Even the citizens of Gotham City are sick of it all. Bored of the crime, the corruption, and the capes who drive across city streets at such pedestrian speeds that they are always within earshot of even a whispered insult: "The gangs will eat you alive, Red Hood." It's a common refrain that I hear time and time again while playing Gotham Knights, as integral to the city's soundscape as wailing sirens. Think what you will about the state of vigilante justice in Gotham, but I wouldn't goad the guy who crawled free of a Lazarus Pit with only some semblance of his sanity intact.
Release date: October 21, 2022
Platform(s): PS5, PC, Xbox Series X
Developer: WB Games Montreal
Publisher: Warner Bros. Games Interactive Entertainment
Then again, biting asides are a welcomed alternative to the tired greetings received by Batgirl and Robin, or the audible confusion around who Nightwing is; many years spent as a guardian of Gotham, and it was all for nothing.
Gotham Knights invites you into a DC Universe that is rich with history, but ultimately lacking in texture. It introduces you to four playable heroes who lack any discernible character. It draws you into a world that's large in scale, but too shallow to be worth exploring. And it frequently pushes you into scenarios where the extent of your interaction is a light or heavy attack; repetition made rhythmic.
Gotham Knights doesn't know what it wants to be, and that's a problem no amount of heroics can overcome.
Beware the Court of Owls…
Batman has always cast a long shadow over Gotham in the DCU, but never quite like this. Gotham Knights opens with the death of Bruce Wayne; it's an impactful staging that allows an established gallery of rogues to flood the streets, and leaves four of Batman's closest disciples as the last line of defense. By day, Barbara Gordon, Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, and Tim Drake spend their time in The Belfry – a makeshift base of operations. Here they are free to annoy a grieving Alfred, set high scores on a fully-functioning Spy Hunter cabinet, field emails from members of the Teen Titans and The Justice League, and maintain message threads so that the group can freely debate the finer points of podcasting.
By night, Batgirl, Nightwing, Red Hood, and Robin patrol a lifeless Gotham City. It's an expansive space with wide streets, few pedestrians to meet, and even fewer activities to complete. You'll see most of it from the Bat-Cycle, which pushes forward slowly against a sputtering framerate, and moves stiffly through street furniture that has no firm collision detection. Sluggishly grapple to a rooftop and you'll see neon lights pierce thick blankets of fog that obscure the horizon, and triangular icons which indicate that one of three core factions is completing one of 13 types of crime in your vicinity.
You'll meet Mr. Freeze and Clayface, Harley Quinn and The Court of Owls in truly, terribly monotonous boss battles throughout your adventures in Gotham Knights, but you'll spend the vast majority of your time battling the punks (Freaks), the geeks (Regulators), and the jocks (Mobsters); archetypal John Hughes characters turned true scourge of Gotham.
Other criminal entities enter the fray eventually, but that doesn't address the core dichotomy that's felt all throughout Gotham Knights. Civilians and street gangs never seem all that bothered by your presence, while the Gotham City Police Department and the most famous supervillains DC has to offer are keenly aware of your capabilities, and history in the city. It's both odd, and at odds with the way the story is framed – where four experienced heroes are battling against weathered villains and tortured events from their respective pasts.
If you can keep ahold of all the dangling lore threads, that is. There's an expectation of knowledge with the four main characters, and their relationships with any named NPCs. While Gotham Knights isn't totally aligned with the canon of the core DC Universe, it skirts it closely enough for comic book buffs to fill in some essential blanks; the rest of you should strap in and prepare for a bumpy, potentially confusing ride. This makes it difficult to really invest in the parallel narrative arcs, the characters that inhabit them, and the fates of anybody whom you come into contact with. Gotham Knights certainly has its moments, though its storytelling lacks refinement.
Lost in the dark
Speaking of Batman and the casting of long shadows, it's probably time that we talked about the Arkham games. Gotham Knights isn't a part of the Arkhamverse, but that doesn't stop it from grappling with familial comparisons throughout its runtime. That isn't necessarily because WB Games Montreal's last game was Batman: Arkham Origins, or even that this is another WBIE-published game set in Gotham. Rather it's that Batman: Arkham Knight set a high bar for melee-based action adventures in 2015, working tirelessly to establish that you are the World's Greatest Detective. Everything Arkham Knight did was in service of maintaining that central fantasy. It was powerful.
