Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate should, in theory, be amazing. The recent pair of Batman games from Rocksteady Studios are the best featuring the caped crusader in years, if not decades, and mixing the constants of the Arkham games with a bit of Metroid-inspired design sounds like a winning formula. The prequel to Arkham Asylum, set after the console version of Arkham Origins, pits Batman against three familiar faces: Joker, the Penguin, and Black Mask. Each villain has taken control of a section of the Blackgate prison, amassing small armies along the way. Of course, only Batman can quell the uprising, but not without a little help from Catwoman, whose inside info is the key to identifying important locations within Blackgate. After the two penetrate the front lines, you're off to the races, free to tackle the three sections of the prison in any order you wish.
Blackgate does have a lot in common with its older siblings, but everything is presented in 2.5D rather than full 3D. Despite the change in perspective, close-quarters combat remains fluid and simple; relentlessly attack enemies, and press the counter button when a warning icon flashes above their heads. It's a straightforward dance that's effortlessly strung together in a simple but satisfying way. You aren't controlling every facet of the action, but you are performing complex combo attacks and acrobatic takedowns with ease. Occasionally, advanced enemies with weapons or increased defenses appear, and you may have to stun them with your cape or leap over them to attack from behind, but overt button prompts make it easy to keep things moving right along.
Unfortunately, it's not all good news. One of the few problems with combat occurs when you're dealing with a variety of enemy types. Quite often, fights take place on two planes, but you don't have control over which plane you're fighting on. Instead, Batman attacks the closest enemy regardless of whether the opponent is in the foreground or background. Following the simple attack and counter formula works well enough when against common enemies, but that which makes multi-plane combat easy, however, breaks any attempt at strategy when fighting complex enemies. Stunning one enemy, only to attack a different enemy on another plane by accident, for example, is an all-too-common occurrence.
As you might expect, you eventually encounter well-known villains from the Batman series, and these boss fights come in two flavors. Mid-boss encounters, such as Bronze Tiger and Solomon Grundy, largely stick to the pattern of counter and attack found in typical fights, but the three big bosses are puzzle oriented in nature. These somewhat complex scenarios typically have strict conditions for success and extreme punishments for failure. A single misstep against Black Mask or the Penguin leads to near-instant death. Tackling these puzzles requires a trial-and-error approach, which doesn't work well with near-instant deathblows. Worst of all, you have to wait through an extended loading screen and start over a room or two before the boss fight. Until you know exactly what to do, it takes longer to get back into a boss fight than it does to fail.
When you aren't fending off clowns and thugs, you spend the majority of your time exploring the prison depths in search of the villainous trio. A sprawling map, filled with hidden passages, dangerous obstacles, and encrypted security panels, represents each of the game's three sections. Catwoman points you in the right direction, but once you're inside, you have to rely on the map and Batman's detective vision to find your way around. Entering detective mode by tapping the Vita's touchscreen reveals an X-ray-like representation of your surroundings. Perches, enemies, and other common elements are highlighted to stand out, and you can analyze each object's properties by touching them for a few seconds. It's important to search the screen for hidden objects that weren't immediately recognized in detective mode, and it's the most common way to not only discover solutions to environmental puzzles, but also the locations of secret rooms and items.
With mostly enjoyable combat and the discovery-driven model of exploration, Blackgate looks great on paper. However, the implementation of the latter feels rushed and chaotic, often leading to frustration with the level design, and most critically, the map. This is, for the most part, a side-scrolling experience, but you're often driven into an air duct in the background, around a corner, or onto an elevator, deviating away from the typical side-on perspective. This shouldn't be a problem, but thanks to the top-down map, and a constantly-shifting relationship with your surroundings, it is.
The map is, by far, the most frustrating element of Blackgate, because it fails to provide the kind helpful information you'd expect to find. In a multistory environment with complex webs of air ducts, grapnel points, and hidden rooms, a map that fails to indicate what floor you're on is next to useless. Quite often, you're told to go to a specific room, but even if it appears that you're within the boundary of said room according to the map, you may in fact be floors and a complicated journey away. You may even need to come from an entirely different entrance to the building, but you won't figure any of this out until you spend lots of time analyzing every inch of your environment, chasing trails that lead to dead ends, and eventually stumble upon a hidden path that doubles back to the goal, albeit a floor above where you started. Then, nine times out of 10, when you finally make it to the goal, you have to head to yet another far-away location to briefly interact with an object to restore power to a generator, disable a security device, or something similar.
Essentially, your journey is as follows: make your way from point A to point B, fight some enemies, head to point C to interact with an object, then return to point B to fight a boss. This pattern is common, and it's also frustrating, due in no small part to weak pathfinding and an utterly confusing map.
When you've grown tired of the typical mission, you have plenty of opportunities to seek out hidden objects, represented by a question mark on the map. Most of these are out of reach until you've acquired the proper tools: the batarang, line launcher, gel launcher, and batclaw. All of these tools are used to interact with objects and, with the exception of the line launcher, act as variations on the same principle: impact another object and apply some kind of force upon it. With the line launcher, you can create zip lines that allow you to fly across the environment, and even use it as a tightrope to reach areas overhead. Since Batman can't jump, the line launcher and the starting grapnel gun are your only means of vertical movement.
The Metroid-inspired world design, where tools are the key to reaching certain areas, is a welcome element, but the rewards for your explorative efforts are deflating. Most of the time, the items you find are one component of a four- or five-part object. It's a disappointing experience after struggling with the inadequate map and the need to endlessly analyze your environment. If you could analyze your environment while on the move, maybe the process wouldn't feel like such a chore, but as it is, you have to stand still to scrutinize your surroundings. In all, you spend far too much time stopping and starting, when all you want to do is solve puzzles, fight, and grapnel your way through the world.
And this is the major conflict within Blackgate's design. When you're making forward progress, interacting with your environment, and occasionally fighting, it's a simple but enjoyable gameplay experience, but once you're forced to wrestle with the map while backtracking, and attempt to collect enough pieces to assemble a new batsuit, things start to fall apart, and Blackgate becomes a slow and frustrating slog. There is a New Game Plus option to explore after beating the game, in case you want to tackle the main villains in a different order, but there are too many frustrating elements to make that an attractive option. The first few hours of Blackgate provide an exciting glimpse of what might have been a great game, but it slowly falls apart, hour by hour, villain by villain.