grand plot, which I haven’t really mentioned until now, is a baroque setup. The Scarecrow, a villain whose entire concept is “likes to make you feel scared,” has a new fear toxin. He has put it in a bomb, and that bomb is going to blow up in Gotham. The city empties out of its good, fine citizens, and the people who choose to stay are mostly looters and supervillains. Oh, and an international paramilitary mercenary group that’s headed up by a guy named the Arkham Knight who really, really hates Batman.
The Arkham Knight is mysterious. He knows Batman, and Batman and infinite nursemaid Alfred just can’t figure out how! This confusion, along with the machinations of the Scarecrow, animates the central plot of the game. There’s also an entire other thing going on in the background that the now-dead Joker has infected some people, including Batman, with his blood, which attacks the brains of its victims and turns them into, you guessed it, The Joker. In the game, that’s represented by a mental projection of the Clown Prince of Crime showing up and commenting on literally everything, which really begins to run dry about halfway through the game.
The side quests that do not depend on the open world occasionally enter into the picture. Each of the extra missions is related to a particular big bad of the Batman criminal galleria, and over the course of the game I got to punch big names like Penguin and Two-Face alongside some lesser-knowns like Firefly and Hush. For the most part, these are exceedingly well-designed experiences. They give you the villain, their motivation, and a set of predictable patterns that those villains will embark on time and time again. Then Batman follows the bread crumbs that are always, inevitably, laid down and takes the gang and the villain to justice.
One of the reasons that Batman is so well-suited to videogames is that repetitive function. Because he refuses to kill, things can never end. Villains end up in jail only to emerge again. They will do the same things, over and over again, and Batman will gather them up. The cycle will repeat. And blockbuster videogames, especially Arkham Knight, are so based in repetition of mechanics, types of characters, and forms of storytelling that it is almost a purely formal construct shared across all experiences. When DLC promises hours of new content, what that really means is that you’re going to be doing the same rote actions over and over again. A season pass is guaranteed to grant you hundreds of more enemies marked for similar punches.
It’s clear that the developers at Rocksteady have thought about this kind of repetition in the field of game development and have taken some steps to alleviate it in their method of creating narrative in Arkham Knight. I want to separate some terminology here, but this isn’t meant to scale; don’t take these separations and try to transpose them to other games, because Arkham Knight’s narrative works in such a way that I need an artificial separation to say what I need to about it.
There are two layers of what is happening with the narrative in Arkham Knight. One is narrative design, by which I mean the creation of a mode of telling a story through voice acting, set design, framing, and moving characters around on screen. The other is story, or what happens, or just the daisy chain of types of events that get us from point A to point Z in the progression of the game.
Arkham Knight has some of the best narrative design that I’ve ever seen in a game. It really seems that the designers at Rocksteady have been paying attention to the way that narrative is being delivered in the contemporary independent game creation sphere. Unlike most other blockbuster games, Arkham Knight is not afraid to pause for a moment and make you wait. It will remove your powers, your punching, so that all you can do is stand in an elevator and listen to The Joker monologue. Or you experience a first-person hallucination, reliving an event over and over again. Or you press X to mourn your parents. For all the power fantasy in the mechanical gameplay, there’s a distinct feeling that Rocksteady want you to know that Batman is really just a weird man in a suit who can’t get his shit together like 85% of the time, and that no matter how good you are at nighttime wrestling, the fact that you’ve let your friends get captured, or murdered, or tortured is really going to stick with you.
Arkham Knight has one of the worst stories I have ever encountered in a game. Despite taking small moments to really dwell on particular designed experiences, there are just as many moments of giant story development that straight-up make no sense. The Scarecrow continually monologues about how he has Batman in a corner, and the Arkham Knight repeatedly tells me that he’s going to kill the Batman, but there are never any story beats that actually suggest that that would happen. Every time he’s met with a problem, Batman quickly adapts by either lying to his friends (which literally has zero consequences), by expending one of those friends, or by throwing money at the problem.
About halfway through my time with the game, I quipped on Twitter that Arkham Knight has some of the best comic book writing in the sense that the writing is terrible, and while I’m not sure I think that’s exactly true (because there are some great comic books), I do think that the game suffers from some terrible comic book tropes that actively hurt the game’s ability to tell an engaging story. Characters die in dramatic moments only to reappear with an explanation akin to “you hallucinated, it’s magic.” There can be no true loss for Batman, because no matter what, he has prepared some kind of response. There’s a world where that could be engaging and interesting, but that world isn’t this one, and the reason is that there’s no setup. There’s a world of difference between “here’s Batman’s contingency plan, here’s the contingency, watch the plan work,” which could be a really engaging if ham-fisted way of writing as opposed to “here’s something bad, OF COURSE BATMAN PLANNED FOR IT,” which mostly seems like a bad way to write yourself out of a corner.
All of these story complaints put a different way: people often say that it’s difficult to write an engaging Superman story because he is all powerful. Arkham Knight suffers for the same reason. The game’s story conflates Batman’s intelligence and wealth with the ability to prethink and out-expend anyone in the field of resources. Blow up his stuff? He has better stuff. Overwhelm him? He can now hack your weapons. Your dad is powerful? Batman is my dad and he can beat up any of your dads.
It’s impossible to write this review without saying this, so let me take a brief paragraph to say that Arkham Knight’s treatment of women is Comic Book Bad. The concept of “fridging,” originally a formulation by Gail Simone to describe the trope of women being harmed or killed in order to give a man’s story meaning and motivation, takes on some new heights in this game. One character is shot in flashback, seemingly killed, and then threatened again in order to motivate several different men to do several different things. And then there’s a completely separate character who performs the same function again! It is straight-up laughable in how clumsily this is done, almost to the point where it feels like the writers thought “well, how the hell do we move the plot forward? I guess we’ll hurt a woman again!” There’s also some real lampshade-hanging where Catwoman is made a damsel in distress only to comment that she’s not a damsel in distress. It’s all very, well, distressing.
And yet. The function of the review, the consumer report par excellence, is to provide you with my hot takes and then tell you if you should check it out. And you should. Despite the problems, the rote repetition, and the politics of it all (let’s not even delve into the great man vigilante justice), I genuinely enjoyed my first time playing an Arkham game. The rat king pulls itself in many directions, and some of those are bad ones, and others are directly at odds with one another, but some are genuinely good and interesting and should be celebrated and replicated. Arkham Knight translates a very particular kind of Batman into a very particular kind of game, and when the developers are short-circuiting your play experience to tell a good story, there are some unthinkably good moments. When they are going through the motions of combat and high-concept comic bookery, there are some unbelievably terrible and laughable moments. Despite wading through the latter, my memories of the former are grand enough that I think they’re worth getting to.
Oh and I think Batmobiletank platformer hijinks are fun and weird and they don’t make a lot of sense.
Batman: Arkham Knight was developed by Rocksteady Studios and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. Our review is based on the Playstation 4 version. It is also available for the Xbox One, PC, Mac and Linux.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released on May 21. It’s available on Steam.