It’s really odd how much I worried about *deep breath* Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate (henceforth known as Blackgate). Since its announcement, I’ve been a regular worry wart, fretting over just how good it would be.
It’s not as if I have any stakes in the product, I just enjoy good games. And if that good game is also a Batman game, then I’ve hit the lottery.
But why I worried so much is the talent behind it. Armature Studio, formed by ex-Retro Studios talent, has been rung through the ringer, noting themselves to be the victim of the video game industry’s constant ‘shifts’. Blackgate marks the studio’s first self-created project, and as such, I wanted them to he able to shine. Thing is, it’s no always a treat to work on a licensed property. Previous Arkham games were incredible, but would Warner Bros. give Armature the freedom they needed?
While I can’t say there weren’t any hardships, I can certify that Blackgate is awesome. How’s that for a criticism?
Armature’s history with the Metroid series is apparent when it comes to Blackgate Prison’s structure. Upon arrival, Batman seems as locked out as the convicts it houses. In true Metroid form, Batman begins the night missing his usual repertoire of ingenious gadgets. By exploring his surroundings, Batman can build an interesting arsenal, which in turn leads to further exploration.
It’s a formula many attempt. A glance at Kickstarter can reveal several titles claiming to be ‘Metroid-inspired’ (most often followed by ‘and influenced by Dark Souls). It’s a type of game many of us clamor for, and I’ve certainly been duped by such comparisons. While I don’t believe these games intend to mislead us, I do feel that making a game in the genre is harder than one thinks. Having a world that opens up as you play isn’t enough. Developers need me to want to explore their world, feel a need to seek out its secrets.
Blackgate succeeds here, combining an interesting world, fun power-ups, and useful secrets into one solid experience.
Armature draws you into Batman’s world with a ‘second step’ of the Arkham series’ Detective Vision. The first step is the ‘x-ray’ vision we’ve come to know, showing important elements of the environment and enemies. This new element allows players to seek out hidden objects; destructible walls, collectible ‘clues’, and access points to new areas. By hovering over the knick-knack, it is ‘analyzed’ and it becomes interactive. This pulls the player in, and plays well with Batman’s identity as the world’s greatest detective. He’s observing the area, able to identify the specifics of nearly everything with just a single glance.
Blackgate Prison is divided into four distinct areas, three of which have been taken and divided between the Penguin, Joker, and Black Mask. At the game’s outset, players can decide which area to tackle first, and in turn, which enemy to take down. You can jump between these four areas with ease, but there will be times where the player can hit a dead end, meaning it’s time to look elsewhere. While the narrative is kept to a minimum, the joy of exploration was my motivation. Despite being an Arkham game, Blackgate stands out as one of the more linear entries. It’s something I haven’t seen since Rocksteady’s first Batman game, Arkham Asylum, and I love the fact that Armature brought it back. Despite pulling itself away from the open world set-ups of Arkham City and Origins, I find myself more interested in seeing every nook and cranny. It’s focused on presenting unique, memorable environments, something a wide open environment struggles with.
Something more familiar to fans of the Arkham games is the combat system. Despite being a 2.5-D game, Blackgate adapts the ‘Freeflow’ system pretty well. While you can’t switch planes manually, the enemies do surround Batman, with your attacks moving you between the ‘layers’. While this simulates the experience of being ganged up on very well, things get a bit messier when you want to single an enemy out. Enemies that wield knives or cattle prods need to be handled differently than those using only their fists. For me, I like to get these enemies out of the way first, but that’s not technically possible in Blackgate. There were times where I wanted to attack one of these special enemies, only to be forced to attack another that was standing beside him. And since the cape stun is needed to attack an enemy with a knife, I’m suddenly stunning enemies that require it. Thankfully, the game focuses on exploration more than combat, so it’s not something I was bothered by. Plus, the boss fights were creative, and the game ended with a particularly strong encounter, so the combat is hardly a write off.
The only real chink in Batman’s armour is the game’s map. For as well designed as the world is, its map does a poor job of relaying the proper information to the player. It shows the prison from a bird’s eye view, treating the environment as a single layer. The problem is that Blackgate‘s design is very complicated, weaving players in and out of the fore and background, twisting and turning as you travel through its ventilation system. The map simply cannot account for this, and is hard to make use of due to that. It functions better as a compass, showing the player the direction they should be heading with its event and hidden item markers. I played the game on the 3DS, and despite my issues with the map, its placement on the bottom screen was useful when facing some of the level’s ‘forks in the road’. It was a very quick way to see which path leads where. While the Vita version requires the player to bring up the map manually, this isn’t much of a problem. The strong art direction lends itself well to both platforms, but the Vita easily trumps the 3DS in this department.
While this may have been Warner Bros.’s attempt to ‘scare me straight’, I loved my time in Blackgate Prison. It’s a real treat, a game that’s influenced by the Metroid series and actually pulls it off. These types of games don’t come around too often, and if you’re as starved as I was, you’ll find yourself very pleased with what Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate has to offer.
Oh, and as is customary for the Arkham series, an enemy manages to trick Batman with his/her dastardly scheme.