Have you heard the news? Batman is dead. The untimely demise of the Dark Knight creates a multitude of questions, with the most obvious being, 'Who will step up to become Gotham's unflinching protector in his stead?' WB Games Montréal's Gotham Knights casts Batgirl, Robin, Red Hood, and Nightwing as its playable protagonists to answer that question. But the more interesting implications of Batman's death are outside the moonlit rooftops and crime-ridden streets he swore to protect, and inside the halls of the studio bringing Gotham Knights to life.
From the very outset, Gotham Knights has been a confusing prospect. It's developed by a studio that previously worked on Arkham Origins, a Batman game set in the same universe as Rocksteady's Arkham Asylum, City, and Knight. It looks a lot like those games and, narratively, seems to pick up where they left off, with the implied death of Bruce Wayne/Batman in the Knightfall ending. Its gameplay is built on the foundation of the Arkham games and its unique hook--a Bat-family team-up--is an idea explored in several of Arkham Knight's DLCs. But, despite all these links, Gotham Knights is not connected to the Arkham games in any way. Instead, it exists in its own distinct universe and is presented as something entirely new.
WB Games Montréal then faces the unenviable task of convincing people that their new Batman game is, in fact, not a Batman game in the way you think--despite what it may look like. This idea was pervasive in the few hours I played Gotham Knights, and as a result, I came away uncertain about some aspects of it while intrigued by others. At the very least, Gotham Knights is messing with the status quo, which was at the core of the idea for the game.
"From the very earliest conversations that we were having, as both a team and with DC [Comics], we got excited about this idea of disrupting the Gotham City dynamic," explained Patrick Redding, creative director of Gotham Knights. "And in the process of doing that, giving players a chance to have the level of interaction with the city that they hadn't had previously.
"And so we started thinking about that. Like, 'I want to know what happens when that hero has to become more than just a crime fighting vigilante, [and] become a symbol. What does that look like? The problem was, the more we talked about it, the more we realized that the major obstacle to delivering that fantasy was Batman. He kind of looms over everything. And if he's around, you have this sense of, 'Should I really get invested in this character's growth because Daddy's going to come home and take care of business, right?'
"So it very quickly got to, 'We got to get him out of it.' And not like, 'Oh, we're going to put him on the injured list and he'll come back because, again, that undermines everything. It was like, no, he's gone. He's dead. Dead. And that will give us the runway we need to not only let these heroes grow, but also to really upset the apple cart of Gotham City.'"
My time with that crime-ridden apple cart began with Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, infiltrating Gotham University with the goal of seeking out more information about a professor. Gotham Knights did a great job of setting up a central mystery as quickly as possible in my preview. In this case, the professor who Batgirl is investigating, Kirk Langstrom (better known in the comics as Man-Bat) is mentioned in a half-finished file attached to a Code Black--a contingency plan designed to alert Batman's proteges of his death. The central narrative thread of Gotham Knights involves the heirs to Batman's crusade trying to pick up where their mentor left off, understand what he was trying to prevent, and, at the same time, solve the mystery of his death.
I won't belabor the details of the narrative beats in the missions I played so as to preserve the experience for you, but the process of discovering what's going on with Langstrom incorporated a mix of puzzle-solving and some good old head-knocking. As Batgirl, I entered the university building through an open balcony and, immediately, what struck me was how detailed the internal environments were and how there was an atmosphere to them. WB Games Montréal has done a great job of capturing that dark gothic vibe of Batman's city while also injecting an element of youthful vibrancy to it. The mahogany furniture and gold trimmings of Gotham U were bathed in the warm glow of antique lighting fixtures, which contrasted nicely with the neon-purple and striking yellow of Barbara's Batgirl of Burnside-inspired outfit. The game as a whole has a nice mixture of old versus new; young blood taking on a decades-old quest for justice. This, in turn, nicely reflects the idea of an ancient evil rising up from the depths of Gotham to overcome it in the modern day.
While I didn't spend as much time in the open-world as I'd have liked, I can't say that the city itself stuck out to me as distinctive in the brief time I hopped across buildings and soared through its skies. It's certainly quite lacking in personality or mood from the rooftops, especially when compared to the impressive density of detail achieved in Arkham Knight. Perhaps I just didn't see the right spots, but in a game where I'm being asked to return to the city and patrol night after night, it really stuck with me that the city didn't make a more immediate impression. Things were much better at ground level, both on-foot and on the Batcycle, as there was more of an opportunity to see the world detail, but even still, there was something about it that felt like a step back from Arkham Knight. Again, this could very much be a symptom of me having limited access to the world and the build of the game I was playing.
