Not unlike a costumed vigilante tasked with cleaning up a crime-riddled city, Gotham Knights has its work cut out for it. For starters, it’s a Batman game without a Batman, trading the Caped Crusader for an arguably less interesting quartet of sidekick protagonists. It also arrives in the shadow of Rocksteady Studios’ acclaimed Arkham series, considered not just the best Bat games, but some of the greatest interactive superhero adventures period.
It’s also the first Bat-based effort in nearly a decade from developer WB Games Montreal. The studio previously released Arkham Origins, a decent, albeit inferior prequel to Rocksteady’s trilogy. And if all that wasn’t enough, this return to Gotham City also represents the beloved universe’s next-gen console debut, providing anxious fans their first opportunity to experience an Arkham-like on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X.
Suffice it say, Gotham Knights has hit the the ground with the odds stacked against it. Still, with four crime-fighters (and 2-player online co-op) in its corner, it’s not without the potential to overcome these obstacles. Does it stick the superhero landing – or fall flat on its cowled face?
Dead Dark Knight
While Gotham Knights isn’t technically part of the Arkham series, there’s no avoiding the fact it feels like a spiritual successor to those games. The major difference here is Bruce Wayne and his head-bashing alter ego have been replaced by Batgirl, Robin, Nightwing, and Red Hood. But Batman hasn’t just been benched – he’s been killed off.
This setup might sound like a non-starter, especially for the Bat’s biggest fans, but the story actually handles his death quite well. Bruce/Batman’s presence is felt throughout the narrative, in both what he left behind and how his absence shapes the paths of his proteges. He’s still very much a part of the story, not merely as an occasional, fan-servicing call-out, but as a key player in its central mystery and character relationships.
The four sidekicks have essentially picked up where the billionaire butt-kicker left off, so while each of their personalities and emotional paths are thoughtfully guided by their grief, they’re also taking up their mentor’s vigilante mantle. By working through their loss – and a case Batman wasn’t able to close – they’re regularly encountering iconic villains and other essential characters whose lives have likewise been affected by Bruce/Batman’s sudden exit.
Toss in fan-favourite mainstays, like Alfred Pennyworth and Lucius Fox – who are also finding their way without their friend – as well as bittersweet nods, such as a dusty, unused Bat-signal sitting in GCPD’s evidence room, and Gotham Knights does a surprisingly good job breathing fresh Batman life into a world where he’s actually dead.
We were unexpectedly drawn into this Batman-deprived Gotham, driven to discover how his absence affected the city, his family, friends, and foes. Sadly, much of the core gameplay can make that journey a bit of a slog. None of it is patently bad and, in fact, the combat, stealth, and detective work often had us happy to be back under the cowl. But given that Gotham Knights represents the next big – and first next-gen – Batman game, its moment-to-moment action is often disappointingly bland.
The biggest offender is its combat, which forgoes the deliberate, rhythmic, bone-crushing cadence of the Arkham entries for a looser, less precise feel that relies more on mindless button-mashing than thoughtful, counter-based timing and strategy. Mixing light and heavy melee and ranged attacks – with plenty of dodge rolls in between – fuels serviceable encounters that pack plenty of slick animations and cinematic flair. But while the mechanics get the job done and are reflected with visual panache, they’re also pretty shallow, ultimately reflecting a step back from the Arkham series’ more rewarding beat-downs.
On the plus side, each of the four protagonists plays differently and can be built out based on their favoured disciplines. You can also swap characters at the Belfry home base, allowing you to experiment and spice things up a bit. The game’s RPG progression systems also encourage you to continually evolve your heroes’ move sets, injecting new ways to make your enemies one with the pavement. Crafting and upgrades offer additional depth, leading to better gear and suits.
All that said, while these various, potential-packed features suggest layers and nuance, that payoff never really comes. With few exceptions, such as “Momentum Abilities,” which unleash cool, character-specific moves, these elements fail to pack much of a punch. Even after 20-plus hours of levelling, crafting, and customising the perfect Batgirl, we still found ourselves frequently spamming the same few basic attacks to effortlessly clear room after room of dumb thugs.
