The opening monologue to The Long Halloween sees Bruce Wayne in the office of mobster Carmine, a former acquaintance of his father. They discuss the vision they had for the city before Thomas Wayne died and the scene closes with Bruce Wayne saying "I believe in Gotham City". That belief is at the very core of Batman’s character and his ethos, and what drives him every day to fight for it at great personal cost. That relationship is an integral part of the batman story and why the premise of Gotham Knights has so much potential. What does Gotham look like without Batman, and what stories can be told when placed in the shoes of those tasked to save it?
Gotham Knights is the latest in a long line of interpretations of the famous Gotham City. Since its first introduction in 1940, Gotham City has taken on many forms and undergone evolution depending on whose creative hands it was in and what aspects of society they were aiming to mirror, as detailed by Jake Kring-Schreifels in his excellent in-depth report for The Ringer. It was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger early on in the Batman comics and Its initial form was heavily influenced by New York, at a time when it was just coming out of the great depression and into the second world war. This initial vision has then been developed and reimagined in so many different ways, both conceptually and aesthetically. From the over-the-top campy setting for the Adam West-led series of the 60s to the dark and gritty tone favoured by the likes of Christopher Nolan that we are more familiar with and largely where the overall trend of the cities portrayal has headed. Despite receiving significant criticism, largely for its shortcomings in gameplay, I believe Gotham Knights provides the best and most interesting realisation of Gotham that we’ve seen in gaming so far. In particular how it emphasises the mood of its citizens facing decades of corruption as well as how its structure leans into what the role of a superhero is. Unfortunately, that statement does still come with many caveats and the great things it gets right are somewhat diminished by the disappointing issues with the narrative and gameplay.
A common theme within almost all takes on Gotham is its crime-filled underbelly. Batman’s villains are some of the most famous in all of Superhero fiction and the larger-than-life city is intrinsically linked to the creation of each one of them. The likes of Joker and the Penguin are all representations of the people this harsh city can produce and much like these, Batman himself is inseparable from the damaging hands of this who both rule and populate Gotham. It’s the very nature of the city that created his need to don the cape and attempt to not just prevent others from sharing the same fate as his parents but fix the rotten heart which creates the people capable of committing those crimes. While many of his stories revolve around his personal battles with his enemies and friends, the overarching motivation behind batman’s character is to save this city from its worst aspects and protect its citizens, offering them a much-needed beacon of hope in the process.
We now have a large variety of interpretations of this city in video games which provide the lens and expectations that players will carry with them into Gotham Knights. The most prominent and successful of these is that shown in rocksteady’s Arkham series. They are a phenomenal set of games, with some of the best combat we have seen from any third-person action franchises, great traversal, fantastic stories and great writing which all make for one of the best Batman sagas from any medium. However the one aspect these games doesn’t quite fully nail is Gotham City. It's only really the later instalments that allow you to see any of Gotham itself rather than Arkham and, possibly due to technical limitations, only portray the city empty and vacated after major incidents have forced much of the population out. You are only left to encounter people who in the game's own words are those which you shouldn’t feel are worth saving. This always felt somewhat at odds with what Batman stood for and that is why I was so excited to jump into Gotham Knights and explore a Gotham that is truly worth believing in.
Aesthetically this version of Gotham fits in right at home with most of the recent iterations. A pseudo-cross somewhere between Chicago and Manhattan and covered in neon. I decided to play as batgirl, and as I first stood on one of the many high rooftops and looked across the skyline, I immediately felt like I was soaking in the vibe and atmosphere of the same Gotham I’d seen and loved for many years. Smog fills the night sky, so much so you can practically feel the ghost of where the bat signal must once have shone. And off in the distance, you can see the smoke being illuminated by the red and blue flashing lights of the GCPD arriving at a crime that you can go help with should you feel compelled by your sense of superhero duty. As you drop down to the street level, you see what the bright lights and smoke created by the products of Gotham’s capitalist controllers are concealing. Shops and restaurants highlighting the city's cultural diversity are intertwined with bordered-up homes and closed-down remnants of small businesses. There are many poorly lit dark alleys with homeless sheltering by fires and crimes being committed. As you pass by locals, you hear their disgruntled tired comments, unimpressed by the new heroes claiming to protect them and talking to each other about their sports teams and the crime they witnessed while at the mall, in a tone invoking the impression it's a normal daily occurrence. The citizens feel broken down and desperate, yet are still trying to go about their daily lives and maintain their relationships. It captures an essence that is crucial for a game that wants you to walk in the shoes of a superhero. It feels like a city that needs saving.
