From everything I’d seen up to this point, Gotham Knights appeared to have all the makings of the ambitious, action-packed smash hit that it was clearly intended to be. I mean, who wouldn’t want a new, co-op-centric take on Rocksteady’s spectacular Batman: Arkham games that’s built for the current console generation? But then, as I played it for 30 hours, it just kept hitting me with bad news: WHAM! Underwhelming combat. POW! A weak, predictable story. BIFF! Puzzling progression design choices. THWACK! Sub-30 frame rates. I’m left wondering how it went so wrong. Some good parts manage to shine through, like the impressive open-world Gotham sandbox, but its problems never let me enjoy the moment-to-moment crime fighting nearly as much as Bat-family fans deserve.
Since Gotham Knights is Batman-adjacent, we need to cover its origin story. Like Bruce Wayne it was born to a well-respected and rich family, in this case the four third-person action games in the Arkham series. That’s not to say that this is a sequel to those games – WB Games Montreal decided to splinter off into a separate version of DC comics canon – and in a lot of places it goes out of its way to chart its own vigilante-based course. But when you’re stealthily grappling from ledge to ledge, crawling through ventilation shafts, and beating up groups of criminals in a rhythmic combat system, it’s impossible not to compare it to the vastly superior Arkham games.
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One key difference is that here you get to play as your choice of the four mostly lovable heroes (Nightwing, Batgirl, Red Hood, and Robin) as you zip around an open-world Gotham, delivering justice to all manner of superstitious cowards and unraveling a troubling mystery in the iconic city’s murky streets. That mystery revolves around the death of none other than the Batman himself, which serves as a solid kicking-off point for a new generation of crime fighters to take the spotlight. In the wake of the Dark Knight’s demise, Bruce Wayne’s ragtag gang of current and former sidekicks step into the fray to fill his formidable shoes, and serves as a strong premise to what ultimately turns out to be a lackluster story full of foreseeable twists and unsurprising turns.
As various criminal elements rush in to fill the power vacuum left by Batman, the ancient order known as The Court of Owls supposedly becomes the biggest threat facing Gotham, even if they don’t live up to that threat in practice. I quite like The Court as an enemy within the pantheon of Batman rivals, but for a secret society that’s supposed to have pulled the strings of Gotham’s leaders for hundreds of years, it’s pretty amusing that they never really exert that power even as a group of young adults easily foil their plans with a pocketful of gadgets and a couple karate moves. I kept wishing that their far-reaching influence and resources would be wielded in a way that would give me a reason to fear them, but they couldn’t be bothered to do more than send some well-dressed goons after you and shake their fists as you infiltrated their ranks. They just never pose any kind of threat, instead serving as punching bags for you to take out your aggression on the caviar-guzzling, bow tie-wearing, Eyes Wide Shut upper class.
But the story’s biggest issue is that it tries way too hard to squeeze an entire rogue’s gallery of potential suspects into its murder-mystery premise, and feels completely disorganized as a result. You spend most of the surprisingly short campaign’s eight story missions jumping from one villainous cabal to another, before arriving at a conclusion I was able to predict practically before the end of the opening credits. It’s devastating to see such an underwhelming plot unfold after the Arkham series included some of my favorite Batman stories of all time, which often left me speechless with their stirring twists and turns. Gotham Knights, by contrast, includes a masked character whose identity is immediately apparent upon first sight and whose inevitable unmasking is laughably anticlimactic. It’s followed up with an ending that’s foreshadowed so frequently and unsubtly that I involuntarily cringed when they actually went through with it.
It doesn’t help that the oddly brief campaign is padded out with busywork, like repeated sections where you have to wander around Gotham interrogating a string of different criminal factions headed by everyone from Harley Quinn to Mr. Freeze to gather clues about the next story development, and side quests to unlock table stakes features like fast travel. (That one has you visiting every part of the map to stand around and scan drones for no discernable reason.) In between all those chores, you’ll also have to contend with the RPG elements that force you to grind and min-max equipment before the next story mission can be tackled. All of these things do little more than drag out a story that’s rarely worth the squeeze, and make the pacing even more of a drag than it already is.
Even if you are just running around Gotham aimlessly or tackling minor crimes, though, exploring the city can at least be a highlight. It may not get a lot right, but WB Games Montréal succeeds at capturing the fantasy of exploring a crime-ridden city as a caped crusader, and I spent hours just grapple-hooking around and exploring the area. Doing so with a friend is also rewarding, especially since there are no limitations for how far you can be from one another; you can fight together or split up to search for clues to unlock the next main mission, or tackle optional quests twice as fast as you’d be able to do on your own. It’s really nice to not be tethered to another player when you join their world, especially if you’re like me and don’t enjoy playing the role of the sidekick who can’t peel off to investigate when I get easily distracted by shiny objects in the distance.
