written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
The saga continues, at least it tries to continue. Released for the PSVita and 3DS, Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate continues the tale of the world’s greatest detective. This time presented with a more scaled down experience, the series departs from the vibrant open world into a more straight-forward 2.5D Metroidvania style gameplay. So how did it fare (as far as we are concerned).
Batman: Arkham Origins was hands down one of my favorite games of the fall and while it didn’t live up to the masterpiece that was Batman: Arkham City (see our review here) it was still a fantastic game well worth it to play! I wish I could have said the same for the handheld experience. To note: this review is based solely on the PSVita version (which I had for review) there is no intention to review the 3DS version at this time.
Set three months after the events of Batman: Arkham Origins. Three of the main players from that story (The Joker, Black Mask, and Penguin) have orchestrated a ruthless takeover of Blackgate Prison. The story starts with an introduction to a cornerstone character in the Batman mythos, Catwoman. After Batman foils a robbery, she is incarcerated in Blackgate. When the big three take over the prison, Catwoman enlists aid from Batman to free the hostages and to help stop the big three.
The this side story after the events of the Christmas Eve assassination attempt feels far too different to even be considered in the Arkham mythos. The dialog was cheesy at best and cringe-worthy at worst. The polish that Batman: Arkham Origins had in the main narrative was nowhere to be seen in Blackgate. You can approach the game anyway you wanted, with it being your choice which wing you start exploring first. The story is laid out with comic style cut scenes with some that follow the narrative no matter which wing you choose to enter first, or some specific to just that particular level. Other fully voiced sequences happen in engine while exploring a level. I was confused more often than I like and I found myself really disliking the voice-acting, not because they aren’t good voice actors but because the writing was so horrible I couldn’t take it seriously. Was Joel Schumacher on board with this story?
To be fair, the PSVita and 3DS aren’t as powerful as the big boys, but they did manage to squeeze a good amount of detail into the graphics, characters looked pretty good and the animations felt like a miniature version of what I played on the consoles. Levels looked great from a distance, but did lose some of that charm when zoomed in (especially during the slow-mo sequences after beating down a thug).
One major gripe I had was with the decision to not animate mouth movements when speaking. It felt like a PSOne era game in that respect, the dialog wasn’t even as abundant. Nothing breaks the immersion more than seeing a static face while the character mouths off a few lines.
While detective mode is back, the game looks so ugly when going into detective mode. Most of the details in a given level end up looking very flat and while detective mode is very crucial to the gameplay, it looked so bad and honestly wasn’t even as useful as you hoped. The level of polish I expect from an Arkham game wasn’t there and honestly I could say I was very disappointed.
Fighting feels pretty familiar, you strike and counter like on the home console versions, but that’s really it. Sure they incorporated the cape stun and subsequent beat downs, but quick use of the gadgets was not even an option. As you explore the levels, you find gadgets along the way and a lot of it feels like the Batman: Arkham Asylum in the respects that he starts with the batarangs and grapnel gun and eventually picks up more gadgets along the way. This makes sense for a Metroidvania type of game but ultimately ends up creating more obstacles than one would hope for in a Batman game. Plus, I was perplexed why Batman would enter a prison under siege while initially only arming himself with batarangs and his grapnel gun, in games like Castlevania, this limitation in starting armaments is usually explained in story with something causing the main character to lose all his gear. While the fighting wasn’t bad, it really wasn’t that great either, controls didn’t feel tight at all and I found myself getting beat more often than I should have.
Detective mode is handled somewhat similar to the big boy consoles with a few tweaks. You have to drag and scan your surroundings (by means of the touch screen) to highlight points of interest. While this would make sense when going into detective mode to flex his detective brain, you also had to scan EVERYTHING from elements of the background you can interact with like pulling grates off of vents or applying explosive gel to a destructible wall. This use of detective mode felt like such a downgrade, especially when I was used to going into detective mode to see things I can interact with. The notion of forcing me to scan every room just to find a destructible floor or wall slowed down the gameplay immensely. Some levels have traps you can also destroy, like exploding Joker teeth or birdcage bombs, but why would the developers think it a good idea to force you scan them before you can even destroy them with a well placed batarang? Sure you still get credit for destroying them when they blow up in your face, but honestly… Detective mode felt nerfed compared to what I was used to.
My biggest gripe about gameplay is how they handled the predator encounters. Predator encounters are my favorite element of the Arkham series of games and this was a horrid representation of it. Because of the limited side scrolling nature of the game, I felt less like “night personified” and more like a rookie hero. These encounters ended up being the most challenging, and not because of how difficult the enemies were but more so how the limitations of the gameplay made these segments annoyingly cheap.
The level design seems to me like it was created for lots of backtracking, and while I’m no fan of respawning enemies, after clearing a room there is nothing left to really do. Pair that with the incessant backtracking and the game’s pacing slows to a crawl, I found myself bored more often than not.
The idea was ambitious, but their use of the Arkham style of gameplay in a 2.5D Metroidvania style game made for a disappointing experience. I hate to give such a low score because I was looking forward to playing it. Ultimately, I’ve got to call it like I see it, and Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate was not the high caliber experience I expect from this series.