The Joker is dead. Batman’s most iconic and volatile enemy is out of the picture. So how good can a Batman game be without him? As it turns out, it can be extremely good. The struggle between Batman and his erstwhile nemesis can actually be a stumbling block in the way of some much more interesting stories regarding the Dark Knight, but TV, film and comics insist on dragging the clown prince of crime back from the dead for the sake of a more immediately attractive story.
The Arkham Knight proves that you don’t have to do that. The Joker’s function as a polar opposite to Batman works as well in death as it does in life. It’s not a spoiler to say this – the very first thing you do in Arkham Knight is manually incinerate the grinning lunatic; watching the skin peel from his eyes and lips as ‘Rocksteady Studios’ passes across the screen. This is the last game in a proposed trilogy of Arkham games, and Rocksteady and its director Sefton Hill want to say a lot in this wave goodbye (Origins doesn’t count – it was made by Warner Bros. Montreal).
The narrative begins to distort and set itself up within the first hour – so forgive our review: at the cost of avoiding spoilers we’re going to have to talk about some of the game’s elements rather vaguely. To that end, our absolute favourite thing about Arkham Knight is its respectful approach to cinema. That sounds absurd, right? In a game that almost never takes you off the stick, the way Arkham Knight treats the camera is nothing short of masterful.
It’s no secret that the big bad of this game is Scarecrow – the Fear Gas-wielding lunatic that posed as the primary antagonist in Asylum. The way the first game in Rocksteady’s trilogy played with psychosis and fear was innovative: messing with perspective and player-oriented control was amazing back in 2009, but it was quickly aped in other games (including Arkham Origins, to underwhelming effect).
Arkham Knight reclaims the camera trickery as its own, but rather than the Fear Gas inspired mind games being confined to scattered setpieces, it permeates the whole game. Every cutscene, every enemy encounter, every time you’re navigating the wider world of Gotham… it sounds hammy, crow-barred in, but it isn’t. It’s actually pulled off in a very subtle and impressive way – self-aware and playful. Supported by some terrific voice-acting, it’s the most immersive part of the game. The characterisation and writing generally are worthy of a triple-A game: something we find ourselves unable to say very often these days.
From there, we’re naturally lead to thinking about the game’s story: we write this just after we’ve wrapped up the main story, and we’re still trying to get our head around some of the conceits. We mentioned the camera play in relation to Fear Gas – that carries on into the general theme of things as well. The Joker might be dead, but his legacy from City is alive and well, and his grip on the minds of the heroes and villains of Gotham shapes this game from beyond the grave.
This is a more intimate story than City ever was, and uses the expanded DC cast far better than Asylum did, resulting in a more domestic, inviting narrative that genuinely makes you want to race through the game to save everyone that needs saving. For the hardcore fan, heady notes of Death In The Family, Killing Joke and The Long Halloween can be detected within the rich compound that forms Arkham Knight’s DNA, all wrapped up with that now-traditional Rocksteady polish. We genuinely forgot about trying to uncover the identity of the Knight at some points, because we were so wrapped up in all the other surprises the game had in store for us, still, when the time came for all to be revealed… it was a true ‘goosebumps moment’.
So, that being the most immersive facet of the game, let’s talk about the least immersive… the Batmobile. Granted, the Arkham series needed something to bolster its explore-puzzle-fight-repeat rhythm, but the car sections feel somewhat out of place a Batman game… It’s thrilling to be able to hop into the car and zip around the streets of Gotham (and it actually makes the whole place feel more ‘lived in’ and rounded than Arkham City’s, um, city) but if you’re just playing the Story mode through to see all those twists and turns in Batman’s darkest night, you’ll be sitting through a lot of car sections.
That’s the thing, though – if you confine yourself to playing the story exclusively, you’ll only be seeing the most impressive areas of Gotham City and the shiny new toys that Rocksteady have given the caped crusader to play with. Go exploring, and you’ll meet a couple of new faces in the Arkham-verse (Man-Bat and Hush, just to name a few none-too-spoilery additions). Otherwise, your erstwhile helpers Lucius Fox and Alfred Pennyworth will be checking fairly often to drop upgrades on you and give you advice about what’s going on during the course of the night.
On that note, it’s worth saying that anyone that loved how Arkham City dealt with extra-curricular activities is going to feel very at home mopping up the Most Wanted side-missions. Anyone that loved the intimate, mind-bending combat puzzles of Asylum is going to enjoy tackling the various militia outposts under the command of Deadshot – having to use the full gamut of gadgets available to you in the past games, plus a few more Bat-toys to boot.
The Riddler makes a return, too, his puzzles requiring all of the cerebral gymnastics of the last two games combined. Again, though, the Batmobile sometimes feels like too prevalent an element in the puzzle designs – yes, it’s cool, yes, we finally get to drive it around, but some of the tight puzzle designs seem to unravel a bit when held against the more intimate Batman-centered stuff.
That said, The Riddler challenges tend to have you paired up with Catwoman – and that’s another amazing part of this game: our favourite moments, by far and away, were the tag-team sections. There are at least three members of the expanded Bat-family that will pair up with you, allowing you to perform dual-team takedowns, explore their unique movesets and hear some pretty well-constructed Bat-banter en route.
To unlock the true end of the game (hinted at heavily during the opening cutscene), you’ll have to hit practically every completion percentage – so that includes clearing every checkpoint, unlocking every Riddler trophy and hunting down all the miscellaneous villains that have run amok in Gotham this night. And your reward is jaw-dropping. The finale of the game is yet more proof that Rocksteady is making strides in cinematic gaming that other developers should be taking notes on – a player-controlled camera has never felt so natural, so free, so important. This game series was built, it seems, with one core goal in mind – to make you feel like a superhero. Arkham Asylum did this physically – Bats was powerful and decisive in combat. City did this in its world – you had to prioritise what you wanted to save first, weigh up what it means to be Gotham’s saviour. Arkham Knight finally properly peeks under the cowl, gives you a real insight into Batman’s brain, truly makes you feel not just like Batman, but the fractured broken man that is Bruce Wayne.
If this is Rocksteady’s Batman swansong, which we have every reason to believe it is, the studio is making a point on its way out: it’s saying that it’s not just Christopher Nolan that can make a superhero entertainment dark and relatable, it’s saying that not only Marvel can construct properties with limitless appeal, it’s saying that superheroes aren’t what they used to be. They’ve changed, adapted for the dark days we live in. Batman struggles during the Arkham Knight – he’s finally held accountable for his ‘above the law’ attitude – and Rocksteady has masterfully and knowingly deconstructed the man behind the mask with such aplomb, even Alan Moore might give a begrudging nod of approval. This is the best superhero fantasy we’ve ever enacted, and we’re so sad it’s over.