In the investigation, I used the Augmented Reality vision to follow clues in the environment and progressed deeper into the university. I was tasked with scouring crime scenes for information, which involved searching for evidence in the environment and compiling it to come to a solution. The process was very rudimentary and didn't require much thought, but for now I chalk that up to needing to keep it simple in the early stages of the game. I'm hopeful that, given WB Games Montréal's history, they intend to elaborate on the investigative and puzzle-solving part of being a member of the Bat-family. The bulk of my time with Gotham Knights was instead spent brawling with the different criminal factions that have now overrun the city in Batman's absence. And it's here where I found both the most cause for concern as well as design decisions with some potential to shine.
At its most basic, Gotham Knights functions very similarly to the Arkham games. Your goal is to tear through groups of enemies using melee attacks, weapons, and gadgets. Each of the four Knights has a melee attack, a heavy melee attack, and an evade move. Perched on a railing high above the library, I scoped out the enemy presence and planned my assault. Like the Predator Rooms from previous games, you can adopt specific strategies or adapt on the fly, allowing you to be stealthy, go loud, or use a mixture of the two. On this occasion, I wanted to get a feel for the combat so I ambushed with an aerial strike and then squared off against the enemies directly. As I began pummeling them, I had this bizarre sense that something was off, and it took me a little while to realize that I was trying to play it like the Arkham games, which wasn't working at all. In Gotham Knights, there is no standardized counter mechanic and, instead, it has been replaced with a dodge. This is because, at the center of the combat, is the Momentum system--represented by an on-screen bar--which game director Geoff Elenor says "is based on rewarding you for playing well."
Nicolas Monteilhet-Labossière, lead game designer for combat, added: "We have a chain of attacks that will increment your Momentum gain as you progress through them. But the Momentum is also gained from defensive maneuvers, through co-op tactics that you can do with your friends, and we have a mechanic called Timed Strikes which tries to encourage a player to not just button mash but time your strikes and play in a more deliberate manner.
"You earn more resources with that, and having more of that resource helps you deliver these Momentum abilities, which are the pinnacle moves of the characters themselves. And it's really that rewarding process that we want you to fight well, fight better, fight cleverly, and we give you more of that resource to be able to finish the fight."
"So you basically get to play more creatively and more powerfully the longer your attack and defense chains are successful," continued Ellenor. "So instead of having an explicit combo mechanic, we have a hidden combo mechanic that essentially is expressed in the Momentum bar. The faster it builds, the better you're playing and the more powerful you can be."
This combat model was a major point of friction for me, and the first example of what I felt was the RPG-ification of the Arkham gameplay design model in Gotham Knight. At the risk of being reductive, the focus on building a Momentum to fill up a bar in order to access special, more powerful signature abilities felt akin to managing cooldowns in an MMORPG or the ability-based systems of games such as Destiny and, more appropriately, Marvel's Avengers.
That's not to say that this change in design ethos is necessarily a bad thing. Although it took some unlearning of muscle memory, I eventually got to grips with it and, in a few cases, found it satisfying. As Robin, I was able to frequently leverage really cool technology to send out a swarm of robots to occupy enemies or create holographic distractions of myself to draw agro. And as Red Hood, Jason's ranged specialization is great at chipping away at enemies while advancing on them to deal some melee damage, slip under incoming attacks, and then eventually unleash a big flourish that brought down big groups of enemies in short order. One of his attacks utilizes his connection to the supernatural, which comes from being brought back to life using the Lazarus Pit, and involves charging up a gunshot that sends an ethereal green energy snaking from goon to goon--it's incredibly cool and, surprisingly, I really like this twist on the character.
However, I'd be lying if I didn't also say that I felt like the system also undermines a lot of tried-and-true design principles for something that, while functional, currently feels less satisfying and less intuitive. Take the basic punching and countering for example: In the Batman Arkham games, there was a rhythmic quality to them, to the point where you could feel the timing; you'd know exactly when to hit the button for that perfect follow-up strike and the game would give you feedback to show you were successful--it was explicit about it. Gotham Knights, meanwhile, doesn't have the instinctive feel of Arkham's rhythmic combat and has a hidden combo mechanic. With the counter system of the Arkham games you'd also become so attuned to your surroundings that you could get into a flow state and counter almost as an involuntary reaction to the prompt, and then swiftly move on to the next enemy without breaking your stride. There was a beautiful fluidity and grace to it all.