Ever since reading Austin Walker’s fantastic article for Giantbomb on the relationship between cities and superheroes, it is something that I have considered whenever I’m playing any open-world superhero game. What links not just batman to Gotham but all superheroes to their cities is that these are places and people that are worth and need saving. More often than not Batman’s villains aren’t people out to destroy or take over the world, they are out to either profit off of Gotham or turn it into Anarchy. Leaving Batman perpetually in a conflict to try to get the city back under control, both as Batman and Bruce Wayne. One example of the city's environmental storytelling that I found pointing to this struggle was graffiti saying ‘no more billionaires’. It suggests that despite how important Batman was to the people, the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Gotham was much more strained. Whatever his attempts to revitalise the city with his business and wealth were, they were clearly received with contempt by at least a section of the people. And as you look around this clearly highly industrialised and commercialised city with little care for the welfare of its citizens, it's understandable why.
This is where I feel Gotham Knight really hits on something. It portrays Gotham as being at its breaking point from crime and corruption. This is Gotham without not just Batman but Jim Gordon. The police now under the stewardship of Catherine Kane have mostly been corrupted, firmly in the pockets of the corrupt and wealthy, leaving everyone else without protection and allowing crime to thrive. This crime is carried out by several rivalling gangs. The most significant being the mobsters working for The Penguin and what the game terms as ‘freaks’, the Joker/Harley-inspired anarchists. As a nice touch of making the world feel alive, you can often come across them fighting amongst themselves ready for you to swoop and deliver your swift vigilante justice.
The structure of the missions works really well with the environment and presents the premise of the hero's role in a city. The game is broken down into nightly patrols, where you head out into the city to continue your investigation into the main quest line but have the option to get involved in any of the side activities or the crimes going on around the world. These crimes are divided into spontaneous crimes such as a robbery or a kidnapping, and premeditated crimes which you must uncover by gathering intelligence. These can be bigger events like a bank robbery. There are a finite number of these each night and it plays into the feeling that you are truly going out each night to try to save the citizens. They are in trouble and it's up to you to prevent it because nobody else will. It also limits how much you can do each night due to having a limited amount of heals till the day resets, as well as some tasks being possible to fail and subsequently locked off till the next night.
The combat with which you achieve all this is one of the many bugbears people have with the game. Personally, I found it satisfying enough but certainly not as good as many other games in the genre. It feels more akin to the recent Assassin's Creed games or Marvel Avengers than the rocksteady games or Insomniac’s spider-man. There is a melee button and a ranged attack button, both of which you can hold down for a heavy attack. Playing some of the game's tutorials shows you how these can be more effective if timed correctly, as well as a momentum meter which gives access to additional character-specific abilities which are unlocked throughout the game. The naming of the momentum meter feels somewhat ironic as it is momentum and fluidity that it lacks and holds it back a little. Nevertheless, it does the job and it’s still enjoyable, especially as you level up the character and unlock more abilities. Combat also improves when new enemy types are introduced which require you to vary your attacks and prevent you from mindlessly button-mashing.
The lack of fluidity extends to the traversal as well which makes exploring the well-realised city much more of a hassle than it should be. The grappling hook has semi-auto aiming which doesn’t always lock on the building you are hoping for and it lacks a lot of the more enjoyable mechanics of other hero games like Spiderman for example. This feels partly down to the limitations of the heroes themselves as they are never going to have something that can match web-swinging but they maybe could have come up with a more ingenious solution to make this element of the game more fun. As batgirl, you can unlock the ability to glide but even that is a little clunky. The alternative they do provide is a motorcycle but it that lacks a sense of speed and just feels functional rather than fun. It does have a very cool materialising animation though it has to be said.
The map is split up into districts, each filled with a bunch of collectables as well as distinct landmarks. In the games database, you can read up on each one and find out the history of the area, which oftentimes makes for bleak reading. They predominantly consist of Batman relaying how these once thriving places have now become overrun with criminals and how the police have allowed it. Or how batman has been outlawed from places such as the GCPD headquarters and can no longer access it. When you visit these noteworthy places, for example, the observatory, you can discover for yourself that it truly is a shell of its former glory, now a base for criminals to operate out of. There are countless examples just like that one throughout the world. From within the game's texts, you learn Batman was fighting a losing battle in the war for the city’s soul. Gotham is painted as a carcass left out for the corrupt to peck at what little remains of a once-thriving metropolis.
Conceptually this is what draws me into this rendition of the city and what I think makes it so interesting. It’s a look into the idea of what if Batman fails, and what if he wasn’t there to fight the good fight against these criminals. What would Gotham City look like if all his efforts were futile and he wasn’t able to stop corruption from getting its roots deeply embedded, and the city becoming a sad empty shell of its former glory? This city that he believed in was now lost. In theory, it’s the perfect setup for a game about Batman’s troubled proteges needing to step in and step up in his honour to carry on his legacy. It presents an opportunity to make the story about how they also believe in Gotham City enough to help salvage the good they can still see at its heart, and then eventually, after overcoming great odds, doing what Batman wasn't able to and letting you save the city. Unfortunately, this is where the potential starts to unravel and buckle.
