When you think Batman game, especially that of the Arkham series, large open areas, stalking groups of enemies from above and crazy melee combos come to mind.
Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate is a new addition to the franchise for handheld consoles PSVita and Nintendo 3DS. Developed by Armature Studio, who previously ported Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 to PSVita and at the time of writing this are developing Injustice: Gods Among Us Ultimate Edition for the Sony handheld. Blackgate is their first original game; a ”2.5D” sidescroller akin to “Metroidvania” style games, the player having to navigate large, almost labyrinth-like levels. Seeing as Blackgate brings something new to the series, a different way to play, it grabbed my attention over the PS3/360 title that this game is a companion to. This review is based on the PSVita version.
So is this the game Gotham deserves or a bit of a Joker?
The game takes place three months after the events of the PS3/360/WiiU game, making this a sequel to the prequel. During a cleverly disguised tutorial, you play as Batman, out on patrol on the Gotham rooftops when he encounters Catwoman. A chase ensues and she is eventually apprehended and sent to Blackgate prison. A few weeks pass and a mysterious explosion rocks the prison and Batman is summoned by Captain Gordon, where he explains that not all is right at the infamous facility. Three main gangs, led by Black Mask, Penguin and Joker have gained control of the prison and are holding hostages. Without hesitation, Batman takes off and heads to Blackgate. Inside he encounters the recently incarcerated Catwoman and they strike up a deal to help each-other out. She explains that something strange is going on in Blackgate’s secretive “Arkham Wing” and Batman intends to find out.
The story is told through graphic novel style panels accompanied by voice acting and are in no way a poor substitute for in-engine cut scenes. They are well illustrated and reinforce the dark, gritty tone of the game. They work well in progressing the story and break up the gameplay at the right time. It reminds me of the illustrated cut scenes in the PSP Metal Gear Solid games.
The story is pretty straightforward and merely puts Batman there. Seeing as it’s a handheld game, designed to be picked up and played, it’s not supposed to immerse you in some deep plot with twists and turns. There are a few appearances from other villains of the series but nothing epic. It’s a pretty standard plot for this game series.
Story – Standard – 0.75/1
As previously mentioned the game is played in a “2.5D” style; a game with 3D characters and environments but played on a horizontal 2D plane like that of older games like Super Mario or indeed Metroid.
As Batman you need to navigate the many corridors and hallways of Blackgate prison. He cannot jump but instead utilises his arsenal of gadgetry such as his grapnel grappling hook gun and explosive gel to reach different areas, not dissimilar to the main Arkham games. Like the previous games you’ll find yourself ducking into vents, gliding, grappling and of course fighting but on a smaller scale, and I don’t mean this in a negative way, I feel it works just as well here on the small screen as it does on the big screen.
As for the combat, it’s extremely similar to the combat found in previous Arkham games, the same use of icons above enemies heads, counters, combos, different tactics for different enemies, just what you’d come to expect from a game in this series. At first I wondered if the free-flowing combat would work of a 2D plane but it does, it feels more simplistic and you don’t get as overwhelmed in a fight as you would during one of the harder battles in say Arkham City as enemies stay either side of you, making it easy to move back and forth, left or right. You’ll occasionally have environmental obstacles that make combat a little tricker, such as annoying electrified floors.
Detective Mode is not absent from Blackgate. You activate it by tapping the front touch once and it changes your view to the standard blue filter/X-Ray vision we’ve come to expect from Batman games. Being in this mode reveals information about your surroundings such as locked doors, weak structures, hidden collectables and crime scenes. You scan items by holding a finger over an area of interest for a few moments and it’ll be “analysed”, telling you what you need to know about it, whether it be a hint or what gadget to use on it.
A slight change to an established gadget is the Crypto Sequencer, Batman’s trusty hacking tool. Rather than “tuning in” the signal, you find the code you need by searching through a selection of numbers using the analogue or motion sensors, the latter being a bit gimmicky. The crypto is essentially your key to new sections of the prison, you’ll find upgrades for it that will unlock previously inaccessible doors. Yes, there is backtracking, back and forth to different sections but it’s to be expected in this style of game.
I think my only real gripe with the gameplay is the level design. I enjoy exploring the labyrinth that is Blackgate prison. The environments are vast with enough variety and obstacles to keep me engaged but it can get frustratingly confusing at times.
The prison is broken up into sections; Industrial, Holding Cells and Administration each a territory under control of one of the three gangs. Within each section is pretty much a maze. The map does not help with navigation at all.
What may appear on the map as traveling lets say “right”, progressing on, is actually down or maybe even up in reality. During one session it took me over ten minutes, constant exploring, backtracking and map reference to get out to the hub menu to leave for another prison section.
I really would have much preferred a 3D map than a confusing 2D one but despite my initial confusion the game is actually a lot more linear than it appears. I learnt that if you push onwards you’ll eventually get out.
To quote Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka – “you can’t go back, you have to go forwards to go back”
My only other nitpick would be the controls, they do the job however they feel a little clunky, slightly delayed at times and navigating Batman feels a bit slow; he walks at a relaxed pace and seems a bit too slow, you can run by holding down X but I feel that Batman should just run by default and perhaps hold down X to sneak but that’s just me.
I’m surprised at how there are more similarities than differences in gameplay between this and the “core” Batman games, Armature put a lot of thought into how to keep the gameplay in the same style and I think they succeeded.
Gameplay – Redesigned for portable – 0.75/1
(PRESENTATION PIC HERE)
For a handheld game it looks good.
