With a different developer at the helm of the latest entry in a series widely considered to be composed of the best superhero games ever made, Batman: Arkham Origins had some pretty big shoes to fill. The unassuming handheld tie-in - Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate - has, arguably, even bigger shoes to fill.
Not only does Blackgate have to live up to the expectations set by the previous Arkham titles, but it's also described as a "Metroidvania" style game, calling into mind other titles in that popular genre such as Metroid Fusion and Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. With developers Armature Studio headed by some of the masterminds behind the Metroid Prime series, expectations going in were high. Blackgate certainly rises to the challenge of one of these comparisons, but it falls somewhat short of the other.
Rocksteady’s Arkham games succeeded on the back of quality storytelling carried by impressive voice acting, deep, intuitive combat, and some brilliant (and mind numbing) puzzles, built around silently taking out a squad of armed enemies. In Blackgate, these elements are a tad hit and miss.
Blackgate’s story focus, unsurprisingly, is on Gotham’s Blackgate Prison, which has been taken over by inmates. As Black Mask, Penguin, and Joker all vie for control of the complex, Batman has to come in, rescue hostages, and prevent the prison’s gang war from reaching boiling point.
It’s an interesting enough plot, told convincingly through motion comic style cutscenes, but it never quite shakes the feeling of being a rehash of Arkham Asylum. The voice acting is spectacular, though, particularly Troy Barker’s Joker. When the clown prince first showed his ugly mug, I actually thought Mark Hamill had decided to come back to the series and that I had somehow missed the waves of cheering from the internet’s legion of Batman: The Animated Series fans.
Combat takes a back seat in Blackgate, relatively speaking, with exploration-based puzzles making up the core of the game. There are still thugs to beat down throughout, but it never quite feels as engaging or rewarding as it does in previous Arkham games. Fighting still has the same parry-and-counter flow, but none of Batman’s combat upgrades make a return, leaving you with just your strike, counter, and cape stun.
The game is a side-scrolling 2.5D platformer - rather than a fully 3D action game - which can make it hard to accurately target certain henchmen in a big group. Many a time I ended up stunning a regular thug instead of the more dangerous knife-wielding foe standing right beside him.
Blackgate’s predator puzzles are a bit more successful. Throughout the prison are rooms filled with armed guards; trying to take them out head-on will result in a very quick death. Instead, you need to use your wits and Batman’s collection of gadgets to sneak around, silently taking enemies out one by one. These puzzles aren’t quite on the same scale as previous Arkham games, with groups of four being the largest I encountered, but outsmarting and taking them out from the shadows does a great job of capturing that “I’m Batman” feeling.
One aspect that previous Arkham games executed really well was their boss fights; in Blackgate, they manage to somehow be one of the game’s best and worst features at the same time. The fights themselves are brilliantly designed, tasking you with putting all of Batman’s tricks to use rather than just having a punch up with a slightly sturdier bad guy. They’re also incredibly difficult, but in the kind of way where every death makes you feel like you know the fight just a little bit better and are a step closer to victory.
It’s a shame, then, that a really simple design flaw turns what should be the most intense and exciting part of the game into an exercise in tedium. When you die in a boss fight, something that happens a lot, you continue from just before the pre-fight cutscene rather than just continuing at the start of the encounter. This means extra loading time, extra button presses to skip cutscenes, and just extra frustration every time you die, undermining all the excitement of the fight and the sense of progress you should feel as you figure out your strategy. The boss fights are so well designed that they should be the best part of the game, but they end up being chores you have to get out of the way before you’re allowed to play outside.
Blackgate makes up for all its combat flaws with some of the best exploration-based puzzle design I’ve seen in a game not called “Metroid” or “Castlevania”; the influence of the Metroid Prime developers is clear.
After a brief tutorial level that has Batman chasing Catwoman, you find yourself in Blackgate Prison, at which point it’s over to you to decide what to do. The prison is divided into three wings, each controlled by one of the crime bosses. You can tackle these wings in any order, but you’ll need gadgets and upgrades from each wing in order to progress further. You’ll eventually have to get all the gadgets, but the order you collect them is up to you. There are also plenty of upgrade-locked collectibles and secrets that make returning to areas later a whole lot of fun.
Level design is beautifully non-linear, making good use of a design I’m going to call “2.75D”, for want of a less ridiculous term. Let me explain. A 2.5D game is a game that uses 3D graphics, but is played on a 2D plane. Blackgate takes that a step further; you control Batman in two dimensions, but the world you’re exploring is fully three dimensional. Corridors swerve and bend, with Batman automatically turning the corners as you hold left or right. Paths branch off in different directions, with grappling points, doors, and air vents allowing to move depthwise, even though you can’t control Batman’s depth directly like you would in a fully 3D game.
The end result of this? All the fun of a sidescrolling adventure, mixed with the exploration opportunities of a fully 3D world. It doesn’t just work; it works damn well.
Exploration is augmented by great use of the Vita’s touchscreen and motion control. This time around, Detective Mode is activated by tapping the touchscreen, and moving your finger then lets you analyse the environment to find things you can interact with. A hacking minigame (used to open locked doors) tasks you with lining up three boxes with the correct sequence of numbers on a large matrix (with clues); moving the boxes can optionally be done by tilting the Vita system, which feels surprisingly natural. They’re little things, but these kinds of features make exploring Blackgate even more interesting.
The one thing that’s missing is a minimap. There’s a map you can bring up by hitting select, but with such impressively labyrinthine levels, having a map on screen as you move about would be incredibly helpful. As far as I know, the 3DS version of the game does have this functionality thanks to the dual screens, but the Vita version does not.
Blackgate’s visuals are fairly impressive for a handheld title, though they don’t quite push the Vita as much as some games do. Having said that, you’ll probably spend most of your time looking at Batman through the blue tint of detective mode, which is more or less vital for finding your way around.
With the whole game taking place inside a prison, the environments start to get very samey very quickly. Even across the different wings, the environment is mostly just a collection of corridors and air vents. There are a few points of difference, of course, but the game never really reaches the same aesthetic diversity as its predecessors. This is only amplified by how dark things are overall, with any intricacies often hidden by a lack of lighting.
The main story is around 7-8 hours long, but there is plenty to do to stretch that out thanks to a wealth of collectibles and replayability. Finishing Blackgate unlocks New Game Plus, which lets you play through again with extra cutscenes; tackling things in a different order also provides a surprisingly different overall experience.
It’s a bit of a shame that the Arkham-inspired side of this game doesn’t quite live up to what came before, but the Metroidvania aspect certainly does. And this is something for which a lot of genre fans will be grateful.