Batman: Arkham Knight is a game about identity crises. Who is the Arkham Knight (and how did he become obsessed with Batman)? Can Jim Gordon reconcile his devotion to his family with his obligation to uphold the law? What really separates Batman and the Joker? Will the Riddler ever realize how annoying he truly is? If the inflated number of Riddler challenges in Arkham Knight are any indication, he is either totally oblivious or sadistically aware of how much of a pest he is.
Arkham Knight‘s biggest identity crisis stems from the game’s structure. The original game in the series, Arkham Asylum, is a seminal work. It changed the way that combat works in action games and raised the expectations for storytelling in big budget games, especially licensed ones. Now, after 3 subsequent games and many imitators, I’m no longer sure I understand Rocksteady’s version of Batman. I see the cape and the cowl, but the spirit of Batman is flagging.
A large part of this uneasiness stems from the series’s transition into the GTA-style open world genre. I don’t think that format is conducive to telling a Batman story — or at least the kind of Batman story that I like. The aimlessness of wandering a city in search of arbitrary, repetitive objectives makes Batman feel unfocused. The preponderance of collectibles and leaderboard challenges greatly overshadows the content of the main plot in terms of quantity and often undercuts the story’s urgency. Sure, Batman could have raced to Scarecrow’s hideout, but first he had to do some car races and search for some hidden trinkets.
It’s not that a Batman story can’t be complex or have a large cast of characters. Arkham Asylum was grand and sprawling, but it still maintained a through-line in a similar manner to Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns or Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Confusingly similar titles aside, both of those stories have multiple villains and plenty of back story, but they maintain a sense of focus and character development that Arkham Knight’s cluttered quest log and Batman’s dull personality preclude. No thought bubbles and no guaranteed order of events means that Batman is essentially a generic, mostly silent, open world protagonist.
Perhaps this wouldn’t be as distracting if the busy work was more interesting. Most of the car-combat scenarios either involve a slow-paced revisiting of 1990s car combat or straightforward chase scenes around a small section of the city. The investigative scenarios are visually impressive, but are essentially pixel hunts. The first time that you find an unidentified body and scan a body for clues it’s novel. Repeating the exact sequence for subsequent bodies makes it clear that you’re not really playing as “the world’s greatest detective” but rather a really dedicated easter egg hunter with very cool computers. The activities are ubiquitous but not particularly challenging, which makes it difficult to feel impressed or satisfied with any one aspect of the game. The activities start to feel like the rote motions that you find in most open world games.
Batman himself feels more like an facade than a character. Despite being surrounded by a classic lineup of both friends and protagonists, this version of Batman rarely talks to anyone. When he does, it’s mainly to bark orders or contradict recommendations without any follow up arguments. Batman certainly doesn’t have the silliness of the 1960s Adam West version, but he also doesn’t have the mischievous streak of the Animated Series, or the melancholy of the Tim Burton era. He’s just a hulking pile of muscle that ostensibly doesn’t kill anyone. He will of course run their cars into buildings, slam their heads into concrete walls, and torture them by parking the bat mobile on their face (seriously). The game’s insistence on reminding you that all of the tanks and helicopters are drones feels like it is protesting just a bit too much in the face of all the fiery explosions. I suppose that technically Batman still isn’t a killer, but he’s certainly a masochist and not very careful about smashing up Arkham’s buildings.
In the end, it’s difficult to figure what Arkham Knight wants to be. Its world encourages unfocused, meandering play. The actual tasks in the world aren’t very distinguishable from any other action game out there. The cast of characters, including Batman himself, look and sound faithful, but they don’t have much depth. There’s a “greatest hits” feel to the whole affair that is more of a medley than a fully orchestrated piece. The game’s core plot points all revolve around learning the true selves of the various characters, but the game ends without truly establishing its own identity.