This review was originally published on a website I briefly served as Senior Editor.
Back in October, Batman: Arkham Origins was released, and we spent a lot of time covering the event release of the latest game in the Batman: Arkham series. There was, however, one element that we missed in our initial coverage of all things Arkham Origins, and that was…well, the other game.
Developed by Armature Studio (which included developers from the critically-acclaimed Metroid Prime series from Nintendo), Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate was a side-scrolling exploration version of the Arkham series released exclusively on the PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS handhelds. Released alongside the console version as a “companion game,” it was a far less linear experience than the one that arrived on home consoles, relying on the player to make their way through the bowels of Gotham’s most notorious prison and exhaust every room to find all of the secrets locked within, and stop new plots by three of his biggest enemies.
Now we have a new chance to jump in-depth with this game thanks to the all-new release of Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate – Deluxe Edition.
Remastered for Bigger Screens, Controllers
Released on April 1st on the Xbox Live Marketplace, PlayStation Network, and Nintendo eShop, the game’s “deluxe edition” is an HD-enhanced remake for Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii U with a few new additions. The most obvious upgrade is that the graphics have been given a complete overhaul, upping the resolution and textures significantly to stand up to the scrutiny of high definition television screens. The game didn’t necessarily look bad on the handheld formats (although the Vita version was graphically superior), but the aesthetic more closely resembles the console version of Arkham Origins, giving greater depth and scale to the perhaps moodier environs found in this game.
The other obvious difference when playing this version of the game just lies in how you play. I previously played this on the Nintendo 3DS, a great handheld game system with an extensive library and impressive stereoscopic effects. Although this is by-and-large the same overall game, the experience of sitting on your couch with a controller in hand looking at your TV is very different from the way you play a handheld. I’d argue that the type of game is likely better suited to this format, but we’ll get into that in a bit.
Other additions to this version of the game include a higher difficulty setting (for a total of two, “normal” and “hard”), the addition of 5.1 surround sound, a new map system optimized for consoles, and more unlockable costumes for Batman himself.
Presentation and Story
The presentation and quality of the graphics of Arkham Origins Blackgate are the true stars of this edition of the game, since these are the elements that have received the most significant attention. The transition from handheld to console was handled by studio Bluepoint Games, largely a studio that has handled “ports” (which means adapting an existing game on one format into the capabilities of another), one of which being the recent Xbox 360 release of Titanfall. It was up to Bluepoint to bring the original game’s experience to life on much larger screens, and they do a very respectable job.
Original developers Armature Studio made the curious decision to try and recreate everything about the Arkham game experience entirely from scratch, rather than use any existing assets from either Rocksteady Studios or Arkham Origins developer WB Games Montréal. For the design aspect, this means that the art assets for Blackgate prison from the main Arkham Origins game remain virtually untouched, making the prison look very different than what we encountered first. The prison itself is decidedly moody and ominous, though a stagnant color palette and a continual change in a player’s perspective sometimes makes it difficult to navigate. Running from room-to-room in several of the prison’s different sections can start to run together after awhile, unless you’re in an area that’s visually distinctive like parts of the Administration wing, or in an entirely new locale like the Lighthouse.
In this regard, though, the Deluxe Edition becomes the most preferred format on which to play the game, since the environments are significantly more detailed, allowing you to easily see some of the minute differences between rooms and environments. Oddly enough, one odd element left out of the game’s transition to more powerful hardware was the ability for most of the character models to move their mouths while speaking. The Joker’s jaw manages to move while he’s cackling at you, but it’s pretty weird seeing Batman “talk” to Catwoman on his comm device without opening his mouth. It’s a minor quibble, but a noticeable one.
The story of the game takes place about three months after the events of Arkham Origins. Batman and GCPD Captain James Gordon are developing an effective working relationship, and Batman himself seems to be seen less as an outlaw by multiple levels of law enforcement, and more of an equal — for the most part, anyway. The game begins with Gordon meeting Batman across the Gotham River from Blackgate Prison. A massive breakout has just taken place, with three of Batman’s most ruthless enemies taking complete control of three different sections of the prison: the Penguin has taken control of the Industrial area, Black Mask has taken control of the Cell Blocks, and the Joker has kidnapped the prison’s Warden and taken over the Administration facility. On top of that, the entire prison staff has been taken prisoner, and a few other villains are waiting inside to surprise the Dark Knight, who heads inside to try and stop the madness.
Also in the game is Catwoman, and this game appears to show us the first time that she and Batman have crossed paths in the Arkham continuity. She heads into the prison with Batman and assists him from afar in exchange for a “lighter sentence” for her criminal activities. Batman agrees, and heads in to stop the three villains from their latest plots. But while he’s doing so, some powerful figures are watching from afar, who have their own agenda that Batman is unknowingly helping them fulfill.
