Game review: Gotham Knights for Steam

I got Gotham Knights as part of a Humble Bundle, but I was actually donating to get the full run of Saga as PDF files. The open world adventures of the Bat Family got critically dead-panned so hard that I didn’t add it to my wishlist and wait for a sale. But in a bit of strange timing, the game also released a performance patch the same week that I got the bundle, and I figured I already own it, right?

Before getting to the review, I have a theory for why the content of the game got slammed by reviewers separate from the tech issues. It has to do with quantity drowning out quality. By that I mean, if you’re a reviewer of a major gaming site and you’ve already played ten other open world games this year, Gotham Knights is going to grate because it’s very much more of the same design elements with a different franchise slapped over the surface like a hastily applied coat of Rustoleum.

I haven’t played any open world games for close to a year and a half, so I don’t have any fatigue for the formula. Perhaps because of that, I had a pretty good time in Gotham Knights. I can’t say I loved the whole thing, as some parts were grating or outright aggravating. But on the whole, beating up bad guys as four members of the Bat Family turned into a pleasant surprise that I might even go back to some time in the future, just to goof off, much like I do in Grand Theft Auto V.

Oh, beware mild spoilers after the cut.

So, batman dies in the first cut scene. Surprise! Or not, if you were exposed to any of the publicity leading up to the release of the game. The marketing went so far as to constantly repeat that yes, Batman is really, really, really dead, and this is not at all a bait and switch method of promotion. To that end, they weren’t lying.

There’s some niggling story beats early on that ignore the current state of the Bat Family, but I decided to look at this as an alternate universe. Ever since the first season of Star Trek Discovery, I’ve become more receptive to alternate world stories. The Batman further cemented my acceptance that, okay, this isn’t the world I knew, but it’s still an interesting variant to explore.

So, Dick Grayson, Barbara Gordon, Jason Todd, and Tim Drake, gather after the death of Batman at the hands of Ra’s al Ghul, (also dead, but for real this time) and commit to taking over patrol duties to prevent Gotham’s criminals from tearing down the city. In this world, Jim Gordon is also dead, and the new commissioner of the GCPD hates vigilantes and doesn’t really seem to care that the vast majority of her force is on the take with multiple crime gangs. As such, Bruce’s adopted family find themselves very much in the same starting point that he did early in his career, as vigilantes breaking the law to keep their city safer.

The story kicks off with an investigation into Bruce’s last case, which was unknown to Alfred, and involved investigating the murder of a well-known scientist, Dr. Kirk Langstrom. (Long time comic readers probably just now went, “Really,” like I did. But trust that his name keeps popping up right into the last chapter of this story.) The ensuing investigation reveals cover-ups, conspiracies, secret armies, and an impending gang war. So, pretty much an average Tuesday in Gotham.

Let’s skip spoilers and talk about the controls. Driving is…it’s not great. I’d liken it to the driving mechanics in Sleeping Dogs, where the slightest tap of the analog stick leads to the vehicle veering wildly off course. Thankfully driving is very much optional, because you can always take to the rooftops with your trusty grappling hook and leap from building to building until you hit one of two massive rivers. A few patrols in, Lucius Fox (I took to calling him Luscious Fox) will present you with a fast travel option, with the caveat that you have to do the usual open world task of “scanning the area.” Which is a pain, yes, but it’s one of those open world themes that publishers still can’t get rid of, or else we’d all just get on with playing the game instead of dealing with their gatekeeping.

The core game loop is going out on patrol with one of the four “bats,” usually setting a marker for your preferred mission, and frequently getting side-tracked saving citizens and cops from random acts of crime. You can go in all slow and methodical to silently take down enemies or drop in loud and hard. I often did both depending on who I was fighting or how dire the current crime seemed, and they’re both a good time. Traversing the city feels great, and hearing gunshots and racing to save the day is just awesome. I felt like a real super-hero no matter who I was playing.

Though I experimented with everyone, my favorite crime fighter ended up being Jason Todd, aka: Red Hood. Armed with non-lethal guns, he needs some XP investment to make his ranged attacks worthwhile. Once those points are invested, he can act as a sniper to clear crime scenes of the lower minions, making the mini bosses much less annoying to single out and dismantle with melee and ranged combos.

(But really, the rest of the Bat Family have great melee and ranged toys, and while the control scheme is the same across all of them, their moves and upper tier world traversal options are different enough to reward switching characters and finding the one that’s right for you.)