By comparison, Gotham Knights feels more rigid, and lacks that elegance that would allow the characters of the Arkham series to feel like an extension of you as opposed to a thing you're puppeteering on a screen. I noticed myself constantly glancing at a bar and at icons in a corner of a screen, when I wanted to just focus on the action. The perfect dodge mechanic, meanwhile, certainly works. It lets you get out of the way of incoming strikes and retaliate, while giving you a decent chunk of Momentum to work towards that final flourish. But it also felt like it, ironically, slowed the momentum of my assault. There's a whole disjointed feeling to it that I can't help but liken to looter-shooter games where you're sinking clips of ammo into enemies and biding your time until an ability becomes available to use. In those games, however, the unique properties of guns make that process a little more engaging, but the same can't be said of Gotham Knight's melee attacks: a punch is a punch and a kick is a kick, at least in the slice of the game I played.
Admittedly, the gear systems do create opportunities to spice up those melee attacks with properties such as elemental alignments and the outfits that you can put together using various pieces of loot are impressive to look at. However, there's just as much chance that some of these systems might impact your immersion--they did for me. There was something really strange about finding gear in a chest, especially for members of the Bat-family. Maybe it's my ability to suspend my belief mixing with my fanboy nature, but the thought of heroes with access to cutting-edge technology created by a genius choosing to instead scoop up random bits of equipment makes my inner Comic Book Guy want to act out. But I played numerous hours of Ultimate Alliance and Marvel's Avengers, so maybe I'll get used to it.
Of course, I understand why the combat system is the way it is, and it goes back to that RPG-ification. Counters in the Arkham games often rendered enemies hapless and paved the way for instant takedowns which, in a game where you're living the fantasy of being an apex predator ruthlessly dispatching waves of enemies, feels great. But in one where you have enemies with health bars and your characters have damage numbers tied to levels and equipment, that kind of approach would upend those ancillary systems. Similarly, based on what I played, the combat just didn't feel as dynamic as I had expected and hoped for. In the Arkham games, I remember zipping around rooms shattering jaws and breaking femurs, casually whipping out a grappling hook to draw unsuspecting goons to me, and firing off batarangs to stagger enemies--I didn't get that same kind of feeling of command over a battlefield in Gotham Knights, and I was sorely missing it.
I want to reemphasize that Gotham Knights' combat isn't bad. Based on what I played, it is considered, it works, it has its moments, and with the various skill trees it has the potential to develop into something cooler. And perhaps it's unfair to expect it to retain the Freeflow combat of games that came before it given the RPG mechanics, but in doing so it has definitely lost some of the magic that made it feel so empowering to play as Batman. And I can't help but feel that shaving off health bars breaks the immersion of being a powerful superhero. I'm sure I'll get used to it, and maybe even grow to like it more, but that won't stop me from mourning what once was.
What is very encouraging is that WB Games Montréal has clearly made a concerted effort to ensure each of the Knights have a distinct feel and style. Going into the preview, I was sure that I'd want to main Nightwing, but over the course of my play time, I managed to sample them all and now I can't say with any certainty who I'll stick to because I had a great time with each of them. According to the team, each of the Knights was created to embody a different facet of Batman, which I think is a really cool way to represent the relationships they had--almost like the way a person can mirror the mannerisms of their parents, siblings, or close friends.
"We identified what are the quintessences of Batman and we tried to make sure that each of our Knights were reflecting one of these aspects of Batman," Monteilhet-Labossiere explained. "So Robin is the stealthy, tactical, detective mind of Batman. While Batgirl is the resilience; the justice--she's never going to go down, she's always going to be there to protect the city. Nightwing is really the charismatic aspect of Batman--even if Bruce wouldn't say it, he handles some of the most powerful characters in the DC world, and Nightwing is the oldest and is kind of the big brother, so his gameplay touches on that because he wants to protect people. Red Hood is the direct approach of Batman in the street; he's bringing justice in his own way and is the harnessed rage that Batman has."
