The Batman: Arkham series finds itself in a peculiar situation. It’s a licensed superhero series, and Superman 64 and Aquaman: Battle for Atlantis have taught us to be wary of our caped, underwear-on-the-outside heroes. However, it has also delivered two of the best games this generation, with Arkham City ranking in the top five Metacritic scores of all time for the PlayStation 3. Perhaps that’s what makes Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate so frustrating. It looks like an Arkham game, it sounds like an Arkham game, and it certainly takes a risk using a 2.5D style not unlike that of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow-Mirror of Fate, but the entire experience feels clunky, rushed, and frankly, soulless.
Taking place a few months after the end of Arkham Origins, Arkham Origins Blackgate finds the Dark Knight back in Blackgate prison to stop a massive uprising by classic villains such as the Joker, Penguin, Solomon Grundy, and Black Mask. As an epilogue to Blackgate’s console counterpart, the premise allows for the Arkham Origins story to continue without alienating those who don’t want to spend time on a spinoff, but it also feels unnecessary. It seems that every major villain absolutely had to be included in the game, right down to a shoehorned side-plot involving Catwoman, who also acts as a voice in the player’s ear for the duration of the roughly eight-hour story. Individual characters never get enough time to be memorable, and the dialogue is wildly inconsistent. Occasional moments of brilliant writing are quickly offset by wooden lines and repetitive battle chatter, and the pacing of the story makes certain key plot points feel especially out of place.
Although the “motion comic” style of presentation has become increasingly common, it’s easily the best aspect of Arkham Origins Blackgate. Sharp, detailed drawings mesh perfectly with the brilliant voice work of Roger Craig Smith, Troy Baker, and Nolan North, as well as a perfectly seductive Catwoman played by Grey DeLisle. All of the actors work well together, with Roger Craig Smith confidently holding down the fort after replacing Kevin Conroy. It’s just a shame that the actors have so little material to work with, as this level of talent in a handheld game is very rare.
Drawing influence from “Metroidvania” games that encourage exploration and backtracking, Blackgate feels quite different from traditional Arkham titles. The prison is made up of multiple main sections, and the player can quickly fast-travel between them as Batman gains access to new gadgets and security door protocols. The security panels are particularly fun to hack, as the player must match a sequence of three numbers by moving a small bar over several rows of digits. Until the last few hours, there actually isn’t that much retreading through past areas, but none of the prison is very interesting to explore. There are a few secret areas that house upgrades, and gadgets like the explosive gel and remote claw can unlock previously blocked areas, but the “wow” moments present in other games in the series are nowhere to be found.
Where Blackgate does feel like Arkham Origins is the combat. Fighting henchmen is exactly the same as in the other games, although Batman’s range of motion is limited due to the entire game taking place on a 2D plane. Finishing moves and combos feel excellent, and enemies actually put up a challenge. Guns in particular can be a huge pain, as Batman’s evading maneuvers are much less effective when he can only go in four directions. It’s still a joy to cape-stun an armored baddie before delivering 12 punches to his midsection.
While it’s quite a bit of fun to beat up goons, boss fights are a completely different story. Luckily, there are only four main encounters and they’re easily the worst parts of the game. Broken stealth mechanics, a needlessly finicky countering system and a broken checkpoint system all contribute to some truly painful moments. The Penguin fight alone took me more than one night, as the frustration of getting shot to bits by two guards while Cobblepot stood below was simply too much to handle.
This would have been easier to swallow if the fights preceded key plot points, but with how little story the game actually has to tell, they feel like chores at best and cruel and unusual punishment at worst. This is in stark contrast to Arkham Origins, which offers a fair challenge and reward for getting past Batman’s more dangerous enemies. It’s as if there was a quota that the developers were required to meet and they weren’t allowed to go more than a few hours without reintroducing an old villain.
Motion comic cutscenes aside, Blackgate isn’t even a very good-looking game. Animations and special effects are quite impressive, but character models rarely move their mouths when speaking and textures look slightly muddier than I expected. That’s not to say that it’s ugly — the graphics look far better than many of the Vita’s other releases — but it seems like Armature was rushing to hit the game’s release date.
Sound fares much better, as in addition to the terrific voice cast, ambient noises and an awesome soundtrack help set the atmosphere for a dark, twist-filled mystery. That doesn’t mean the twists are particularly surprising or the mystery is well-developed, but it helps to keep the player fooled for a little while longer. This is one Vita game that will definitely benefit from some good headphones.
It isn’t an absolute failure, but with the legacy paved by the other fantastic Arkham games, Blackgate feels more like a botched experiment than anything else. While the Caped Crusader can indeed function without 3D movement, that doesn’t mean that there’s any reason that he should have to, and the Arkham titles’ best traits are all but lost in the transition to the small screen. Especially considering what other games have been released on the system, it would be much more interesting to see a full-fledged Arkham game on the go.