Returning to the game are voice actors from across the Arkham series, including Roger Craig Smith as Batman (returning from Arkham Origins), Troy Baker as the Joker (also from Origins), Grey DeLisle as Catwoman (back from Arkham City), Nolan North as the Penguin (from City and Origins), Brian Bloom as Black Mask (from Origins), and Michael Gough as Jim Gordon (also from Origins). CCH Pounder returns from her Origins post-credits sequence and "Justice League Unlimited" animated stint as Suicide Squad handler Amanda Waller, and Adam Baldwin also turns up as Suicide Squad mainstay Rick Flag.
As the story unfolds, we see a series of in-game cutscenes that are hand-drawn and made into a motion comic with voiceover included. The artistic style is unique and clear, and makes for a unique method of forwarding the plot of the game. See what they look like below.
Blackgate is played from a 2.5D perspective, which basically means that characters and environments are rendered in full 3D, but gameplay is restricted to a two-dimensional plane. This is kind of a double-edged sword, because while it’s pretty impressive how well the team did in recreating and reformatting the console games’ combat system for a new game experience from a different perspective, there are also some design flaws that ultimately result in combat that doesn’t play nearly as well as the console counterpart. It still works in the same basic fashion: there’s a strike button, a counter button, a stun button, and a jump/sprint/roll button. While in the console version of any Arkham game you could use your stun to affect multiple opponents at a time, in Blackgate you can only affect one. So, if you see a group of three villains directly in front of you, using your stun will only disorient one of them, and if you engage in a beatdown attack you’ll be vulnerable to damage from the other two.
This takes a serious amount of the power out of the hands of the player, and cripples your ability to have longstanding combos, especially if you’re used to the combat system on any of the Arkham console games. The buttons also don’t seem nearly as responsive during combat as those in the other games. As a veteran Arkham player, I tend to know the combat system inside and out, and have no problem executing combos in the hundreds if I’m engaging enough henchmen. In this game, though, it was far more difficult to engage upwards of five or more henchmen at any given time, since the response of the combat controls is far inferior to the Rocksteady and WB Montréal games.
Where Blackgate does excel, though, is in exploration. As a nonlinear experience, you can pretty much choose the order in which you take each enemy down, and each order results in different unlockables or cutscenes as you play through the game. Sometimes you’ll encounter an item in the game world that you can’t reach yet without a specific gadget, so you’ll have to go explore another area before coming back to it later. In this regard it plays very much like a Metroid game, but with Batman. Boss fights are creative and force you to think of solutions without any prompts or hints, which is disorienting but also kind of rewarding. Much of the game operates this way, so while you can turn to an external source like the internet, you can also choose to discover practically every aspect of the experience on your own, which is kind of a rarity in video games today. It very much evokes the old NES Castlevania or Metroid just by virtue of dropping you into an expansive environment, and forcing you to reach the conclusion yourself.
Detective mode makes the transition to this game, and is an extremely important element of exploration. Using it to scan areas and objects is essential to moving forward in any area, so as you’re making your way through the bowels of Blackgate, scan every room like crazy. There’s no such thing in this game as “too much scanning,” since that’s the crux of the exploration, and uncovering all of the prison’s many hidden secrets and areas.
Arkham Origins Blackgate is a good game, and were it released independent of the Arkham franchise, I might even call it a great game. Tying it to the Arkham games brings with it a level of expectation particularly on the combat, and in this regard the game doesn’t quite live up to its title. While it’s fun to see what happens a few months after the end of Arkham Origins, the story manages to be engaging until it ends rather unceremoniously, so if you get it, don’t expect some massive, earth-shattering cutscene or even gameplay moment on which to go out. You beat the game, it ends, and you’re given the option to start again and play in a different order. It’s certainly a respectable effort on the part of Armature Studio, and apparently this is only the group’s second game. While it’s fun, particularly for fans of Batman, it doesn’t seem to be doing a whole lot for people other than gamers who like the exploration-oriented gameplay, or gamers who are also big Batman fans. Kids will likely find it frustrating and directionless unless they’ve been properly indoctrinated by this kind of gameplay before, so in the end it feels very specialized. Perhaps too specialized.
On the other hand, exploring one of the most fabled locations in Gotham City is pretty fun, using your skills and tools as the World’s Greatest Detective feels right at home in this type of environment, and when this game is on, it’s really on. For my money, the Deluxe Edition on PC, Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii U is the absolute best way to enjoy this game (while also being slightly cheaper than the 3DS or PS Vita versions), and if you want to dive into the wold of the Dark Knight in a more exploratory fashion, then this game should definitely scratch that itch. At the end of the day, it ends up being a little too ambitious and conciliatory in what makes the console Arkham games so enduring, but it’s also an experience that smacks of requiring the skills of the World’s Greatest Detective.