The new Bat-game from WB Games Montréal is Gotham Knights, which has the sombre, brassy echo of a jazz album. You can imagine Bruce Wayne, sealed in dark rubber atop a high-rise, blowing a few lonely trumpet notes at the moon. Alas, that telltale “k” lets us know what we are really in for. The Knights in question, though their armour hardly shines, are Barbara Gordon, Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, and Jason Todd; also known as Batgirl, Nightwing, Robin, and Red Hood. In other words, more of a pop group—one in desperate need of a punchier name, it must be said. Given that Dick and Jason are both former Robins themselves, might I suggest Barb and the Birds?
The reason that these costumed vigilantes, formerly support acts, have been summoned to centre stage is that the headliner has failed to show, on account of being dead. At the start, we see Batman butching it out with Ra’s al Ghul, who shows up in the Batcave wielding a sword. It’s an excellent opening, spiked, for all its doominess, with fun. We get Batman stripped of his cape and looking more like Black Panther, pouncing around and swinging on ropes like Zorro. What is more, the bout creaks with antique wit; watch him pluck a shield and spear from a display cabinet and join battle like a hero of Greek myth. Though, scour the Iliad all you like, you won’t find Hector and Achilles grappling in the cockpit of a grounded plane and activating the ejector seat, the better to launch the other at the wall.
The imagery of the clash sets up the crux of Gotham Knights. Ra’s al Ghul is supposed to be deathless, thanks to his regular dips in something called the Lazarus Pit; and Batman, while technically mortal, has an unkillable legend, which casts a shadow over not just the criminal element of Gotham but the game itself. Credit to the developer for paying homage to the impossibility of its task and pressing ahead with a fresh squad of heroes anyway. It’s doubly a shame, then, when Barbara, Dick, and the gang find Bruce in the rubble of his former home, and his body, though artfully slashed and bruised, is curiously intact. You can feel the game hedging its bets, with a craven squirm, as if to say, “Have fun with this new group, but we can always dunk the big guy in the nearest Lazarus Pit if sales start to droop.”
At any rate, we have a game, and we have a Gotham. It’s one of those settings that begs for reinterpretation; this one tips its hat to the playground of the Tim Burton movies, which Pauline Kael described as “Manhattan gone psycho,” and, like the city of Batman: Arkham Knight, it is soaked in rain. This time, we also get a fetching fog that wells up between the buildings and is stoked, by all the neon, into a purple smoulder. We don’t see the place in the sun; the only glimpse we get is filtered through the face of a clock tower—the base of operations in which the Knights convene, plot their next move, and wind each other up. This adds a touch of vampirism to their crusade, turning the day into something merely to be waited out, a glowing dial that ticks backward to the break of dusk.
The game’s title assumes double duty, as your mission is indeed broken into nightly patrols. These consist of you, having picked one of the four, screeching through the streets in search of crime, either the petty kind or the sort that may cough up leads in the overarching cases. The screeching is done on the Batcycle; only, to be honest, I could have used some added screech. We get a generous smear of motion blur, and the soundtrack turns up the Zimmer switch, with a procession of techno-thuds, but it’s difficult not to notice the way that you cruise for slightly too long in the company of civilian cars when you should really have left them in the dust.
Still, there are other ways to get around. I played as Nightwing, who packs the standard grapple gun (gone, sadly, is the charm of that corkscrewing cable, from the Arkham games) and also a jet-powered glider, called the Flying Trapeze. In a nice flourish, he doesn’t squat over it but, rather, hangs from the undercarriage, as though he were hitching a ride with the Green Goblin. The most fun I had with Gotham Knights was in this weightless high-wire act, zipping to the crests of towers and vaulting off, to be carried by ingenious hardware into an extended grace period.
This is a courtesy, incidentally, that many have not given to the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X, both of which run the game in 30 frames per second. Online, many are sore about it, but you need only play Arkham Knight to be reminded that hurtling velocity can be happily achieved at 30fps. The problem, with Gotham Knights, runs deeper than a locked frame rate; its lack of speed glazes the action on a mechanical level. Your foes all bear floating numbers above their heads, with health bars to boot, and fights last too long, lacking the heave and snap of Rocksteady’s games. Also, we now have gear to be looted and levelled up, which seems, on some fundamental level, wrong. The whole point of Batman and his sidekicks, surely, is that the levelling up—of both the personal and the technological variety—is achieved largely with a mix of tragedy and bottomless wealth.
One reason for these chewy progression systems, of course, is that Gotham Knights has co-operative play on its mind. Thus, a certain amount of padding is required simply to provide things to do. You can see where WB Games Montréal got the idea; one look at Marvel’s Avengers, with its drop-in, drop-out quests, and you can easily picture a Bat-flavoured variant. The trouble is, that game took its cues from the bright and larky films through which Iron Man and his comrades liked to bicker—a stark contrast to the story here, which is much better suited for a lone sleuth.
The narrative takes its time and brings in a batch of cherished villains. These include the Penguin, who waddles around in a white tail coat, and Harley Quinn, whose incarceration in Blackgate Prison is no obstacle to the conducting of merry mayhem. We also have Mr. Freeze, who sports his trademark red goggles but whose suit now resembles less that of a frosty cosmonaut, as it did in Batman: Arkham City, than it does one of Yoji Shinkawa’s Metal Gears: all cybernetic muscles and whirring joints, plus a railgun that emits a cryogenic crackle.
None of these have quite the same impact that they had in the Arkham series. In part, this is down to their visual design, which lacks a little comic-book flair, but it has more to do, I think, with the way they are handled. Early on, for example, we follow a trail left by one Doctor Kirk Langstrom, a scientist researching a way to cure his own deafness by experimenting on bats. Fans will know that the good doctor will transfigure himself into a winged abomination known as Man-Bat; everyone else will know that something foul and flapping is certainly afoot, and steel themselves for the result. Compare Rocksteady’s approach, which is to spring the creature on Batman at random during play, as he ascends to the peak of a skyscraper. It remains one of the best jump scares in recent memory, shocking even the hard of fearing, precisely because it entailed no buildup and no backstory, just a single shriek.
Elsewhere, however, the art of the slow-burn reveal does wonders. The presiding baddies of Gotham Knights are the Court of Owls, a cabal of preening manipulators as old as the city itself. The Owls were the spooky invention of Scott Snyder, in a celebrated comic run, and their presence was foretold by an eerie nursery rhyme (“Beware The Court of Owls, that watches all the time, ruling Gotham from a shadowed perch, behind granite and lime”). WB Games Montréal does justice to these creeps and, even if the rest of the game isn’t always a hoot, you can sense the developers’ love of the source material behind it all. In the end, Gotham Knights is, like the studio’s earlier contribution to the saga, Batman: Arkham Origins, a decent game haunted by the notion of not being the main event. When Alfred says to the assembled heroes, “Gotham is in good hands,” you can’t bring yourself to disagree. You’re just all too aware of its previous custodians, currently away in Metropolis, but still ruling from a shadowed perch.
Developer: WB Games Montréal
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Available on: PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PC [reviewed on]
Release Date: October 21, 2022
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