Batman: Arkham Knight, and its predecessors to a lesser extent, has been advertised for some time now on a single selling point: “Be the Bat.” Its earliest trailers showcase the acrobatics, the car, the sheer ruination of bad guys. It’s all highly ironic, considering what a chilling, affecting job the game does of making the idea of being Batman a living hell. To be Batman in Arkham Knight is to be the eternal host to a litany of crippling failures—a long road paved with death, disease, physical and mental wounds that never heal, all while constantly facing the worst grotesqueries Gotham has to offer. Even with all the gadgets, all the training, all the exhilaration of success, Arkham Knight’s greatest achievement is in making it feel like it just might not be enough.
Functionally, the game’s setup isn’t that dissimilar from Batman: Arkham Asylum or Batman: Arkham City: The Scarecrow—now mutilated and voiced by a gravely unnerving John Noble—manages to wrest control of Gotham for all the city’s worst criminals, allowing his new flunkie, an assassin in power armor calling himself the Arkham Knight, to hunt for the Bat with the entire city as his hunting grounds.
The small victories are stylish, plentiful, and easy to come by in Arkham Knight. Unlike Arkham City, which basically just had a super-villain hiding out in one location waiting for Batman to show up, the criminal activities are rampant and active throughout the game, with Alfred, Oracle, and the Gotham Police Department feeding Batman the facts as they come in, and new developments happening sometimes right in the middle of other sidequests. You start the game with most of the combat enhancements you had to grind and earn in previous titles. The combat and stealth mechanics still allow for flashy, exciting takedowns, now enhanced with a bevy of new toys, such as a gun that shoots electric bursts at enemies, a hacking tool allowing you to turn drones and equipment against their users, and a slick new Fear Takedown system, where up to three enemies can be busted up from the shadows in one fell swoop. When you’re not fighting, you’re dealing with the game’s puzzles, which have broken the series’s habit of leading players by the nose, allowing for more than a few moments where hard-earned ingenuity is required from the player. The World’s Greatest Detective finally has to do God’s honest detective work this game, and it’s better for it.
Even with all the gadgets, all the exhilaration of success, its greatest achievement is in making it feel like it just might not be enough.
Arkham Knight stumbles with the Batmobile. The game’s heart is in the right place, introducing the Nolan films’ Tumbler as a versatile APC that can plow through almost anything on Gotham’s streets, but also has the ability to shift into something bigger and badder to deal with military-grade threats. But the car’s handling, combined with an overreliance on the tank combat sequences later in the game, makes the thing more of an annoyance than its worth, especially in light of the fact that simple winged flight has never been faster or more exhilarating in this series.
The irony of it all, however, is that despite all the enjoyable battles Batman will fight and win with the tools at his disposal, this is a story where, more often than not, he loses the war, and loses big, with nothing but a trail of dead people in the wake of that loss. There’s a fatalism here. Batman is, for all intents, dying in Arkham Knight, stricken with a very familiar and purposeful affliction that haunts him in the most darkly cynical way imaginable throughout the entirety of the game. It’s a disease that plays spectacularly elaborate mind games with him all throughout gameplay—the kind of playable, malevolent, funhouse cruelty one expects more from Silent Hill than a Batman game. The further down the spiral Batman goes, the more he’s forced to keep his already-meager support system at bay, driving him further into insanity, all while trying to do the world’s hardest job. Arkham Knight, for these stretches, is ultimately the story of a dying man using the last fading days of his mental faculties putting his final affairs in order before he comes to judgement. The game pulls from the vast tapestry of Batman’s greatest failures across every medium, and uses them all against him.
It’s the most ambitious angle anyone’s ever taken to the Caped Crusader’s adventures in recent memory, one that lends an urgency to even the smallest crime, and a chilling sense of stubborn desperation to every interaction Batman has with another human, but it’s a storytelling angle at war with the AAA-game tendency to escalate tension with bigger physical threats, and the game’s elusive question of the Arkham Knight’s identity turning out to have a rather disappointing answer any Batfan can telegraph from miles away. Those problems make the game’s final third a structural mess, wasting four or five perfectly logical potential climaxes to the point that it threatens to make the player numb for the relatively intimate and frightening true finale for Rocksteady’s Dark Knight.
The developer’s ending for the Dark Knight ultimately has quite a bit in common with Chris Nolan’s. Both the game and film franchise create a world where Batman is no longer the greatest force in his own city, but Rocksteady’s ideal for the character and the universe he inhabits hews far closer the original ethos Ra’s Al Ghul spoke of in Batman Begins. Nolan reduces his Bat in The Dark Knight Rises to a simple vigilante, an inherently selfish man who can, in fact, be easily destroyed. Rocksteady allows their Bat to achieve legend. The fact that the legend can be completely dismantled the way he is in Arkham Knight should and will scare the hell out of every one.