But do you remember the famous story arc where Batgirl got murdered by a palette-swap street thug because he had a level 20 power rating, and Barbara mistakenly waded into battle with a level 10 Tonfa? No, neither do I, because it would make for a lousy end to a character who successfully rehabilitated from having her spinal cord severed by the Joker. And maybe I'm being needlessly facetious here, but I can't overstate how misplaced the customization and crafting systems are in Gotham Knights. They undermine the fantasy of stepping into the boots of an experienced hero in an established world.
Marvel's Avengers had a similar problem, and Gotham Knights idly repeats many of the same mistakes with respect to character development and progression. Gotham Knights is constantly rewarding you with crafting resources for a job well done, but once you settle on a favorite of the four characters, you're best off blindly pouring materials into whatever suit or signature weapon has the higher available power level. While it is possible to better complement your crafted equipment with minor modifications, as well as unlocked passive and active abilities, personalization is wholly unnecessary and utterly unsatisfying. Particularly as menu navigation and keeping track of your limited inventory space is a chore.
Gotham Knights can be played in two-player online co-op. As with most things in life, it's certainly more enjoyable with a friend by your side, although co-op doesn't fix critical flaws with the shallow depth of combat, largely redundant crafting and customization systems, and the somewhat lonely open world. Additionally, Gotham Knights doesn't support cross-platform play, which is disappointing.
The larger issue at play is that there's very little discernible difference between the four heroes. Basic movesets don't evolve so much as they become incrementally less minimalistic. The heroes fight and control largely the same, while small differentials in agility and weapon sets have little material impact on the cadence of play. There's a simple string of attacks that build to a repeating combo, a dodge that can double as a counter, and a small suite of unlockable abilities tied to a momentum meter which are both forgettable and hidden beneath a messy user interface. It isn't that Gotham Knights handles poorly in combat – quite to the contrary, it's well animated and perfectly serviceable in short bursts – but you will have a sense of the system's limitations just hours in, and it barely grows to meet even those modest boundaries over time.
Gotham Knights has no defining characteristic to help set it apart from the character-action games that have come before it. It lacks the high-energy of Marvel's Spider-Man, the pleasingly simple counter-combat that drove Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, and the syncopated rhythm and fluidity that made the Batman: Arkham series legendary. Instead, you're largely pushed to engage enemies one at a time as queues form off-screen – obscured behind a camera that clings too closely to your chosen hero, and struggles to appropriately track motion – for their turn to be button-bashed into Gotham General Hospital's ICU.
The inability to truly control crowds – even if you do invest in something like Robin's decoy, or Batgirl's attack drone – is not only inauthentic to the characters as we know them from existing stories, but especially strange for an experience that delights in funneling large groups of enemies into claustrophobic corridors and clearly delineated combat arenas. I never felt as if I had the option to fully control a space or take command of a situation, and I longed for the option to more playfully rip through mobs and make better use of environments.
Some mysteries can't be solved
There's a tension at the heart of Gotham Knights' design. That's palpable from the completion of its first story mission through to the umpteenth time you turn in a repeatable quest to The Penguin, receiving some unidentifiable crafting resources in return. The level-gating placed in front of the scripted, more entertaining missions forces you to patrol the open world in search of XP, but with so little to do or see outside the main case and its supporting stories, I rarely felt an impulse to spend time in such an artificial, infrequently beautiful rendering of Gotham – time trials and batarang-hunting be damned.
There's a compelling game in Gotham Knights, but it's hidden away behind a messy UX, needless crafting and customization systems, and combat mechanics that have been stretched paper thin to accommodate four heroes. I do believe that WB Games Montreal is capable of greatness, but this isn't the game that Gotham deserves after the death of Bruce Wayne, and it's not the one it needs right now following Rocksteady's retreat to Metropolis for Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League.
Gotham Knights was reviewed on PS5, with code provided by the publisher.