I think it’s time for superheroes to put their feet up and, if not retire completely, take a long hiatus. Whether it’s through cinema or gaming, we’ve simply had too many of these things now and they’ve long outlived their ability to surprise and delight. Were Gotham Knights the very first open-world superhero game, it would have delighted the kind of people that never look beyond AAA blockbusters to see what video games can really offer. Releasing as it has now, though, it is an exhausting, tiring, pointless slog.
The premise is simple (just like everything else about it); take four sidekick characters and give them the job of becoming primetime vigilantes, because now Batman’s dead. That’s not a spoiler. A cut scene (that feels like it’s an hour long) showcases Batman’s death. It is ridiculously flashy and also does, and says, nothing. That sets up the tone for the rest of the game. The four heroes go running around Gotham, running into the familiar rogues’ gallery because that’s what happens in comic book stories, and then having fights, because that’s all comic book heroes are good for. It moves quickly, and each mission will give you one iconic baddie to “interact” with and some things to fight. It also needed to move quickly, because the moment you start to think about Gotham Knights, you realise that it exists simply to exist.
Superhero stories peaked with the Nolan Batman trilogy. Even those were almost embarrassingly reductionist in the way they presented their central thesis and themes, but there was something in there to give people something to think about. Since then, the genre has degenerated into flashy, big action things that refuse to take risks and challenge audiences (because an offended audience member is a ticket sale lost), and the few points that they do make are so the nose that the actors all-but say “this is the theme that this film/game/TV show is about.” These things are more than happy to participate in the “culture wars” (because, generally speaking, delivering liberal American talking points is good for box office receipts), but they say nothing meaningful about any of it. You walk in, be mesmerised by the pretty lights, and walk back out again, your brain thoroughly shut off for the whole time.
This is where Gotham Knights finds itself. It presents a city that is supposedly lost to chaos and a playground for the most wretched… except, of course, that the wretched only do things that are acceptable evils within polite society. They’ll beat some people up and cause a bit of vandalism, but crimes that would actually upset people are no-goes. Likewise, the heroes ply their trade bloodlessly and never make mistakes with their heroism. The story flits from cut scene to cut scene, but all those things do is point the heroes in the direction of their next objective. There’s no room in there for nuance or theory. It’s a funnel of “goodies vs baddies” content that will mesmerise you, but your brain’s going to be firmly shut off for the entire time.
It is mesmerising, though, and that is why Gotham Knights is going to end up with a community of fans that play it for as long as the “content drops” are planned for it. The action is smooth and detailed, with your character ducking and weaving through the enemy throngs stylishly and responsively. As is now standard for the genre, the combat system heavily relies on countering. Enemies will flash when they’re about to attack, giving you that split second to press the “dodge” button. Once you’ve slid out of the enemy’s way, and their attack has missed, you get to go to town on them for a few seconds.
Stealth also plays a big role, and while the stealth sections are way too arbitrary for their own good (stealth is at its best when you can be creative at how you get around), it still feels satisfying to pick enemies off one-by-one and sneak your way around them.
Then there’s the world itself. Gotham Knight’s open world is huge, and travelling from point A to point B to undertake a mission is fun in part because zipping around in Bat-vehicles is always a good time. As with almost every other open-world game, it is totally pointless that the world is as big as it is, because there’s nothing of worth between those objectives. Side quests are all standard for the genre and as uninteresting here as they are in any other open-world game. For such an iconic city it’s almost shocking how uninteresting this Gotham is. While the vistas are technically impressive, when you’re perched up high and looking out, I had no interest in actually exploring any of it.
But, again, it’s big and filled with content, so it’ll find its fans.
Like most blockbuster games, Gotham Knights wants you to grind up equipment and craft stuff. That’s made marginally more enjoyable thanks to the presence of multiplayer, and being able to co-op your way through the grind is entertaining. Unfortunately, because the characters were little more than caricatures I wasn’t invested enough in any of them to actually care about playing dress-ups, or their skill trees, but these things are all there, and will encourage a bunch of people to spend a lot of time in Gotham Knights.
As the latest burger off the production line, Gotham Knights is fine. It ticks all the boxes, name-drops all the right characters, has the right voice actors, and is a big, expensive project that looks and plays like it should. At the end of the day, though, you’re still eating a greasy burger with no nutritional value whatsoever. While it’s fine to say “yeah but sometimes that’s fun,” there is a point where we need to acknowledge that this is all some people eat. That’s not healthy and I, for one, am sick of superhero nonsense being such a vacuum of talent producing such mindless output, when the games industry (and Hollywood) could be doing so much more.