In Gotham Knights, Batman is dead. Like, really dead. Not dead to facilitate a grand return in the final act, or a redemption arc. But proper dead. Six feet in the ground dead. Rest in peace, Bruce Wayne, gone but not forgotten dead. Of course, framing a Batman-inspired story with the demise of the Batman himself is a pretty unorthodox move, even within the bounds of a superhero tale. But, having spent a few hours hands-on with Warner Bros. Games Montreal's incoming action RPG, that unlikely decision gives life to a fresh strait of DC Universe storytelling.
Granted, we've seen flashes of this evolving narrative since Gotham Knights was unveiled at DC FanDome in August 2020 – a handful of subsequent delays have allowed the devs to tease surplus world and story details over the last several months – but getting to grips with its characters first-hand, and fighting its scores of footsoldiers and unhinged antagonists has left me with a new appreciation of what the game hopes to achieve. The eponymous city-saving quartet of Robin, Nightwing, Red Hood, and Batgirl are tasked with filling the shoes of the recently deceased in Gotham Knights – that part is obvious – but it's how these characters adapt to and wrestle with change that really drives their stories.
And it's change that underpins this interpretation of Gotham City in just about every way. In the Caped Crusader's absence, its new heroes are incentivized. Its civilians are terrified. Its criminals tantalized. And its new star of the show, Dr Harley Quinn, now operating independently of The Joker and the Suicide Squad, is gloriously enfranchised.
Familiarity breeds content
In wider contextual terms, change strikes at the heart of Gotham Knights from a development perspective as well. Since its reveal, WB Games Montreal has keenly stressed this is not another Batman Arkham game, and is completely independent of Rocksteady Games' prior action-adventure trilogy – Arkham Asylum (2009), Arkham City (2011), and Arkham Knight (2015) – and the studio's own Arkham Origins of 2013. This may be true, but in practice, there are stark similarities. Gotham City as a setting is as dark and moody as ever. The action unfolds exclusively after nightfall. Grappling and/or gliding around the seedy, neon-soaked metropolis is great fun. Battles are brutal, reflex-heavy affairs, each complimented by whichever skills you've unlocked via its suite of status-boosting abilities. And shrewd management of stealth and action, of dodging and charging with your fists raised, is imperative to success.
In its quieter moments, Gotham Knights' environments bleed charisma, serving regular nods to wider DC lore – not least inside the Knights' Belfry HQ, where players can activate missions, catch up on their progress, and switch characters freely – with pacing between its detective-style, clue-hunting set-pieces and all-out warfare well-balanced. Assuming control of the smack-talking, muscle-bound Red Hood from the outset, I first find myself caught up in a crime scene, tasked with infiltrating Gotham University in search of intel related to Batman's final case. The professor I'm searching for, it turns out, is dead, seemingly murdered – but I do manage to swipe a hard drive and make for the exit.
Once outside, a gang of baseball bat-wielding 'Freaks', working under the direction of Harley Quinn, have torched a van and seem generally very upset. I crack my knuckles and get to work, pinballing between enemies while combining melee and heavy melee attacks with ambush and silent takedowns. Before long, with the old building now burning down around us, I'm inside the smoky halls of the university, battling hordes of Freaks and saving the lives of unwitting hostages in a mix of tight and open spaces. After laying dozens of faceless foes flat, a big lad eventually emerges from the flames, carrying a huge shield and dragging a mace and chain across the concrete floor, and it takes a flurry of guard-breaking power attacks, and ranged gunfire – ranged offense being Red Hood's speciality – to topple him. With moments to spare, I escape the smoldering campus, and, miles from the Belfry, decide to tap up on the D-Pad to call the Bat Cycle. I then speed home through the hustle and bustle of Gotham whose streets are now slick with rain.
Pick 'n' mix
The rest of my time with Gotham Knights plays out with similar spectacle. After skipping a few story chapters, I spend the next hour or so filling the shoes of Batgirl (my personal favorite of the game's four playable characters) in pursuit of Harley Quinn, who, after a short-lived stint of attempting to bide by the law, is back behind bars in Blackgate Penitentiary. Like the university, the prison is situated on the other side of town from the Belfry, which lets me mess around with Batgirl's Batman-esque glide ability en route, grappling from ledge to lintel a thousand feet above the busy streets of Gotham. As was the case in the Arkham series, there's something so inherently satisfying about scaling the tallest building in the skyline, throwing yourself from its peak, and hearing the weighty 'whoosh' of the hero's cape resisting the rush of upward air from beneath – a feeling galvanized on PS5 by the steady, rhythmic buzz of the DualSense control pad's haptic feedback as you drift and dive over rooftops.
Upon arrival at Blackgate, I find myself equally endeared by Gotham Knights' slant on Harley Quinn. Despite her incarceration, this is surely the least inhibited interpretation of the character we've seen – certainly in video games, very possibly across all forms of media. Free of The Joker, the Suicide Squad, and, of course, Batman's watchful eye, Harley here is her own boss, calling the shots, and doubling down on the erratic criminality synonymous with her character since its animated series debut in the early 1990s. There are only flashes of it here, but this looks like a darker, more twisted, and even more vulnerable version of Quinn than we're used to – who we first meet in possession of a notepad containing key information addressed to Batman. In typical Harley Quinn style, however, this exchange culminates in me chasing said notepad (now tied to a giant helium balloon) down the corridors of the jail, into the yard, and fighting my way through a prison riot to the tune of a remixed version of Ricky Martin's 'Livin' La Vida Loca' in order to get my hands on it.
Why so delirious?
It's all very larger-than-life, and while great fun, also serves as a statement. Gotham Knights is moody, dark, and melancholic, sure, but moments like this one prove it isn't afraid to be self-referential, to poke fun at itself, and not take itself too seriously. This may not be an Arkham game, as the devs are keen to point out, but that balance between somber and silly is something Rocksteady's games did ever so well – and I'm pleased to see WB Games Montreal following suit in this regard with Gotham Knights. I enjoyed testing out the game's co-op features alongside one of the dev team – we battled our way towards a late-game boss fight with Harley, combining our powers as Nightwing and Robin – but it's Gotham Knights' scope for serious and stupid that's left a lasting impression at this point.
In 2018, Marvel's Spider-Man saw Insomniac put its own spin on the superhero genre – with that game's upcoming sequel, as well as the studio's in-development Wolverine game, set to push the envelope further still in the coming years. Set for launch next year, Rocksteady's Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League marks a change in tone, but a no less intriguing venture for the Arkham series creator. And with Gotham Knights, WB Games Montreal is testing new waters with the permanent demise of Batman, the rise of the titular crime-fighting foursome, and an exciting evolution of the otherwise well-established Harley Quinn's character. Gotham Knights isn't an Arkham game, then. After my hands-on time, I now agree. But it is an insight into combat-focused action games that unfold in Gotham City in a world post-Arkham. And that for me, and I'm sure for many fans of the DC universe, is no bad thing at all.
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