The writing, dialogue, and narrative just aren’t strong enough to capitalise on the intriguing world it creates. There isn’t enough setup in the story and character building for there to be a satisfying payoff and as a result, it never really gets off the ground. The lengthy opening cutscene shows Batman meeting his untimely demise in a face-off with Ra’s Al Ghul. His four playable sidekicks, Batgirl, Robin, Redhood, and Nightwing, come to retrieve his body and we are given a snippet of his funeral. Then the stoic young heroes get to work, jumping straight into the deep end to seamlessly pick up where batman left off. But none of it feels impactful. This should feel like a seismic catastrophe. Gotham’s last great symbol of hope is gone, and it’s left to four people who aren’t yet ready to step up and take the mantle. They have the impossible task of giving the city something new to believe in and restore the faith and hope of it’s citizens.
What I feel makes it so weak, is the lack of time we get to spend with all of them before it happens. It’s as though the writers forgot two of the most important rules of storytelling. Firstly, that good stories and good characters need conflict and obstacles to overcome. With the ease with which these heroes step into Batman’s boots and carry on from where he left off, it feels like there is no great loss there at all. It feels like more of an inconvenience than anything else, as you're constantly chasing Batman's shadow to figure out what he was up to so you could do it for him. It’s like the only real issue with him dying is that he didn’t tell anyone what he was doing. The team members are all more than capable of doing’s Batmans duties, completely on their own, right from the get-go. That’s just not very interesting.
The other major rule of writing that they ignored is show, don’t tell. While it’s true that the world-building and written text entries are very well done and show you that the city has been decimated, the story and the writing are not so well done. Rather than show how big a deal it is that batman’s dead through interesting plot points and making it central to how all the villains you face will react, as well as everything that your heroes do, they just have the characters tell you it's a big loss. They ask each other what are they going to do now and how they must honour batman and sad it is he’s gone. I want to SEE how sad and important it is. When the villains tell you they are shocked he’s really gone, SHOW me how shocking it is and what you can now do that you couldn’t when he was there. Nobody seems all that worried really, it’s like all the main characters are just as jaded and used to disappointment as the citizens and even an event like Batman's death doesn’t faze them. Every character sells it as a bit of a non-event. And the narrative does too as you can breeze through missions without ever getting the sense that there is a deep struggle that needs to be overcome to rise to batman’s level.
They even make a disappointing choice concerning Batman's identity. It should start to become clear to people when batman disappears as soon as Bruce Wayne dies that there was clearly a connection there. The implications of this could have been interesting to explore for people coming to terms with their contrasting feelings towards batman and the man they realise was behind the mask. Instead, it’s turned into a busywork side-quest where you complete straightforward stealth challenges to avoid people learning Batman's true identity. There is just so much wasted potential throughout the plot.
Rather than one cutscene, I feel the game would have benefited from a tutorial prologue chapter, wherein batman is trying to teach the four characters and demonstrating that they clearly aren’t ready. They should have been making mistakes, in conflict with one another as well as batman, and it should have been made painfully obvious just how vital batman was to the people of Gotham. They should have shown what Gotham with batman looked like and what he meant to its people first. This would have gotten the story off on a much stronger foot, and given greater impact to everything that came after it. They seem so set on wanting to make the four characters not come off as Batman’s inferior sidekicks, that they missed the fact it would be more interesting if they were. As it is, I found myself wanting to spend more time getting to understand the struggles of the citizens and what they are going through rather than following the mainline story. There are just so many conceptual threads I wanted to pull on and learn more about but as of where I am in the game up to now, those questions remain unanswered.
These interesting elements of the game should not have just been the window dressing. As interesting as I find it, I don’t want it to be only implied as you go through the motions of a far more standard story that lacks emotional weight. The ingredients for intrigue are there but it’s never brought to the forefront and poked at or asked questions of. Any sense of importance or consequence in the story is undercut every single time there is some throwaway weak line in a cutscene or during the lifeless interactions between characters that pulls the plug on the world around it.
Ultimately the portrayal of Gotham feels like it’s plucked from some fascinating show or other video game centred all around the ramifications of Batman’s untimely demise. Set in a world where he couldn’t keep the city from descending into anarchy or separate it from the chokehold of corruption of the rich, powerful, and the police who are now in their pockets. Leaving behind a thriving hub for all those morally bankrupt people he tried to stop. Except this game isn’t the opening act or the dramatic season finale of this show. This game is the curious filler episode, where you see what the plucky sidekicks are up to but lacks the stakes and consequences of the main story which you are craving to get back to. Just as this game struggles to get out of the shadows of the brilliant Batman games that proceeded it, these heroes and their stories share the same fate and down to the weak story, they are never able to get out from the missing batman shaped shadow looming over the cityscape. But what a cityscape it is.