This approach to characterization is the part of Gotham Knights that I was most excited to see. In gameplay terms, it means a great deal of variety in play options that creates the potential for really cool team-up dynamics in co-op. Each of the four characters has multiple skill trees that unlock unique abilities to make themselves hardier, create new opportunities in battle, and unlock cool special abilities. With Batgirl, I found myself particularly well suited for quickly bringing down singular opponents using her Beatdown ability, which unleashes a brutal flurry of punches ending in a particularly powerful blow. Because of this, I catered my playstyle around picking off smaller goons as swiftly as possible to get the Momentum needed to switch my focus to the bigger enemies and give them a beatdown. As Red Hood, I played the long-range game as much as possible, and used gunfire to control enemy movement and spacing. Robin, meanwhile, was my go-to when I wanted to use direct engagement as a last resort and instead focus on quietly thinning out the numbers using stealth. Finally Nightwing was the speedy, acrobatic fighter that I used when I wanted to be constantly on the move.
Their unique personalities carry over into the way they get around the city too, as each of the Knights has their own traversal mechanic; some more surprising than others. On the more normal side are Batgirl's classic grappling gun and Nightwing's glider. But on the other end is Red Hood, who can double-jump using his weird otherworldly Lazarus pit energy and--the wildest among them--Robin, who is able to use tech to open interdimensional portals to teleport to where he wants, within a set radius.
Naturally, their distinct personalities are also leveraged for the narrative, which is perhaps where it gets the most interesting. Each of the Knights has their own interpretation of Bruce and Batman's approach to crime fighting and, as a result, this can often mean they're at odds with each other. In one of the scenes I saw, Red Hood wanted to take to the streets and begin dispensing his own brand of vigilante justice instead of sitting around and waiting for the computer to decode files. This results in a standoff against Nightwing that, eventually, Robin has to step in to diffuse.
Although I only saw a small amount of it, I really enjoyed watching the interpersonal relationships between the characters explored a bit more. The premise of Gotham Knights paves the way for some really interesting character studies because each of the Knights has now suffered a major loss and is no doubt feeling the weight of responsibility. There's a crusade to take on, a city looking for their protector, and villains that need a symbol to act in defiance of. This is also to the game's benefit as it allows the characters in the here-and-now to be the focus, instead of referencing years of history that only die-hard fans will be in the know of.
"What we're really trying to achieve is that you don't feel that you are missing out on anything if you're not a huge DC nerd and you haven't read all of the runs of all of the things," said executive producer Fleur Marty. "There are layers, and I think we tried to put things in there that people who know will recognize and get the reference to. But if you don't, we're not taking anything away from you. And what's great for us in telling that story and introducing those characters is there's this inciting incident that is the same for the four of them: They just lost Bruce. We take from that base and the player then goes through that journey with them, that journey of grief and the journey of growth. So the past doesn't matter that much and they can get invested right away because they are grieving with the character at the moment where it happens."
"There's, I think, a universality to the idea of like the estranged family that has to get back together for a funeral," added Redding. "The fact that the estrangement in part is a function of philosophy--so, you know, there are four very different people with different approaches and different styles and different attitudes--that kind of tells you a lot. And so, when you start to learn how they play differently, you're not so surprised either. They kind of each fill a role in the gameplay spectrum too."
The most interesting conceit, however, is the idea that, through this journey and the player's efforts in growing their chosen Knight–or Knights, since you can swap around at the Belfry–there will eventually be a point that one of them will need to accept Knighthood and officially become the protector of Gotham in the same way that Batman was. Of course, to give this moment the gravitas it should have, Gotham Knights will need to ensure that each of these characters has a meaningful arc which, alongside also telling the tale of Batman's death and bringing in the Court of Owls, as well as the story of how the team comes together as a family, sounds like a tall order.
Based on what I played though, it seems that is something WB Games Montréal is very much aware of. In addition to having their hero grow through RPG mechanics and dialogue while out on missions, there's also attention given to the Knights individually and as a team of normal people. At the Belfry, which serves as their base of operations, they walk around in casual clothes and are noticeably more vulnerable. It was really interesting to see this contrast between who they are as people and their superhero personas, which often have two very different tones and behavior styles. I suspect that, over time, we may see that these superheroes are able to find common ground in how they tackle challenges, as well as interpersonal dynamics, thanks to the time they spend together outside of their costumes.
"It's important for us that the player feels that the character that they choose to play is the one who becomes the ultimate protector of Gotham City," explained Marty. "It's not the four of them becoming it. It's one of them becoming it. That being said, the way we are structuring it--especially the Belfry cinematics and the moments in between the missions and all of that--we have tried to give the spotlight to [them so] that each of them feels important at a certain moment. We didn't pick a favorite. And then on top of that, of course, you still have the personal arcs for each of them. And those are specific to each character, the journey that they're working on is different. So that is unique."