It’s fortunate that each of the four protagonists are fairly likable and well-written too, and there are plenty of amusing quips to help you get through the letdown of a plot. Sure, Red Hood mostly just keeps talking about how he died that one time like the edge lord that he is, and Robin (the Tim Drake version) swings wildly between being deeply depressed by his mentor’s death and making silly jokes, but it’s still impressive that these B-listers and sidekicks manage to step up to the plate as much as they do. (They’ve all had their own stories in comics and TV shows, but few that hold a candle to Batman’s.) That said, glitches do occasionally cause otherwise-touching story moments to instantly transform into comedies, like one cutscene where Jason Todd’s hoodie drawstrings decided to defy gravity and threatened to poke his friends’ eyes out during a tense conversation.
It’s also neat how well Gotham Knights’ story adapts to you playing whichever character you want. Since you can switch between any of the four protagonists in between missions, different versions of each cutscene are required, complete with character-specific dialogue depending on who you’ve selected to play as. With a few exceptions where certain scenes don’t make much sense if you played someone else in a previous mission, it’s great that the script recognizes whose butt-kicking boots I’m wearing during different moments. Really, my only major complaint with swapping characters is that each character has to unlock their abilities and be geared up individually, so the longer I played as one the less feasible it was to actually switch to someone else – I’d have to stop making progress to catch up one character and unlock all their special abilities before proceeding. What good is the ability to switch characters when doing so means going back to square one and having to grind XP and gear all over again?
Look, I’m no stranger to grinding. I’m a Destiny 2 fan, after all. But what Destiny 2 has that Gotham Knights doesn’t is great combat that I come back to for the fun of it, not just the rewards. Unfortunately, combat in Gotham Knights is one of the worst parts about it – and that’s not a great thing to have to say about a game that’s virtually all about combat. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever played but if you were hoping for a return to the smooth, incredibly fine-tuned brawls of the Arkham series, you’re in for a rude awakening when you’re smacked in the face with the simple and underwhelming substitute that sits at the center of this disappointing adventure. Playing as these heroes offers some cool playstyles and abilities with which to fight crime, and yet those options almost always take a backseat to mashing the same buttons until everything is unconscious.
The oversimplification of combat is perhaps best exemplified by the complete absence of anything resembling the Arkham games’ counter system, an omission that still baffles me even after completing it. At its best, dishing out justice is merely boring as you repeat the same attacks and wait for your special ability meter to charge up and enemy health bars to whittle down (yes, they have health bars over their heads); at its worst, it’s actively frustrating as you’re hit by attacks that seem almost impossible to dodge and don’t feel like you have full control of your character. Fighting crime hasn’t felt this unsatisfying since before Arkham Asylum revolutionized it in 2009, and since you’ll spend a lot of time doing it, this tragic shortcoming is like a deep cut on the roof of your mouth that just refuses to go away. As I played, I kept hoping Gotham Knights would introduce more mechanics later on in the campaign and things would eventually evolve and feel better. It never did.
Combat may never become interesting, but I can at least give it credit for the diversity of options available to you. Since there are four playable characters, you can opt to be a hulking, DPS-focused, gun-toting maniac with Red Hood, or a stealthy, tech-hacking egghead by playing Batgirl. Stealthing around with Robin to take out enemies quietly is a markedly different experience from playing Nightwing, who specializes in dancing around the map and buffing allies, and that means you can pick the character that best suits your playstyle and customize it to your liking. As a Robin main, I maximized stealth (partially to minimize time spent in bland combat), and leveled up my ability to apply status effects to enemies, while my co-op partner played Batgirl and transformed her into a tanky beast who could take a beating and revive herself after getting downed.
Each character also has their own set of Momentum Abilities: Robin can summon nanorobots to attack his enemies and become invisible to the naked eye, while Nightwing can create bubbles of safety that heal allies and harm enemies. Unlocking these requires – you guessed it – a bit of grinding, and quadruply so because you’ve got to complete challenges with each character individually. But it’s well worth the effort to break up what’s otherwise uninspired combat – they still may not be “good,” but at least they’re different.
My love of crunching numbers and exploiting the meta within RPGs is well-known, but Gotham Knights’ equipment and leveling system is so disorganized that I found myself avoiding my menus as often as possible. As you gain XP and level up, you’ll acquire new weapons and armor, mod components, and crafting schematics to aid your power creep, but unless you’re extremely lucky or willing to grind a whole lot of repeatable crimes in Gotham’s open world, you’re unlikely to have much power over what you’re able to use or craft because drops aren’t frequent or targetable enough to organically build the character you want to play. For example, you might want to obtain weapons that apply a freezing status effect to your enemies and armor that protects against poison to counter a certain enemy type, but you probably won’t have the right items available at your current level to let you create that build. “Maybe they want you to trade with your co-op partners?,” you might be thinking. Nope, there’s no trading system at all! Instead, I just had to work with what I was given, which almost never lined up with what I wanted to do.
