This holiday season, Warner Bros. launched the first portable entry in the Batman: Arkham series. Does the franchise survive the leap to the Vita and 3DS unscathed? Or is it better to pass on this pared-down, 2D version of the Caped Crusader? Read on, as Gizmag reviews Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate.
A new Batman
If you go into Arkham Origins Blackgate expecting the same gameplay you got from the three Batman: Arkham games on consoles and PCs, you're going to be in for a surprise. Developer Armature Studio ditched the 3D behind-the-back perspective from those games, instead opting for a 2D side-scrolling version of Gotham City's other prison.
There are, however, plenty of similarities to the console-based Arkham games. You're still grappling onto far-reaching ledges, crawling into floor grates and air ducts, beating senseless the token thugs and goons, and uncovering the scheming plans of their bosses (including Penguin, Black Mask, and, of course, the Joker). The basic controls, sound effects, and voice actors also sync up with Arkham Origins, to help lend some extra continuity.
But those similarities often only highlight where Blackgate falls short. The premise of Batman's hand-to-hand combat is the same – fast, free-flowing martial arts – but here it's slower and choppier. The Dark Knight's combat is also a lot less interesting: basic punch, basic kick, basic block. Compared to the combat in the console games, Batman's fighting in Blackgate is downright boring.
Predator rooms also make the transition to portable, but here they give you a lot less freedom. That lack of freedom basically kills that sense of walking in Batman's boots, deciding how you'll take down this room of machine gun-wielding thugs. Like your movement, your predator options are two-dimensional, moving in a straight line. Knock down chandelier with Batarang, distract thugs, take them down. Just like the game scripted for you.
Ode to a classic genre
As an extension of the console and PC Arkham games, I found Blackgate to be pretty underwhelming. Where it shines, though, is as an extension of the "Metroidvania" 2D side-scrolling action/adventure games of old. Though 2.5D is actually more appropriate here, as the game masks your 2D movement in environments that appear to be 3D.
If you ever played the Scarecrow sequences from Arkham Asylum, imagine an entire game built from that gameplay perspective (minus the part where you're tripping your ass off). The environment has depth, and turning a corner will turn the camera to a new perspective, but Batman can only ever walk in a straight line.
Like those classic Metroid and Castlevania titles from the 80s and early 90s, Blackgate prison is an environment that encourages exploration, backtracking, and the gradual unlocking of new areas (usually by way of snagging a new gadget or encryption key). Your environment is a grand puzzle, one that can only be pieced together by getting past another batch of thugs or escaping another roomful of Joker gas.
It's action, it's adventure, and it's environmental puzzle-solving. That's the Metroidvania genre, and that's Arkham Origins Blackgate in a nutshell.
Worth the trip?
Is Arkham Origins Blackgate fun? Well, we're a little mixed on this one. When the action moves along at a brisk pace, unlocking new areas, encountering new enemies, and discovering hidden items to get you past a seemingly impenetrable obstacle, it can be pretty enjoyable.
But if you lose track of where you're supposed to be going, the game quickly derails. Your 3D map (for your 2D world) is only somewhat helpful, and, at its worst, is downright confusing. Switching to detective mode to scan for clues or hidden objects (by holding your finger on various points on the Vita's screen) can also be tedious at times. Taken as a whole, it's a more labored kind of puzzle-solving than modern gamers are accustomed to.
The most frustrating aspect of Blackgate is that the Vita is perfectly capable of handling something like the console-based Arkham games, set in a fully realized 3D environment. The gameplay and environment of Uncharted: Golden Abyss, for example, is basically on par with its PS3 counterparts. But whether it was to differentiate the portable game, or to create parity with the much hotter-selling (but less capable) 3DS, Warner Bros. and Armature Studio went in a completely different direction with Blackgate.
The result? Well, if you're a fan of the Metroid-style games of old, Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate is a worthy love letter to the genre's high points. But if you're looking for more of what you loved from the three Arkham games on PS3, Xbox 360, and PC? Then you might want to pass on this scaled-down adventure.
Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate retails for US$40, and is available now for the Nintendo 3DS and Sony PlayStation Vita. For the full Batman experience, you can check out our review of the PS3 edition of Arkham Origins.