The controls are very simple to grasp. Tapping an upper face button activates an light melee or ranged attack, and a long press is for a slower but beefier heavy attack. You’ve got jump and and a wimpy dodge that can turn into a slide when the bats are sprinting on the lower face buttons, some special tasks on the D-pad, and the shoulder and trigger button work pretty much like they do in every modern game. I’d explain in more detail, but the game does a fine job of easing you into the controls. There’s even a training mode to cover both basic and advanced moves, so even the most noob gamer can get into the role with some practice. (I only did the training needed to unlock Knighthood powers, which were AWESOME and worth the time to complete the requirements.)

If I have one bit of advice for new players, it’s not to get attached to any of your current gear. Every other trip back to the home base will reveal new blueprints for suits, melee, and ranged options. Do change up often, and don’t be afraid to try new things. During two boss fights, I’d just changed my suit on a whim, only to discover that I’d happily picked the elemental resistance to make said boss’ attacks less effective. In the same vein, I picked elemental ammo for their effect on minions, only to find their boss wasn’t too happy with my super painful selection.

Oh, and I need to give a random shout out: there’s a few puzzles here and there, and they have rules that make sense, and were fun to sort out and solve. There’s only a few, which is also nice in that they don’t wear out their novelty. Each time I saw one, I thought, Oh, cool, which is a nice difference compared to other games where I thought, Oh God, not again.

I know a lot of reviewers weren’t fond of all the busy work the game keeps adding, like locating misplaced batarangs or bat bike time trials, or locating Bruce’s secret equipment stashes, and I suppose that criticism is fair provided you personally feel obligated to complete everything within an open world game. I don’t, and that’s incredibly liberating. I didn’t even feel the need to grind up to legendary gear because what I crafted from the rare and epic tiers were more than enough to get me to the closing credits. There were lots of little markers and tasks left unfinished, but I’m okay with that. After all I don’t play games for the complete list of trophies. I play them to have fun, and there’s only so much busy work I can do before it becomes boring. Your mileage may vary, of course, but because of this attitude, my entire run clocked in at just over 53 hours. That’s short enough that I can look forward to playing it again without feeling like I have to invest too much time in it.

I now have to tamp down all of my praise for some issues, and yeah, they do drag down the experience a bit. As I said, I wasn’t a fan of the driving, but there were also times where I tried to grapple onto a roof I was facing, only to have the game decide to shoot for the building above and behind me. You know, the one I just leapt off of. It didn’t happen all the time, but it was just often enough that I started grumbling, “Are you kidding me?” when it did. It’s a shame because when it works, the grappling hook feels so good, and it is an integral part of making me feel the role.

There’s also a lack of enemy targeting that makes large fights dicey, particularly when I want to focus on the dude pointing a gun at me, and the auto-targeting instead shoots everyone around him. It’s no better with melee, as I’ve ran close to a shooter and launched several meters away to hit someone way behind the character who poses no immediate threat. It’s not a deal breaker by any means, but it can be irksome to try and take out a gunner, only to fly away from him and then catch a stream of lead in the chest.

And then there’s Mr. Fucking Freeze. I need to say, every other boss fight was interesting and fun, and had me scrambling to recognize attack patterns and openings for counter-attacks. But someone at WB said, “Mr. Freeze should suck in both of his boss fights,” and the programmers complied with extra effort. Both times, his arenas are white, and his “tells” for ranged attacks are white lines. He’s in a white suit the first time and on a white mech the second. Are you seeing the problem? As someone with failing vision thanks to getting older, that son of a bitch was the only boss who had me swearing like a drunk sailor, and that’s before I mention his vast array of cheap tactics that drag his two fights on and on, and on. There are a few times when it’s obvious the game was built for co-op play, (hello army of forty minions involved in kidnapping a single person) but Mr. Freeze is the point when, as a solo player, I wanted to visit the studio, find every person responsible for these fights, and kick them in the taint as hard as I can.

Setting that aside, I got to the end credits feeling pretty happy to have given this a chance. I liked the core loop, the loot crafting, and even the Bat Family cut scenes. The late game plot twist wasn’t that much of a surprise, but it was a fun change in the power struggle. It led to an end-game boss fight that I was expecting right as soon as a certain character was named dropped, and I was not disappointed.

I’m going to give Gotham Knights 4 enthusiastic stars. I went in with real low expectations, and came away hoping for a sequel. Of course, I might have to avoid open world games for some…oh wait, I just remembered that Epic Game Store gave me the whole Arkham Knight trilogy for free last year. If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some tights to slip into.