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December 2023

Gotham Knights

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: WB Games Montréal
Release Date: Oct. 21, 2022


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PS5 Review - 'Gotham Knights'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Oct. 20, 2022 @ 4:00 a.m. PDT

Gotham Knights is an open world, third-person action RPG featuring the Batman Family as players step into the roles of Batgirl, Nightwing, Red Hood and Robin, a new guard of trained DC Super Heroes who must rise up as the protectors of Gotham City in the wake of Batman's death.

Not only did the Arkham Asylum games pioneer combat systems that continue to be iterated upon to this day, but they also proved that licensed superhero games could be excellent. Any licensed superhero games that came afterward were in for a tough challenge. Gotham Knights is an interesting take on trying to keep to what people loved about Arkham while taking things in a new direction. It generally succeeds, but there are some missteps.

Gotham Knights opens in a most unexpected place. Batman is dead, having been killed during a final battle with Ra's al Ghul. His passing means that Gotham City is now without its legendary protector. Batman's four proteges — Tim Drake (Robin), Barbara Gordon (Batgirl), Dick Grayson (Nightwing) and Jason Todd (Red Hood) — are forced to step up as they struggle to make themselves a force that's capable of replacing the Batman. They team up to solve what is Batman's last case, a series of murders that seem linked to an organization called the Court of Owls.

The main plot of Gotham Knights is a standard Batman story, somewhat similar in nature to the Arkham games before it. The major difference, and arguably most dramatic element, is killing Batman in the opening sequence. Batman is dead, they find his body, and they give him a funeral and everything. Likewise, a lot of sacred cows are effectively missing. Jim Gordon also has passed away, the Riddler or Two-Face are nowhere to be seen, and the Joker is also absent from the story. While it is a standard Batman story, the lack of Batman gives it a unique feel. The title goes to some too-reliable places for its endgame, and I wish it had broken some fresh ground instead.

The four protagonists play off each other well. Each character has a distinct personality, so they have a pretty excellent group dynamic. Nightwing is the jokey older brother, Batgirl is the cheerful leader, and Robin is the nerdy little brother. Surprisingly for me, the standout character is Red Hood/Jason Todd, a character who I've never really enjoyed before. The Jason Todd in Knights is literally going through therapy to overcome his trauma. He's still angry, upset and frustrated, but he also shows genuine empathy and care, often offering suggestions to others when they're overwhelmed and showing that he recognizes people's pain. He feels like someone who was a jerk when they were younger but has realized that and is growing up. He even mocks his old "anti-hero" moniker by acknowledging that he used it to disguise his own behavior. It would have been incredibly easy to have him be "the jerk," but they went with something much more responsible, and the game is better for it.

The bulk of the fun in the game is seeing the main cast interact. A lot of the plot beats are predictable, but the character interactions save them. Many of my favorite moments involve the Knights sitting around and talking to one another. Small touches help the world feel lived-in. The main cast have superhero and non-superhero friends who contact them via email. My favorite is Superman, who contacts Jason with a genuine offer to talk if he needs to, and trades terrible puns with Nightwing in his attempt to troll Barbara Gordon. There are a ton of Easter eggs for fans of the comics, ranging from callbacks to previous storylines to tremendously obscure references. The comic book where the cartoon Snagglepuss is a 1950s gay playwright is canon in this universe; that is how deep it goes.

The combat system in Gotham Knights took a lot of getting used to. It both is and isn't Arkham Asylum combat, and so my experience with the previous games made it much harder to get used to it. It looks similar on the surface, with a standard attack button, a dodge that you can time perfectly to counter, gadgets and special attacks that are charged by performing long combos, and so on. It even borrows a lot of moves and items directly from the Arkham titles.

Where it changes is that the game is now an RPG. It's a somewhat similar evolution to the Assassin's Creed titles. You and the enemies now have levels and stats, including equippable gear that determines your ability to take and give damage. There are elemental strengths and weaknesses, special gear with passive bonuses, equippable mods, and so on. This means you can encounter enemies or situations that are too dangerous unless you're at a higher level, rather than being able to take on anything.

If you are properly equipped, a lot of the combat is similar in style, if not feel, to the Arkham games. You fight large mobs of enemies and smash through them with a variety of punches and special Momentum attacks. It's also a game of "match the skill to the enemy." Some enemies are more susceptible to ranged attack, others to close combat, some need to have their guard broken, some are easily countered, some need to be stunned before you can use powerful attacks on them, etc. It isn't quite as free-flowing as the Arkham games, but it rewards you for varying your attacks. Each enemy faction also has an elemental weakness that makes it easier to inflict status effects on them. If you're mixing and matching attacks and status effects, foes go down quickly, but if you just button-mash, fights will be a bit of a grind.

Stealth is also back, and it plays like a simplified version of Arkham stealth. You can sneak around enemies and take them down quietly or loudly. Each character also has a few moves to disable or defeat foes from a distance. There's a lot less here in terms of flexibility. You'll mostly do sneak-behind-and-stealth-defeat tactics instead of having access to Batman's variety of tools. Stealth offers a way to trim down powerful enemy groups with minimum risk, since it is an instant defeat.

Each main character has a different play style, most of which feel similar to but not quite like Arkham's Batman. Batgirl is probably the most standard of the lot. She is a strong single-target fighter who uses standard gadgets and skills. She's probably the most like the Bats in combat, but she also has access to Oracle-style hacking tools, including the ability to remotely disable weapons and machines, and she can make herself invisible to electronic devices. She is also the tankiest of the lot and can revive herself from death.