Redding added: "One of the things I love about the cinematics in the Belfry when they're all together is that, when I'm playing as a character and I watch that cinematic with the four of them, it still feels like they're the main character to me. I'm still being like, 'Oh yeah, you just said that because of that thing I did 50 minutes ago. And it's weird. It's a total illusion. It's the player imposing their own narrative--which is, as far as I'm concerned, the narrative that matters--on to what they're saying. And it's a credit, honestly, to the writers, to the narrative team and the cinematics team that they were able to deliver something that had that kind of balance. You know, it's like the painting that's always looking at you no matter where you stand in the room, that's what it feels like."
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To my surprise, villains look set to receive similarly thoughtful consideration. In my preview I was asked to head to Blackgate to speak to Harley Quinn. Interestingly, this Harley was one that clearly had already been through her own journey--there are references to her time with the Suicide Squad and a long-term working relationship with Batman. In fact, there's a moment where she actually learns that Batman is gone and seems to exhibit an expression of sadness and loss, which I felt was really interesting. Harley kicks off a multi-part mission that I didn't get to play in its entirety. Instead, I got a truncated version that skips to the end, which--to no surprise--is a brawl against her. However, the conclusion also had her almost offering a sentiment of approval to Robin, as if to say, 'Hey kid, I know stepping into his boots is going to be hard for you, but you're doing good.' It really caught me off guard and drove home the fact that the death of Batman is also going to create a sense of loss in the villains too.
"There is nothing accidental in the game," said Redding, "and that was one of the major guideposts for all of our discussions on the villains, including which villains to include. [W]e're disrupting the status quo of Gotham City and seeing how it impacts its heroes. But the relationship that Batman has with his villains has always been kind of like this weirdly intimate love-hate relationship, right? [There's] a kind of creepy co-dependency there.
"And so what we wanted to do was look at some specific villains that had each kind of embodied one example of that type of relationship. So Harley is kind of the perfect example of the villain because she's like, 'I can be your nemesis, you know, and it works out really perfect.' In the case of Clayface, without giving away too much, it's an example of what happens when you have a villain who has been so consumed by a particular need for vengeance, what happens when the object of their vengeance is taken away from them? In the case of Mr. Freeze, he has always been portrayed as this sort of tragic figure who is misguided and obsessive. But ultimately, he's brilliant and he can be reasoned with, but Batman was one of the few people who could talk to the reason. And now with Batman out of the picture, what happens? There's a bit of a moral anchor that gets taken away from him. So that was extremely core."
The climactic battle with Harley was a reminder that Gotham Knights is poised to deliver things that I'm both excited for and most nervous about. From a gameplay sense, playing through in co-op felt a bit like going through the motions. I entered each room with another member of the Knights by my side and we systematically brutalized our way through rooms using a mixture of stealth takedowns and all-out ass-kickings.
This brought us to the standoff with Harley, which was resolved in what felt like a three-person slapfight. Harley's design accounted for two enemies and she did her best to use sweeping attacks that would get us off her, but for the most part it was Robin and Batgirl furiously beating her down with little thought given to strategy. It devolved into exactly what I feared Gotham Knight's combat would be: me doing strings of unsatisfying melee attacks that didn't feel well timed because, well, the chaos of two people attacking the same target meant it was pretty much impossible to find the right timing; waiting for Momentum to make a special ability available and unleashing it, then rinsing and repeating while watching the health bar slowly whittle down.
And yet, what that battle meant from a narrative and character perspective was far more meaningful. It was two characters trying to understand why their mentor was killed, while trying to develop themselves so they can take up his mantle. It also meant a villain trying to forge a new path while also dealing with grief in her own way and, unexpectedly, serving as a guiding hand for her future nemeses. Gotham Knights feels like a game that is at odds with itself in so many ways, whether that's the gameplay and the story, or what it is as an RPG versus where it came from as an action game. It's hard to say how this will all shake out, but--taking the optimistic perspective--although it is at risk of fumbling what made the Arkham games so much fun to play, it also has the potential to deliver the stories and character that also made them so compelling. The emperor's new clothes definitely feel like awkwardly-fitting hand-me-downs, but they could still look good from certain angles.