Look! Up in the sky! Is it Metroid? Is it Castlevania? No, it’s a cheap imitation starring Batman!
That’s the general feel while playing Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate on the PS3, updated from the Vita/ 3DS title of last year.
I was personally excited for this game, and missed out on playing it the first time around. The creative juices of ex-Retro Studios employees behind the masterful Metroid Prime, working on what was to be my favourite genre, a “Metroidvania”-style platform game, all set in the Batman: Arkham canon? Sounds like it couldn’t fail! And yet, here we are.
The game itself takes place three months after Arkham Origins. Batman comes to find Catwoman in the middle of a heist in a crude and uninspiring cut scene. After chasing her down, Batman sends her to Blackgate prison; a kind of Arkham Asylum Jr. Soon after this takes place, there’s an explosion at Blackgate, and Catwoman informs Batman that the Joker, Penguin and Black Mask have taken prisoners in three main sections of the prison. Finding and taking down these three villains serves as the main plot, and each section can be done in any order.
Blackgate’s story is driven by comic book style stills with voice overs. This is where the game takes a dramatic turn away from the excellent cut scene work found in the Arkham series. The drawings throughout the cut scenes are uninspiring, and while the voice work from the likes of Nolan North and Troy Baker is great, the script they work with leaves a lot to be desired. The story has pacing issues too, in that it’s far too slow for its own good, though that is more a consequence of the structure of the gameplay; by allowing players to choose the order they tackle the three “bosses” it meant no great plot exposition could happen until the end.
Gameplay is also a mixed bag. As a 2.5D game, the developer, Armature, has done a commendable job of bringing some of the Arkham series’ elements into the gameplay. These include elements such as the freeflow combat system (minus ability to use gadgets during combat), cryptographic sequencing and using the Batarang to hit distant targets. It all works rather well on a mechanical level. Batman even brings detective mode with him again, but again this has been simplified. Objects of interest pop up as either yellow or green, dependant on whether they’ve been scanned or not. Scanning objects give Batman super-obvious clues as to what he needs to do with said object. Controls are tight as one would expect from the Batman games as well, Batman jumps, crawls and freeflows his way through life with the greatest of ease. This is the Deluxe Edition of Blackgate, and includes a 3D map that wasn’t present in the previous game, which does the job, but takes some reading to understand due to the 2.5D nature of the game.
While the game controls rather well, the art direction leaves a lot to be desired. The characters look like they’ve come straight out of the Arkham games, and feel at home in the world given to them, which is fine. Unfortunately that world looks pretty much the same wherever Batman goes. While Arkham Asylum cleverly worked in lush green environments such as the conservatory to both contrasting with the cold steel of the cell blocks and provide some much needed relief to the eyes, Blackgate is all steel from start to finish. More than just unrelentingly ugly, it also meant I would get lost occasionally, thinking I was in a different section of the prison than where I actually was.
Travelling around the prison, Batman encounters clone after clone after clone. There are a couple of variations, including the knife-wielding cellmate, but there were more than a few moments in the game where you’ll come across three inmates having a conversation who are indistinguishable between one another. Now perhaps the developer was making a point about how prison seeks to remove the identity and humanity of those interred within its walls, but given the fact that the game’s narrative refuses to engage with any kind of deep meaning, I suspect it’s just a poor design decision instead.
Speaking of enemies, boss battles are a case of trial and error. And they don’t always make sense. Solomon Grundy, for instance, requires Batman to fry him by firing explosive gel over a vent (spewing forth some unknown flammable substance for some reason), then electrocute him by shooting explosive gel at the electrical switches on the wall. It won’t be difficult to figure out how to deal with any boss, but it’s disappointing that the developers couldn’t come up with more grounded solutions for how to deal with them.
Outside of combat the game is very linear. Batman does have to do a lot of backtracking, though it’s never really a bother to figure out where to go in order to progress. Batman finds a dead-end, cut scene, Batman goes somewhere else, repeat. Many have compared Blackgate to the Metroid series and later Castlevania games. Blackgate proves that it’s not easy to build that kind of level design. It feels like there’s effort in there, but the developers ultimately struggled to make the level design compelling.
The console version of Blackgate is the “Deluxe Edition”. All this actually means is a HD coat of paint and some extra costumes. I’m not sure if this is exclusive to the Deluxe version, but as a random note, sometimes for fun, when Batman opens a door, he contemplates life via some internal monologues for a few moments before the next room loads up. I just thought I’d throw that in there, because it’s fun to think about what Batman might think about sometimes. I’m disappointed that it’s not chocolate muffins. That’s what I would think about if I was a masked vigilante. I’m thinking about it now (swap “chocolate muffin” with “macaron” and I’m right there with ya – ed.)
Blackgate does an OK job of being a generic Batman game. The story does nothing to add to the rest of the Arkham canon. As a platformer, it is adequate, and at times it is even fun, but as a Metroidvania style game? Not even close to adequate. Bland environments, bland enemies and a bland story overpowers the tight controls and successful implementation of the main series gameplay elements. If you need more Batman, then Blackgate will be fine. Everyone else would be better off spending their money on a variety of fine games that do this genre better justice. Like, for instance, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which just happens to be available as a PSOne Classic on the same console as Blackgate. Light and day there, folks.
– Brad L.