Sunday, March 23, 2014

Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate

In an effort to continue interest, and profit, from the popular Batman: Arkham series of games, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment released two games on the same day, October 25, 2013, which serve as prequels to the games developed by Rocksteady (Arkham Asylum and Arkham City). I’ve already reviewed one of them, Arkham Origins, but I have yet to discuss the other one, and the subject of this review, Arkham Origins Blackgate. Rather than have WB MontrĂ©al develop the game, this one is done by Armature Studio, whose only other work beforehand was the Vita version of Metal Gear Solid HD Collection (I have yet to play this version of that game, but I’d like to out of interest). Fittingly, I’m going to look at the Vita version of Arkham Origins Blackgate, which I think is all right, but could have used a lot of improvement.

Three months after the events of Arkham Origins, Batman spots Catwoman stealing from a high-tech building and chases, eventually capturing her and having her taken to Blackgate. Two weeks later, Batman is informed of an explosion at Blackgate and goes to investigate. When he arrives, he is told by Catwoman of multiple hostages being held captive underneath the prison in the Arkham Wing. In order to open the Arkham Wing, however, Batman will need to take out the leaders of three different factions running the prison: Joker, Penguin and Black Mask. With this knowledge, Batman enters the prison and begins his journey to rescue the hostages.

Also, more obscure guys like Bronze Tiger show up.

The story of Arkham Origins Blackgate is a little looser from the previous Arkham games. While there is a beginning, middle and end, the shape of the story itself is a little more dependent on what order you decide to tackle the bosses, with the ending and final mission being drastically different depending on who you take out last; In my playthrough for this review, I went in the order of Joker, Penguin, Black Mask. The script is pretty well written, and I was able to get into it, but it didn’t have the same impact on me as the other Arkham games. Despite this, the ability to replay the game in a different order to see different events is an intriguing idea and has almost roped me into playing the game again, although the gameplay didn’t grab me quite enough to get me to do that.

When it comes to the gameplay itself, one could think of Arkham Origins Blackgate as a light version of Arkham Origins, only set entirely in Blackgate Prison. The spaces are more enclosed than before, even in regards to Arkham City, and strips down the gameplay of the Arkham franchise to the Metroidvania aspect, meaning that the game isn’t a Metroid title but has the backtracking elements of Metroid, which is fitting considering that Armature Studio’s founders worked on Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. Batman also only uses four gadgets, the Line Launcher, Explosive Gel, Batarangs and Batclaw, and has him placed into a 2.5D brawler with mild predator elements. This isn’t that bad of an idea, since it works pretty well for a handheld, but combat is much easier compared to Arkham Origins, eventually making a lot of fights pretty trivial. That said, Blackgate is laid out pretty well as the emphasis on puzzle-solving works out well by forcing you to really think about your environment.

There are still a couple things that bugged me about the game though, one of which is how Detective Mode is implemented. In this game, you activate it by tapping the touch screen (and like in the other Arkham games, you’ll never want to turn it off), which allows you to see a lot of hidden objects or figure out where the bad guys are. However, before you’re able to interact with a lot of the environment, you have to hold down the touch screen and scan green objects, which will have the Batcomputer analyze them and turn them orange, usually allowing you to interact with all objects of that type in the area. It may not sound that bad at first, but consider that you must do this every single time you come across a new object or obstacle, which can prevent you from coming up with new solutions for enemy encounters on the fly or making any progress with the game. I’m not kidding; I actually thought I was doing something completely wrong at one point because I tried everything, only to feel stupid once I started scanning the area. Sometimes, you even have to do the scanning every single time you find an object of the same type, primarily surfaces which the explosive gel can bust through. The main reason this annoyed me is because in every other Arkham game the interaction points were all revealed instantly upon activating Detective Mode, so I thought that suddenly they had changed the rules on me.

Now imagine that before actually throwing the Batarang,
you had to first scan the chandeliers.

The other thing which didn’t seem quite right was the boss fights. It’s interesting to be able to fight Joker, Penguin and Black Mask, but their fights, as well as a couple other skirmishes, feel rigid in their design. Essentially, there is really only one way to take down each and every boss and deviating from that path in any way or trying to be creative in your approach will get you killed. Eventually, replaying these fights to figure out the solution becomes an exercise in tedium and I just wanted them to be over with so I could continue the story. This structure causes the final boss fight to be annoying as well and it’s easy to see how a lot of players would have an extremely difficult time against them. I also want to mention that at one point in the sewers, you suddenly fight Solomon Grundy. He just shows up right out of nowhere, has no relevance to the plot and is barely mentioned again afterwards, although he is required to defeat in order to continue and the environment still requires scanning some objects individually. After a while, I just sort of rolled with it and did my best to beat him before continuing on with my mission.

Graphically, the game understandably doesn’t look as good as Arkham Origins, with decent models for a handheld game. However, this didn’t stop me from doing a double-take with Joker during his fight or questioning aloud why Batman never moves his mouth when he talks (possibly due to the alternate costumes you can unlock). The comic book style cutscenes look pretty good though, capturing the feel of the characters and events pretty well, although I think word balloons instead of captions would have made the feeling more complete. Due to how much is shown in these scenes though, I suppose that what they did was for the best. On a different note, the music is mostly borrowed from Arkham Origins and the voice acting, featuring the same people from Arkham Origins, is still of great quality.

Joker certainly looks better here than in the actual game.

Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate is a good Batman game, but not quite as enjoyable as the other Batman: Arkham titles. Its story and gameplay do allow for a good amount of replay value, but combat and Detective Mode aren’t as fun and the levels, despite taking great advantage of the 2.5D style, have a little more tedium involved in their exploration. Still, if one is looking for a decent Metroidvania brawler to fill a gap between games, as I did while waiting for Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, and they like Batman, this would be that game.

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