Gotham Knights Screenshots
Crafting isn’t much of a help because its options are equally limited to your random drops and come with significant resource costs that you’ll run dry on if you make use of crafting often (a problem for which the only cure is even more grinding of mindless activities). It’s perplexing to me that non-legendary equipment cannot be upgraded or modified, and even so-called “mods” actually just enhance existing equipment capabilities as opposed to letting you swap in new attributes. The incredible inflexibility of these systems mean that, unless you’re a masochist, you’ll mostly just shrug like I did and say, “Well, my loadout sucks, but let’s go do the mission anyway,” and slog through it.
It’s worth noting that there is very little endgame content to warrant building toward. Content runs dry the moment you close the final case file, and you likely won’t ever need to reach the max character level to take on any particular challenge. I’m not sure if Gotham Knights is setting itself up to have a live-service model, a la Marvel’s Avengers (2020), which might justify building out an endgame build to tackle more challenging content, but the RPG landscape would need major overhauls to facilitate that – as of now it, barely squeaks by as a passable system with which to finish the fleeting campaign. Gotham Knights does have a New Game+ option, so you could definitely take your hard-won loadout with you to a tougher version of the campaign… but given how numb my first playthrough left me, I can think of precious few reasons why someone would choose to do so.
I’ll say this though: Gotham Knights totally nails gear when it comes to cosmetic customization. It comes with lots of costume options for each hero, and different color schemes available so you can make your outfit your own, including some dope Batman Beyond-themed outfits and other classic costumes pulled from throughout Batman’s colorful history. And if you don’t like the look of whatever armor has the best stats, you can use the transmog system to apply any style you’ve unlocked and ensure you never leave the Batcave looking anything less than suave. There aren’t many things that made me want to return to Gotham Knights after completing the story, but searching for new ways to up my swag game was definitely one of them.
If you can conscript someone into joining you after they’ve read this review, playing with a friend is undoubtedly a better experience – and not just because you’ll have someone to show off your outfit to. For one, combat tends to go by much faster with someone else at your side, and pulling off stunts like team attacks where two characters work together to execute a sweet finisher is one of the better things combat has to offer. Unfortunately, many missions feel like they’re balanced specifically for two crime fighters, leaving anyone hoping to treat this as a solely single-player game in a little bit of a lurch. While fighting alone often made me wonder if maybe I needed to grind more first, when I had a friend join my game I usually thought, “Oh, this is why the encounter felt bad before – they wanted me to bring backup.” One example is a fight against some of Harley Quinn’s goons where she sics two beefy bosses on you – I don’t recommend going into that one without a sidekick.
There are some weird quirks with multiplayer though, like how slow-motion animations look incredibly awkward to the second player, who’s moving at normal speed. Or when both players grapple hook to the same place, knocking one of them to the ground. Or how you feel very much like second fiddle when in someone else’s game because you don’t appear in most cutscenes, are not allowed to interact with certain objects, and don’t get all the same rewards the host player receives after completing activities.
It’s also just super weird that you can only play with a maximum of two players in a game that very deliberately has four playable characters available. I don’t know if the original plan was to include four-player co-op or not, but it never stopped being bizarre to have two heroes caught in a crazy whirlwind of events while two other powerful figures were…off washing their tights or something? In fairness, WB Montreal has already announced a four-player challenge mode that’s coming at a later date, but even then it’ll be separate from the main campaign.
Gotham Knights also suffers from performance issues that range from amusing bugs to annoying hindrances, the most grave of which is that the framerate. On the Xbox Series X, a stable 30fps was a rarity, especially when out in Gotham’s open world or during cutscenes – and God forbid I ride on my motorcycle for any amount of time. I’m not one to turn up my nose at a 30fps game versus 60 (which isn’t available here) and generally don’t need a game to be God’s gift to Digital Foundry to enjoy it, but Gotham Knights is pretty rough in this regard. That’s another disappointment when so many other aspects, like graphics, animations, and more, look quite good.
Beyond framerate issues, my time in Gotham Knights saw occasional crashes, disconnects during multiplayer sessions, and various bugs from the highly irritating case of a mission target getting stuck in a wall, to silly stuff like riding your motorcycle like such a champ that you glitch through the bottom of the map and fall through the level to your death (losing in-game resources to this is also pretty annoying). I was able to get through it, so I wouldn’t call it completely broken, but it was not a smooth ride.