Hot take: Batman is the least interesting member of the now vastly expanded Batfamily of characters. Audiences have seen endless remixes of the Caped Crusader, whether he was portrayed as Adam West, suave as Michael Keaton, brooding as Christian Bale or, ahem, murderous as Ben Affleck. Fans of the original comics have even more creative takes and iterations to choose from.
Far more interesting now are the partners, protégés and sidekicks Batman has amassed, each with a different approach to superheroism and more interesting personalities to explore than poor orphan Bruce Wayne and his dubious approaches to reducing crime in a major metropolitan area. That’s what makes Gotham Knights such an exciting prospect at first glance – after the apparent death of Batman, it falls to Nightwing, Red Hood, Robin and Batgirl to protect Gotham City. By shifting the focus away from the old pointy ears and towards these four other heroes, developer WB Games Montréal has a chance to move the entire series forward, from Shadow of the Bat, and show these old characters as the icons that they are.
Much of the framework of Gotham Knights manages to do this – the entire game is a love letter to the wider DC Comics continuity. Background information found in the files and e-mails appears in references to minor comic book characters and members of other superteams such as Young Justice or The Titans, while Gotham streets and neighborhoods are named after comic book creators. It unapologetically introduces its main characters as characters with long-standing relationships and personal stories – Jason Todd/Red Hood, who previously died and was resurrected, Barbara Gordon/Batgirl recovered from a spinal injury and assumed the identity of Oracle, father of Robin/Tim Drake. to be always up to date and more – rather than being blank slates for newbies. While the main story is fully accessible to anyone without a deep understanding of the wider Bat-lore, those familiar with the characters will get a lot more out of the game.
Unfortunately, aside from the writing and back issues, Gotham Knights is struggling to justify its cast as the next generation of heroes. On the plus side, each has a distinctly different playstyle that reflects their personal approaches to crime-fighting: Nightwing, with his circus background, is flashier, spinning through enemies and dazzling with speed; Red Hood is more of a tank, dealing brutal blows and being the only character willing to use weapons; Batgirl laser-focuses on one enemy at a time, while Robin is best suited for stealth and gadget-related kills. The result should be combat that will be unique to each hero and suit the preferred styles of different players.
In practice, no matter who you control, combat is frustrating and the same; all the more so since all the components for a great combat system are here. The combination of melee and ranged attacks, light and heavy damage, well-timed dodges and counterattacks – all of which help charge up the Momentum bar, which allows for stronger skills to be used – should make for fluid and versatile battles, especially when playing co-op where another the player can control one of the knights. There’s the option to tactic, mark enemies and environmental hazards with an AR filter, or try to sneak up on enemies and perform a silent takedown.
Instead, each encounter feels more like a button mashing where enemy hits will connect even after you’ve executed the perfect dodge – there’s a hint animation to show you’ve succeeded, yet enemies still seem to grab or attack you – and where they are hiding. approaches rarely work. Even dropping in on enemies from above seems to randomly switch between allowing you to do actual takedowns or simply an aerial attack that prompts regular melee.
Meanwhile, these Momentum specials seem to hit every enemy other than the one you’re attacking. For example, Nightwing has a Momentum move where he jumps at an enemy and then jumps out of range. Much more often though, he’ll jump across the area to lunge at a distant grunt rather than the tougher enemy you’re currently fighting. There’s no goal or lock-on feature, so everything feels terribly random.
Traversing Gotham also suffers from a lack of accuracy. The four heroes use grappling hooks to navigate the city streets, but the cursor showing where you want to grapple is automatic. This isn’t too much of a problem for general traversal, but there are specific traversal challenges that prove almost impossible at times, as you can’t manually target a specific point and the existing sight system drags you along. off target. And speaking of inaccuracy, the game’s user interface is also very vague – cluttered menus, a system for creating upgrades and gear modules that never seem to be explained enough, and an “Evidence Board” in the Knights’ base of operations that seems to serve no practical purpose, all serve to confuse.
Gotham itself also feels strangely empty. While the city is beautifully built and offers plenty of comic-book-accurate sights to visit, the streets are barely populated. When yelling at the Batcycle, you’ll hear snippets of ambient dialogue from civilians in the background who just aren’t there. There’s the odd crime to break up – and in a neat twist, some grunts can be heard to learn the details of the more elaborate, premeditated crimes that need to be foiled around town – but this Gotham is mostly a ghost town. After swinging around the beautifully crafted and vibrant downtowns of New York in Insomniac’s Spider-Man and Miles Morales, this is a huge disappointment.
The biggest sin is how repetitive it all is, and not just in the annoying combat and the series of side activities that pop up as you progress. There’s an entire skill tree of “knight” abilities for each character, but this requires completing the exact same objectives for all four – a specific training tutorial, stopping ten pre-arranged crimes, and defeating several mini-bosses. There is nothing personal or unique about each hero’s development, just the same tasks four times; the very definition of grind. All four heroes even gain experience and level up in sync, removing any real incentive to switch between them and experiment with play styles.
It’s all the more disappointing because Gotham Knights can really do it when they want to. There are some phenomenal set pieces – single-handedly stopping a prison riot to a punk rock cover of “Livin’ La Vida Loca” is a lot of fun – and the story is truly one of the best, most comic-accurate stories we’ve seen. in a video game adaptation. Importantly, it’s even ensured that Nightwing’s canonically great ass is not only lovingly modeled, but also commented upon by other characters. Sadly, all this joy is lost in the mire of challenging battles, tricky navigation and endless repetition.