I was surprised as I initially thought for a multi-platform handheld game it wasn’t going to be a visual treat having experienced shoddy ports and poor development in previous Vita games. Now, I’m not saying this is Uncharted or Killzone Mercenary in terms of visuals, no but I’ve seen much worse. Character models such as Batman are decent, most of the time he’s quite small on the screen so it’s hard to notice the detail but in instances like when you’re pulling off vent covers or zip-lining you’ll notice that his costume has all the details of the suit from the console game, sure slightly lower resolution but acceptable. Enemies however are a little too low-res for my liking, I understand that, like I said, characters are small on the screen but during combat finishers their compressed, muddy textures are very noticeable. “Boss” characters are on par with Batman in terms of character model quality.
Environments however are great and well-detailed for a small display. Even on said small screen you can notice collectables, controls panels stand out and effects such as explosions and crumbling debris look good. As well designed as the levels are in both gameplay and visuals they seem to have a limited colour palette. What, Gotham City portrayed as dull and grey!? I know what your thinking but a splash of colour here and there would have been nice to break up all the greys. In previous Arkham games the colours change depending on what gang/boss area you’re in, like greens and purples for Poison Ivy or blue and white for Mr.Freeze but in Blackgate, everything is more of less grey or a variation of. Event he Joker’s trademark green graffiti appears a little dull here. The only exception I found was the Administration building which had some dark red wallpaper. Should have been called Greygate.
Another thing I noticed was sound effects. The game has taken most of the sound effects from previous Arkham games, in a good way. The familiar sounds of the grapnel gun, gel explosions, Batarang, cape swoosh and finisher sound effects are all present, which is great. Other than the colours, I think if had the chance, it would do well on a big HDTV, I could easily imagine an upscaled port of this running on PS3 with only slight texture improvements.
Presentation – More than acceptable for the small screen – 0.75/1
The Batman games are known for being lengthy, especially the ‘city’ ones with plenty of collectables and side missions to keep you playing however I’d liken Blackgate to Arkham Asylum in this case. Being more linear there’s only so much you can accomplish. As I mentioned earlier there are locked doors or inaccessible areas that you’ll want to revisit once you have the right key or gadget, so there’s plenty of backtracking rather than actual variety.
There are small Waynetech crates you’ll find containing suit parts, once you collect five parts you’ll unlock one of the several alternate costumes. Interestingly enough one of the locked costumes can only be acquired by owning Origins on PS3. You also find your typical “collectables” like Joker teeth and penguin bird cages scattered around that you have to break, although seeing as the game lacks any type of XP and levelling up, the these items just seem to be there for the sake of being there. If you’re thorough in your exploration, you’ll likely find, do and upgrade everything in one long play-through, negating any real reason to replay it than for perhaps a missed trophy.
No online multiplayer here, thankfully.
Replay Value – One play-through will suffice – 0.5/1
I was genuinely surprised.
I bought this game, thinking it wasn’t really going to do it for me but I honestly found it enjoyable to play. Now, it’s not the kind of title I’d rush home to play, having it be on my mind all day, the gameplay is not as addictive as any developer hopes to make but it’s solid. I found the gameplay very refreshing, having become bored with the regular Arkham games, not enjoying City as much as I’d hoped and that alone kept me playing, looking for similarities and recalling the fun I had playing Asylum for the first time all those years ago. Sometimes large open-world games can feel very overwhelming to me and having a small, dare I say “compact” Batman experience that doesn’t require me to spend 90% of my time grappling across a vast map appeals to me.
The game has no selectable difficulty level and I like this. I always disliked the combat in the Arkham games, mainly because I’m frankly piss-poor at it, therefore dampening my experience. The combat in Blackgate still requires the same strategy but remove that third dimension for enemies to crowd around you and suddenly it’s a whole lot easier to beat down wave upon wave of thugs.
The only thing that detracts from my enjoyment is what I mentioned earlier; getting lost. I find it extremely frustrating and kills the pacing of the game stone dead for me. I’ll be kicking arse, watching cutscenes and solving puzzles like a boss only to come up against a brick wall (both figuratively and literally) and be left scratching my head and yelling “I don’t know what to do!” at my Vita. The constant back-tracking can also be a bit dull at times.
Enjoyment – Fun when not lost – 0.5/1
Story – 0.75/1
Presentation – 0.75/1
Replay Value – 0.5/1
Initially people seemed to turn their noses up at the idea of a handheld Arkham game and with good reason, there’s been a whole bunch of crappy handheld ports or “companion games” before this one but I say give it a chance. As mentioned earlier, this game could easily do well as PSN/XBL downloadable title. You don’t need to have played Origins to enjoy this Blackgate, in fact you don’t need to have played any Batman games up to this point to have fun with it. It’s a stand-alone product that didn’t necessarily need to be launched at the same time as the console companion. Armature worked closely with Warner Bros. Games Montreal so to not spoil each other developer’s plot, so it matters none in what order you play these games.
The gameplay is very reminiscent of old platformers such as the Oddworld games or Klonoa on PS1, the shifting into the background and foreground for example, whilst the acquirement of new gadgets to unlock new areas is very Metroid. Playing Blackgate May stir a few nostalgic memories of retro gaming.
In conclusion do not expect the full Arkham experience from this game, if you’re into the open-world Batman games then stick with them but if you want to step out of your gaming comfort zone and try something a little different Blackgate is a frankly refreshing addition to the series.
(But let’s call it a solid 3)