Gotham Knights review: Four isn’t always better than one
Gotham Knights is finally here, the latest in a nearly two-decades old legacy of third-person action titles that has allowed us to jump into Batman’s spandex attire to solve mysteries, beat up thugs, and face off against a legendary collection of dastardly villains. Now, however, Batman is dead. Gotham Knights instead puts us in control of four bat proteges as they try their best to fit all eight of their feet into Batman’s comically large shoes.
The background for this attempt? A third-person action game where you, as one of the team, head out into Gotham City to fight crime in typical Batman style. With a cast of characters to assist you and Alfred Pennyworth to provide some much-needed advice, you leap from building to building fighting the good fight. In doing so, you level up, upgrade your gear, and spend ability points on a variety of skill trees. It is 2022, after all.
To spare you the customary tedious backstory, Gotham Knights is a decent adventure filled with mystery, revelations, and equal parts sneaking around and breaking noses. Bar a near narrative swerve into a devastating car crash in the later hours of the game, the story of moving on from Batman and Bruce Wayne while figuring out what happened to the playboy is told with the appropriate levels of mourning and drama you would expect. The idea that Batman was Batman and none of the remaining heroes will ever be the caped crusader is slowly but surely established as they each resolve their own issues and come together to take up the torch.
Major beats in the game’s narrative are iced with interactions between each of the four characters, either in individual story arc cinematics or email exchanges between the playable cast and a variety of recipients. From my experience, it’s a mixed bag. The individual journey between Gunslinging Red Hood and relative newbie Robin are obviously vastly different, and you’ll care a varying amount depending on your own tastes and preferences.
As for those long chains about who stole Nightwing’s pizza or seeing the gang arrange a film night… they’re dorky, but do help humanise the characters. For my money, Red Hood being a giant grumpy bloke who runs around punching things and shooting them with his totally non-lethal pistols was right up my alley both narratively and gameplay wise, but the highflying Nightwing, stealthy Robin and technical Batgirl all bring their own unique assets to the table.
That’s a smart move, isn’t it? To have each of the characters represent a single major aspect of Batman’s character in previous games come together in the wake of his death. Looking at the positives, it allows players to really dig into the parts of the game they enjoy and have a full skill tree of options that enhance that experience even further. Were you a fan of Arkham Asylum- style stealth — picking off enemies one by one without starting a fight? Then Robin seems custom built for you.
It does, however, have a negative effect. Each character can do everything to a decent degree, but no one can do it as well as Batman could. I understand the narrative reasoning for this. I do. However, it’s hard to escape the gameplay-based frustrations of having to head back to your home base in order to manually swap over to a character that can pack as much of a punch, or run circles around enemies, as you could have in Batman: Arkham Knight almost a decade ago. Or damn, even Arkham Asylum which was released in 2009.
This is a problem likely resolved in this game’s ideal setting, online with other friends who can each fill a role previously achieved by a singular dark knight in previous Batman titles. However, as a solo player, you really feel the lack of tools at your disposal every now and again. A quick- switch option, one that could allow you to change out your character on a whim when not in a fight, perhaps could fix the issue. Skill points you earn while levelling up, as well as gear you craft or find, is all shared among your four heroes, so it’s not like you’d be cutting yourself off from loot you’ve earned.
Did you know Gotham Knights only has two player co-op right now? What a baffling limitation in a game focused on the individual strengths and collaboration between said characters. This means that even in the ideal situation where you’ve got a friend who can play the game by your side, you’ll still come across situations where you’re missing that perfect solution. The solution Batman could have pulled off.
While I’m on a bit of a negative stride, can I talk about the bat cycle? The bat bike? The BatMX. Gotham being the dark and gloomy city that it is, you of course will be forced to navigate its famously murder-y streets and gloomy bridges. You have the grappling hook, but not the gliding tech that Batman has, so you must resort to riding the bat bike if you want to get anywhere fast.
Except you don’t go fast, you plod along the rain and blood- slicked road while super intense speed lines surround the edges of the screen like winos round a kebab van, crowding the corners of your vision and violently rippling in order to make you feel like you’re driving at pace. The moment I unlocked fast travel points, I damn near abandoned the bike, using it only for Red Hood drive-bys on policemen who I’ve been assured don’t die since the bat family don’t do that despite how close I shoot a rubber bullet into someone’s face.
Sitting back and thinking at length about Gotham Knights is ultimately a sad endeavor, because every brilliant thing the team behind the game has pulled off you can counter argue with a black mark; a stain that lessens its impact upon reflection. Gotham Knights absolutely nails the presentation of certain villains via optional side bosses. I won’t spoil who they are but let me just state that the third act concludes excellently with a challenging final confrontation ripped straight out of the cartoons I grew up with. But the boss is way too long, made up of three phases that drag out an otherwise exciting brawl into a bit of a slog.
I could write about how I thought some of the enemy takedowns were violent and explosive, with Robin choking some enemy out or Red Hood blasting them point blank against a wall, giving off a cathartic pow that goes a long way to making you feel like a genuine one hero army. But the game runs on 30FPS on PS5, with no performance mode. I know that many out there won’t give a damn, but in my hands, it sucked the soul out of teeth-clenching battles. It’s just not responsive enough, with a delay in attacks that I gather is meant to illicit feelings of weight behind your attacks, but instead often feels as though you’re fighting through turbulent water. That would be fine if you were fighting Killer Croc, but you aren’t.
It is a shame that the final few hours are a real rollercoaster of quality. No spoilers of course, but the game throws a series of twists and revelations at you that sometimes work damn well, while other times had me scratching my head, confused as to what the writers were thinking. This flat ending is reflected in the gameplay experience, which I can only summarize as a final unexceptional journey around Gotham, a painful gauntlet of numerous fights that feel more like hype speed bumps than genuine challenges, and thankfully, a final boss fight that manages to just make it all worth it by the skin of the game’s fangs.
By the time credits hit and I was exploring the world, I felt as though I was walking, grappling and fighting through a muddled memory of what a brilliant Batman game feels like. It hits some very lofty highs every now and again, as if you were thinking back to the best moments in gleaming clarity. The rest — the minutes and hours that tie together major story moments and combat crescendos — are lacklustre. They’re vague in purpose aside from filling time, and frankly didn’t blow me away at all.
Look, if you want to jump around and punch people, there are hundreds of other games. If you’re really keen to play a DC action game, featuring a modern and admittedly brave step away from the big black bat, then Gotham Knights is fine enough. It’s just that in the shadow of former Batman titles, in the shadow of Batman himself, it doesn’t impress. It disappoints.