Filling the boots of the Arkham series is a tough task. Rocksteady completely revolutionised superhero games back in 2009 with Batman: Arkham Asylum, a rhythmic brawler that embraced its character's dark roots, and implemented razor-sharp combat to boot. In the six years that followed audiences were treated to three further mainline Arkham games, culminating in series-closer Arkham Knight in 2015.
In the seven years since that game's release, it's been hard to see where DC Comics games could go from there. NetherRealm Studios released the fighting game Injustice 2 in 2017, and we've had a slew of family-friendly tie-ins and the expected LEGO behemoths, but nothing quite like Arkham. That is, until the dawn of Gotham Knights.
First announced at the pandemic-induced DC FanDome event in summer 2020, Gotham Knights is as close to an Arkham successor we've had for almost a decade. While it doesn't reach the heights of the series upon which it clearly takes so much inspiration, fans of these characters will no doubt relish the new adventure.
A new knight
The big selling point behind Gotham Knights is the focus on a Batman-free Gotham City. It's outlined quite nicely in pre-release trailers and a gripping opening sequence, but in this continuity - totally separate from the Arkhamverse - Bruce Wayne no longer dons the cape and cowl. After years of DC games that focus almost exclusively on the Caped Crusader, it's refreshing to control a slew of different heroes.
The Gotham Knights consist of four former sidekicks all stepping into their former mentor's shoes. The game lets you flit between Nightwing, Robin, Batgirl, and Red Hood on a whim, ensuring you can sample all of these varied heroes as you go. That's a good thing, because they all play so differently. Robin is a nimble gadget user, while Red Hood is a hefty brawler, for example.
The only problem with this setup is a lack of proper four-player co-op to fully take advantage of all the playable characters at one time. At launch the game offers two-player drop-in co-op, letting you tackle story missions and ephemeral crimes with a friend in tow. A four-player arena mode is arriving soon, but having a roster of four characters, and an inability to combine them all at once, feels like a missed opportunity.
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The two-player co-op, however, may help to smooth over some of Gotham Knights' pacing issues. Rather than a linear story-focused action game like the Arkham series, this is an Avengers-style action RPG. So far, so good: there's so much more on offer in terms of gear and customisation, and it's quite refreshing to see a health bar above powerful enemies, letting you know how close you are to felling them.
However, it makes the period between focused story missions a massive grind. As with other RPGs, each new Case File section has a recommended minimum level, meaning you often need to spend time toiling outside of the main story to fit these criteria. It's a double-edged sword that has no satisfying solution. Either you grind through spontaneous crimes across Gotham in a slow slog to level up, or you go into increasingly tough narrative sequences drastically underpowered. I went for the latter option and often found grunt fights taking far longer than they ever ought to. Especially in the final Case File, where you have to defeat three separate tank enemies across Gotham, it was noticeable just how poorly scaled the progression system is for those solely here for the story.
Fortunately, the narrative of Gotham Knights is certainly worth grinding through. What initially unfolds as four young heroes growing accustomed to a city without Batman delves into underground societies, brewing street wars, and a whole host of supervillains to take down. Some sections are dreadfully predictable, especially towards the end, but its more ground-level narrative approach is refreshing. The Court of Owls are a group of adversaries rarely handled outside of Batman comics, so it was nice to see them done justice here.
The weight of expectation
The main problem Gotham Knights has is the inevitable comparison with the Arkham series - and those are levels of expectation this game simply can't match. The combat is notably worse, nowhere near as fluid or satisfying as the two-button control scheme in Rocksteady's games. There's no dedicated counter move, so you'll instead find yourself landing punches on an enemy before being forced to dodge away, tanking the pace of encounters.
The Batcycle all four characters use is also considerably less enjoyable to use compared to the Batmobile from Arkham Knight. It moves without much momentum or weight, and the game's lack of PS5-specific DualSense features makes it downright boring to drive in Gotham Knights. The game tries to remedy this by adding an unlockable glider for each character, but this again feels like more padding to cram this game with busywork between main missions, rather than meaningful activities.
This is ultimately the main drawback that makes Gotham Knights feel less satisfying than its contemporaries. While WB Studios Montréal deserves plaudits for not sticking to the Arkham formula and trying something new with the DC licence, not all of these gambles pay off. The RPG mechanics are interesting but lead to sluggish grinding that lends itself poorly to a narrative-driven game like this.
It's a shame because the narrative is genuinely interesting and by far the game's biggest strength. Unfortunately, there are too many drawbacks elsewhere to recommend Gotham Knights over the Arkham games it'll inevitably be held against, whether fairly or unfairly. DC fans will love the lore and character work, but gamers looking for a dose of Arkham-inflected action will instead find an RPG that can't quite find its identity.