Over the course of our month long IGN First coverage, we saw a lot about the world and lore of Gotham Knights – the crafting and gear mechanics, the suits and customization options – but there’s been one big green riddler-esque question mark surrounding the whole game up to this point: How does it play? Well, I played about three hours of it at a recent hands-on event, and the answer is… complicated. What’s for certain, at least, is that Gotham Knights is a wildly ambitious effort that feels appropriately massive and dense, to the point where even a heavily guided three-hour demo felt like just a scratch on the surface.
My demo was broken into four chunks: I played the tutorial that involved following a lead on Batman’s last case, then jumped into a new save to play the first chapter of Harley Quinn’s multi-part villain arc, then continued with several open-world challenges related to Harley’s story, and to put a cap on the event, I jumped to a late-game save that let me and the Internet’s own Destin Legarie face off against Harley in the finale of her arc.
And that leads to one of the main reasons why my takeaways from this event are complicated: Gotham Knights is a game that is centered around building up your character, setting and understanding your own skills and gear, and developing your own playstyle – something that I just didn’t get to do, since I was jumping around to different save files and trying out the different characters. Without that, the combat felt like it was missing a key ingredient.
On a very basic level, Gotham Knights’ combat is built on the foundation of the Batman: Arkham games. But once you get past the shallow waters, things go in very different directions. Here’s where things will be familiar: You press a direction and the attack button, and your character gracefully spins, leaps, or slides towards the closest enemy for a quick strike that initiates a combo. Enemies will also telegraph their own attack with an icon that appears over them, giving you plenty of time to dodge out of the way to avoid damage. It’s all super smooth, there are a ton of slick animations, and you’re even rewarded for timing your button presses as opposed to just mashing, just like in the Arkham games.
Gotham Knights – 28 Superhero Suit Designs
And that’s it, that’s where the comparisons end, because everything else feels very different. Gotham Knights is much more abilities-focused, with a meter at the bottom right that governs your ability to use your momentum skills. As you’d imagine, you gain meter by dealing damage and using your dodge to avoid attacks with good timing, and you lose meter by taking damage. Once you fill a bar, you can use one of your eight equippable momentum skills for a variety of different uses: Red Hood has a close range throw that deals a ton of damage to a single target, Robin has a holographic distraction that he can throw down to take some heat off him and the team, Batgirl can toss out a batarang barrage to deal a bunch of piercing damage right in front of her, and Nightwing has a cool acrobatic leap attack that lets him get the jump on an opponent from far away.
There were also moments where certain momentum abilities were the key to defeating specific enemy types that were armed with powerful armored attacks. Piercing abilities beat armored attacks, for instance, so any time I saw an enemy with a red attack warning, I had to counter with my own piercing attack, whether that was Batgirl’s batarang barrage, or Robin’s staff spin attack.
All of this sounds great, and I’m very much looking forward to the progression of getting to unlock new momentum abilities, purchase skills that synergize with them, find and craft new pieces of gear, add mods that further enhance certain effects, and find a preferred playstyle for each character when the game actually comes out. My concern is how well that progression – those momentum abilities, the gear, and the deep well of customization options – are going to be able to carry the whole experience. Because on a fundamental level, I found Gotham Knights’ combat to be very flashy, but also kind of bland.
Fights quickly started to feel very routine, with very similar enemies in every encounter, to the point where I felt like I had to mix up my tactics – not because I was being forced to, but just to try and make things a little more interesting. My favorite character ended up being Red Hood, because he excelled at a hybrid style of both ranged and melee, which felt quite different from what everyone else was able to do. Plus, he had some neat tricks – like being able to grab an enemy, place a bomb on them, and then kick them away so you can explode the bomb with a gun shot.
The other characters have their fun surprises too. They all generally control the same, which makes jumping between them very easy, but they each have their own combat/stealth focuses and playstyles that are defined by what you put points into on their skill tree. Batgirl can be built to be a single-target DPS machine, a nearly uninterruptible tank that can self-revive, or a stealthy hacker that can make herself invisible to security cameras; Nightwing can build himself to enhance his leaping abilities and deal massive critical-hit damage, he can become a slippery acrobat that gets extra dodges and faster momentum meter gain, or he can be built more like a team leader designed for coop play; Red Hood can lean more heavily into his ranged attacks by giving them higher crit chances and more damage, he can become more of a close-range bruiser that aims to get in and grab his opponents, or he can increase the damage he deals towards various different factions of enemies; And finally Robin can build himself to have a gameplan centered around his decoy; he can become a true Batman successor by investing in stealth skills, including Arkham-game mainstays like vantage takedowns; or he can focus on his gadgetry and elemental damage. Just by glancing at the skill tree, it’s easy to see that there’s a lot to get excited about for each character everytime you gain skill points.
And that’s where I’m torn on Gotham Knights: When I look through the skill trees, the locked momentum abilities, the wide variety of suits that I can unlock, and I think about going through it all with a buddy and taking on more challenging missions, I can’t help but get excited at the idea of what Gotham Knights could be. But in my playtime with this demo, things were very far off from that idealized vision.
Beyond combat, Gotham Knights is very impressive. The city of Gotham is absolutely gorgeous; the many different modes of traversal are all fun in their own way, whether that’s by motorcycle, Batgirl’s Glide, Nightwing’s Glider, Red Hood’s mystical air hops, or Robin’s short-range teleportation; the Belfry seems like an awesome headquarters full of optional conversations that deepen the relationship between the four heroes (and you can even play Spy Hunter!); and the cooperative play feels extremely well-implemented.
Since the demo was so focused on the Harley Quinn sub plot, I didn’t get much of a feel for the overall story of Gotham Knights and how the Court of Owls fits into everything, but I’m very into what I’ve seen of the characters so far. There are great dynamics between each of them, with the standout for me being between Red Hood and Nightwing. Nightwing’s trying his best to step into the role of a leader, while Red Hood himself finds himself struggling between his thirst for violence and his desire to honor the legacy of Batman. There’s a great scene in the Belfry where Nightwing inadvertently touches a nerve by bringing up a story that sets Jason off, and you really get to see the pain and anger that Red Hood is struggling to keep under the surface. It’s very Guardian of the Galaxy-esque, and if Gotham Knights can pack the whole game with moments like this, then its characters will almost certainly become a highlight of the whole experience.
Gotham Knights is not an easy game to demo, and while I walked away from my hands-on time less than impressed with many aspects of combat, I still found myself interested in playing more. We’ll see how it all comes together when Gotham Knights releases on PS5, Xbox Series X and S, and PC on October 21.
Mitchell Saltzman is an editorial producer at IGN. You can find him on twitter @JurassicRabbit