It doesn’t help that objectives and encounters are often repetitive and uninspired, further fuelling the sense you’re just going through the motions to progress. Again, exceptions exist, including enemies that call on you to get more creative, as well as inventive missions that favour a stealthy approach or, even better, a fun mix of silence and violence. But bright spots, like boss battles or tearing up Gotham’s black top from behind the Batcycle, are often overshadowed by lengthy stretches of monotonously beating on goons and tackling too-familiar open-world tasks.
Gotham Knights saw its Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions axed under the guise of giving fans the best possible experience on next-gen consoles. But aside from a beautifully immersive, atmospheric, and expansive Gotham, it doesn’t exactly scream“next-gen” in the way, say, a first-party PlayStation 5 title does. We’d even argue the recently released A Plague Tale: Requiem does a better job harnessing the hardware, without the benefit of a Bat-sized budget.
Don’t misunderstand, Gotham Knights is a good looking game, on par with many of its contemporaries. And, ironically, it’s not consequentially sullied by its controversial locked 30 frames-per-second performance. But while it was consistently easy on the eyes, it also never dropped our jaws or had us giddily firing up its photo mode.
This sentiment extends to its DualSense controller integration on PS5. The impressive tech is capable of significantly cranking the immersion. It’s frequently the reason owners of both consoles opt to play a multi-platform game on Sony’s hardware. But both its tactile feedback features and built-in speaker are not only underused in Gotham Knights, they’re leveraged in uninspired ways. Like the visuals and gameplay, their integration is passable, but never groundbreaking.
For those who’d rather tackle the campaign as a dynamic duo, the game does bring online co-op to the streets of Gotham. The drop-in, drop-out feature works well, even managing to shave some tedium off the rote combat encounters. Crime-fighting couples are also un-tethered, meaning they’re free to go their separate ways, still working together, but not restricted to the same area. This too breaks up some of the boredom, as the more repetitive mission types can be divvied up and tackled more quickly.
Of course, faithful Bat-fans pining for a more brooding, solitary experience that recaptures the Arkham series’ reclusive vibe might cringe the first time they see the social wheel pop up in Gotham Knights. The co-op is a welcome addition, but for better or worse, teaming up with a sidekick is more evocative of playing Destiny 2 or The Division 2 than doling out vigilante justice as a member of the Bat-fam.
Gotham Knights verdict
Given the reverence the Arkham games are paid, Gotham Knights was always facing an uphill battle. That said, it integrates the death of Batman better than expected, allowing the four protagonists to take centre stage while also retaining meaningful, story-critical ties to their mentor. Gotham City is also fantastically realised, providing an atmospheric playground that’s a blast to traverse via gadgets or Batcycle.
Combat and mission objectives don’t fare as well, however, squandering their potential and often devolving into tedium and repetition. Busting heads and hacking devices is fun, at first, and generally remains entertaining enough to carry you through the campaign. But even as you crack skulls with style to spare, you’ll likely still crave the substance of the superior Arkham series.
Gotham Knights could’ve partially made up for its lacking gameplay with some gangbusters next-gen features, but it fails to impress on this front too. Co-op is a welcome addition, though it won’t be every Bat fan’s cup of tea, while the visual presentation and DualSense integration doesn’t crack the status quo.
Gotham Knights is a serviceable action-RPG that checks most of the expected boxes, but does little to push the genre – or AAA next-gen gaming – forward. It capably scratches the Batman game itch, but does so from the safety of its predecessor’s shadow.
Serviceable at best, boring at worst, Gotham Knights is best played with a buddy
Gorgeous, immersive open-world Gotham
Deceased Batman/Bruce Wayne still integral to story
Co-op makes mediocre combat and missions better
Repetitive combat and mission objectives
RPG elements lack impact, don’t feel meaningful
Doesn’t feel all that “next-gen”