Nightwing, on the other hand, is all about Momentum attacks and agility. He builds momentum quickly and can hop off foes like Mario, jumping from enemy to enemy with incredible quickness. He's great at handling crowds and is probably the most combat-oriented character, with stealth seeming like it is one of his weaknesses. He's still good at stealth, but I found it easier to play as him in the middle of things.

Robin is the opposite. He's at his best when he is disabling enemies or in stealth. He builds the elemental weakness gauge faster than any other character, and he has way more options in stealth, including being the only one who can perform vantage takedowns, which were a reliable standby in the Arkham games. He can also teleport using the Justice League's satellite, which feels unfair to the others but is a neat travel power that can also be used during a fight. (In fact, he gains the ability to open a portal, drag an enemy through, and bash them on the head for a "stealth" takedown.)

Red Hood is the game's ranged fighter/brawler. Armed with (non-lethal) guns, he fights best at a distance, and he's able to chain together ranged combos in a way the other characters can't. He has an ammo gauge that limits his combos until you reload, but it's easy to keep it full, especially since most momentum attacks fill it. That said, he's also a capable brawler and has the easiest time in the game grabbing enemies, which opens them up to special attacks or being thrown into a wall.

I was impressed with how well the main cast functioned as stand-alone characters despite being "less" than Batman was in any individual game. Each one has a lot of fun tools, and I wanted to switch between them more than I actually did.

That is one issue I have with the game. It allows you to switch your playable character at any time, but it feels weird if you do. Everyone levels up together, but certain combat challenges must be done with each character, and gear is rarely picked up for the inactive characters, so I ended up sticking with one character to avoid rolling good loot on someone I wasn't going to use. The plot also tends to flow best if you use one character, but I am curious to see how it plays out for each individual, as there are several areas that feel like they must be very different.

The main gameplay loop of Knights involves going out on night patrol in Gotham. Once you do, there are randomized crimes to stop, which either reward you with loot or sometimes point you toward a bigger crime for better loot. In addition, you have case files, which consist of the main story and a handful of side stories. Case files are comprised of a handful of custom dungeons that you explore, which feature more standard Arkham-like design elements, including lore notes, puzzles, and boss fights. They're all more linear than the Arkham games but are fun set pieces.

That said, the game could do with more variety in the open world. There are only a handful of mission types that occur in a handful of places, especially early on, when you only have a couple of active enemy factions, so you can see the same thing over and over if you decide to fight crime. It also feels like there should be more active supervillains, and the three they chose for the side-quests (Clayface, Harley Quinn and Mr. Freeze) feel predictable and safe. They are fun quests, but I would've loved to see someone more obscure get a chance to shine, rather than yet another storyline about how Mr. Freeze needs to kill people because he's sad. There are the usual collectibles and lore bits that open-world games love, but this isn't a game you're going to play forever without some kind of DLC.

Co-op is one of the bigger selling points of Gotham Knights. Co-op is drop-in, drop-out, and it allows you to join someone else's game to help alongside them. In the overworld, you team up to solve crimes together, and some of the case files allow you to complete them cooperatively. Whoever is the host will be the one whose case file cut scenes you see, but you get credit for finishing it yourself regardless. (Once you reach that case file, you'll be given the choice of skipping it or playing through as your character.)

Co-op is surprisingly fun. I enjoyed being able to pop in and see someone taking down bad guys as Nightwing, so I could swoop in and assist. There are some fun combo abilities that allow you to help each other out and give boosts, and it felt like a nicely implemented way to team up with a friend. The only real downside is that it is only for two players, which feels odd for a game about a four-player team. A "Heroic Assault" mode will be added after launch, and it has four-player co-op, but it's hard to tell how that will pan out.

The game's biggest problem is that, much like its main cast, it is almost but not quite Batman. It is in a setting that's almost but not quite like Arkham, with combat and stealth that is very close, and a lot of design choices feel familiar. It plays differently enough that if you wanted more Arkham, you might get frustrated with the choices made to turn the game into a co-op action-RPG instead of a standard action title. I felt more negative about it than I expected during the first few hours because it felt off. Once I adjusted, I had a good time, but I still prefer the single-player non-RPG offerings.

Gotham Knights looks fantastic. The city is a delightful mess of fog and neon that brings to mind various eras of the Batman franchise, and the combat animations and cut scenes largely look excellent. Unfortunately, this does come at a cost. The game is locked to 30fps (with no Performance mode option), and it sometimes struggles to keep even that. This is most noticeable if you're gliding high in the overworld in areas with lots of lighting effects, but it still stands out a bit considering how much I'm used to extreme smoothness on the PS5. The voice acting is good, and all of the actors deliver a good performance. However, the title suffers a touch from, "That doesn't sound quite right" syndrome in that I'm so used to the B:TAS voices for the characters that when they don't quite get it right, it throws me off.

Gotham Knights stands in the shadow of giants, and while it doesn't necessarily stand as an equal, it's a valiant effort. There's clearly a lot of love and care put into the game, and while it doesn't hit every mark, it hits more than it misses. The only thing that really drags it down are some technical issues and a slight drought of unique open-world content to complete. It's a great attempt to figure out how you do Batman without Batman, and this title should scratch the itch of any Batman fan.

Score: 8.0/10

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