Stop the Joker and other villains from destroying Blackgate Prison.
PC Release: October 25, 2013
By Ian Coppock
I was surfing my Steam library the other day when I came upon this game, which I’d never purchased, sitting alongside my other Arkham games. Thinking that Warner Bros. was pulling that same perennial trial nonsense that we’ve seen with Orion: Prelude, I checked the community page and found out that all owners of Batman: Arkham Knight received a free copy of this game. Ostensibly, this gift was made as a peace offering for putting up with Warner Brothers’ bullshit for four months while they fixed up Arkham Knight.
Oh boy. A PC port of a handheld game, given to me for free? Truly, Warner Brothers knows how to treat its customers. Sure, their games don’t work on launch day and none of Arkham Knight‘s DLC was free, but at least we have this thing. The question is…. is it any good?
Arkham Origins Blackgate is a companion game for Batman: Arkham Origins, as one might guess by the titles’ similarity. AOB takes place three months after the Christmas Eve incident of Arkham Origins and follows Batman’s first encounter with Catwoman.
After a thrilling, varied chase across the rooftops of Gotham City, our hero finally kitty-corners (ba dum pssh) Catwoman and sends her behind bars. Within weeks of having done so, the Blackgate prison facility Batman has consigned her to erupts into chaos.
Batman arrives to the crime scene and learns that the prison’s been divvied up between three super-villains. Penguin’s made a nest for himself in the armory, Black Mask is busy breaking things in the power plant, and Joker’s holed up in the admin wing with lots of hostages. It’s up to Batman to clear each wing of baddies and send their bosses back to their cells.
In addition to our three leading antagonists, Batman encounters a few other villains in Blackgate. The Bronze Tiger makes his Arkhamverse debut in a high-stakes cage match with lots of electric fences. Paradoxically, Batman also encounters Solomon Grundy, who’s supposed to be buried beneath Arkham City and at this point unknown to our hero.
The biggest shakeup AOB makes to the Arkham formula is tying Batman into a 2.5D format. Yep, the entire game is a side-scrolling platformer, with all of the main games’ mechanics reformatted to fit the new style.
For all the horrible things I’m going to say about this game a few paragraphs from now, Batman’s crime-fighting mechanics are spun into the side-scrolling format with surprising smoothness. Enemies can come at you from either side, but you can still pull bat-stunts and counter-attacks to floor them. Detective mode has been re-engineered as a scene-searching tool where you cursor over the item of interest. The predator encounters take some creative license from Mark of the Ninja; just ascend or descend onto whatever platform the enemy’s not on, and you should be good.
If the mechanics do a good job of making players feel like the Dark Knight, the artwork isn’t half-bad at it either. Because this is a handheld port, the graphics are blockier than this game’s bigger-budget brothers. But, it runs well, and has some surprisingly powerful lighting and atmospheric technology for a game of its class.
The music further reinforces the dreary mood endemic to Gotham, with low, mournful strings and hopping sections reminiscent of Han Zimmer’s Dark Knight score. Arkham Origins Blackgate borrows most of its sound effects from the other Arkham games. No problem.
Although Arkham Origins Blackgate‘s gameplay is much better than I expected, and its art direction is in lockstep with the mainline Arkham games, it suffers from a few flaws that ultimately killed the project for me.
First off, the boss battles are awful. You’re typically facing your foe from a series of linear platforms, in a giant, difficult-to-maneuver predator encounter. You have to take down waves of baddies before you can get to the main villain, and any one of them can shoot you from the other side of the room just like that. If you bat-fart too loud, the whole room becomes alerted to your exact location and will pump you full of lead not a split second later. It’s a frustrating grind that was a few lucky swoops away from causing me to rage quit.
Another thing making this game quite tiresome is its tendency to turn into a pixel-hunting game. I’ve never played a hidden object game that I didn’t feel to be a massive waste of time, and sweeping every scene with detective vision irked that same cynical heart string. It’s not fun to retrace your steps for two hours because you missed a tiny button in the janitor’s closet.
Because Arkham Origins Blackgate is played on a much smaller scale than its big brothers, it has no Most Wanted missions or other side quests. Finding side villains is relegated to these hidden-object puzzles, where a few objects that you might happen to scan over will give you a bio on some minor villain or another. Problem is, we’re given no indication as to what to look for or if it’s relevant to the main story or not. The villains themselves also don’t appear.
The main story, by the way, is pretty weak, as evidenced by the fact that I forgot to bring it up until now. It’s mostly a storyless grind through each wing of Blackgate Prison, with an underwhelming plot twist at the end. Every character stays exactly in their assigned niche and differs little from their counterparts in Arkham Origins. I appreciate the attempt at a new concept, but it doesn’t help that the battle at the game’s end has absolutely nothing to do with the other 90% of the story.
The worst of Arkham Origins Blackgate‘s sins and the final piece of its poor design triumvirate is how it pads out its playtime. Arkham Origins Blackgate has an absolutely horseshit tendency to let you spend three hours clearing out a wing of the facility, spend three more hours clearing out the next one, and then spend six hours going through both wings again because an item you need to finish the second wing is at the very beginning of the first wing.
See what I’m saying, here? After I put Penguin back on ice, I set off for Black Mask’s part of the facility. I got to the door that Black Mask was hiding behind, only to be informed that I needed a hitherto unknown item to bust it open. That item happened to be located at the very beginning of Penguin’s wing… the very wing I’d just spent three hours clearing.
Let me get this straight; you, dear developers, are tasking me with fighting all the way back out of the second wing, all the way back to the end of the first wing, and then back through both wings in order to finish one goddamn wing?
Nope, not gonna do it. Instead, I’m going to introduce you to my old friend, Steam Refund System. I think you two will get along swimmingly.
The real tragedy of Arkham Origins Blackgate is that it’s a PC port of a handheld game that actually runs well. Most people outside of the PC world have no clue how rare this is. But rather than not recommending this game to you because of any bugs, I am not recommending it to you because of a small number of big design problems.
Arkham Origins Blackgate does an admirable job of creating the same dreadful, engrossing atmosphere we see in the main games, but a few combat design flaws and a cynical attempt to artificially inflate its playtime are what brought the game low. Even hardcore Batman fans would do well to stay away from this game. You might be thinking as I did, that the game can’t be that bad and that you can soak up all the Bat-mosphere you want.
Please. Don’t buy this. I’ll still post the link for those of you who hate yourselves, but don’t buy it.
You can buy Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.