Following Castlevania: Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate HD and Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation HD, Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate – Deluxe Edition is the latest in a line of long-named downloadable ports of Big Franchise Handheld Spinoff Games. It’s a phenomenon unique to the end-of-PS3-and-360 era: just-powerful-enough handheld systems running software that can be upscaled to an HD screen; franchise-based “transmedia” marketing that means that software can be complementary to its console counterpart rather than a completely different approach to the same material. Digital delivery platforms that remove physical distribution costs for the ports and make them significantly cheaper than producing a completely new game for systems that the industry as a whole is trying to phase out.
The Arkham Batman is a Bad Ass. The three console games (Batman: Arkham Asylum, Batman: Arkham City and Batman: Arkham Origins) use the Unreal Engine 3. In simplest terms, a game’s engine determines how things look and how things react. The first console game to use Unreal Engine 3 was Epic’s Gears of War, and a lot of that game’s hypermasculine bulky character design is in the Arkham Batman (another shared characteristic: slow hallway walks while someone shouts exposition in your ear to hide loading between areas).
It’s “darkness” as “maturity”: making things more violent means they’re more “realistic”, a flat characterization that thinks its well-rounded. Two-dimensional characters failing to be three dimensional. The look, the bulkiness that shouts “this is POWER” in combat and while stalking enemies has its drawbacks: mundane things like a character opening a door or having emotions becomes absurd. They have no place here.
Threes dominate this game: three areas of Blackgate (Industrial, Cell Blocks, Administration), three Main Villains (Black Mask, Penguin, Joker), three goals (Turn on the Power, Find the Entrance to the Wing Where the Hostages are Kept, Get the Codes to Unlock that Wing). There are smaller bosses, random villains who just appear without much explanation as to who they are or why they’re there. If you know Batman, you’ll know who they are. If not, it’s not really relevant as they’re really just there to tick boxes in the Batvillains checklist.
The game opens with a linear chase sequence as you follow a single-entendre-hurling Catwoman across Gotham’s rooftops. Once you’re in Blackgate proper, she drops into the background and becomes the Woman in Your Ear, feeding you information and updating your map with the location of the latest goal she’s given you.
Blackgate is a mostly-open environment and you can go after your goals in pretty much any order, except you’ll find that you might get to a point in one area that requires a gadget to progress. I have a hunch there is an optimal route that minimizes backtracking. There’s a leaderboard for how quickly you’ve finished the game, and as of my playing the number one spot was someone who finished in three hours and forty five minutes (at that time in my game, I was about halfway through).
The game’s handheld origins show in its scaled-down scope from the console games, though. One of the Arkham games’ strengths is the way its combat works: enemies surround Batman and a rhythmic pressing of buttons and directions causes him to leap between opponents. In Blackgate, though, you only have one plane of movement, so while enemies may step off of the left-to-right axis along which you can move, you are mostly fighting in two directions.
Unlike the 2D Metroid games, or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, where this kind of exploration/backtracking/gadget games has its origins, Blackgate’s space isn’t completely on one plane. You’ll always be pressing left or right on your thumbstick, but Batman will turn corners, or launch a grappling hook into the background or foreground.
But like those games, Blackgate has you returning to old areas, moving through them with new abilities in order to open new passageways. Enemies rarely respawn, so the second or third time you pass through a space (be it in search of collectibles that you can now get because of your new gadgets, or because you had to run to a different area to pick up one of those gadgets) is almost all navigation.
Here’s where the weirdness of only being able to move left or right but still going through a 3D space became a hindrance. I did find myself remembering the path to get from point A to point B, but because of the way the maps turn as you move through them, and because moving between different sections of Blackgate (administration, cells, industrial) is done via a map, it was impossible to get a sense of Blackgate as a whole. Super Metroid’s Zebes and Dracula’s castle in Symphony of the Night are unified spaces. Their axes are your movement axes. On Zebes, Norfair is always down and to the right, below Maridia which is below the Wrecked Ship. Even if you don’t know the direct path, you know the general direction you need to move.
Blackgate’s map is a mess. The clarity of 2D is muddled with an isometric view of apparently 3D spaces. The disconnect between the 2D ways you move and the allegedly-3D spaces makes it very difficult, even with the map, to really know which direction you want to move. Sometimes, you’ll exit one area walking toward the left only to come through the door after the loading screen headed toward the right.
The bizarre tone is illustrated by a boss fight where a po-faced Batman uses a portable zipline to repeatedly kick a castle-doctrine spouting Joker in the face. If the ultimate goal of art is a harmony between form and content, then Blackgate might be the perfect game for the Arkham Batman: Both are flawed attempts to push a two-dimensional world into a three-dimensional one.
Brian Taylor lives like four blocks from Commissioner Gordon in The Dark Knight Rises.