Until Batman’s overnight stay in Arkham Asylum, the good-to-bad ratio of his video game appearances was worse than my kill-death ratio in most multiplayer shooters. But Rocksteady convinced console owners that an exceptional – not just decent – Batman game could exist free of imaginations. Handheld gamers need that same assurance, though they must find it elsewhere. Armature Studio crams the Caped Crusader onto Vita and 3DS touch screens, with none of the finesse. Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate is a poor argument for the series’ portable debut, featuring clunky combat, intrusive backtracking, and the worst map of any Arkham release.
The plot rehashes Arkham Asylum’s narrative, too. The Joker, Penguin, and Black Mask overrun Blackgate Penitentiary three months after Arkham Origins, dividing Gotham’s prison into three distinct districts as villains are wont to do. “It feels like we were just here,” remarks Batman. Because fans have been here … multiple times. The only radical change to the setup introduces Catwoman. After Batman foils her burglary, she, for cryptic reasons, assists the Dark Knight in retaking Blackgate, helping him navigate its maze-like interior.
The prison has to be labyrinthine, because Arkham Origins Blackgate submits to all things Metroidvania. The series’ downsize also loses half a dimension, but traversing cell blocks, an industrial complex, and the administrations office is all handled by moving left or right. Armature even injects cinematic angles into the side-scrolling on-goings. Batman grapples between ledges in the background, or glides around winding hallways, adding depth to the plain environments.
Four against one? They're going to need more henchmen.
Exploring calls attention to one major caveat: the map – a top-down sketch of a near-3D world. Worse, Armature modeled their map vertically, where left becomes up, and right becomes down. It’s incomprehensible. The developers try to rewrite the Metroidvania equation without checking their work. They make backtracking, a Metroidvania prerequisite, a headache. Are you on the same floor as your objective? Is a collectible located close to that question mark or simply in the same room? Are those dead ends or unopened doors? Blackgate’s layout lacks direction. More than once I had to rely on my photographic memory when roaming areas I had already searched, a task made painstaking by nauseatingly similar corridors.
The convicts have torn the architecture apart, with fires, floods, and Joker’s laughing gas forcing Batman to uncover alternate routes. Initially, players may investigate the three wards in any order, and I loved knowing that I could visit other parts of the prison whenever I reached an impasse. But sewers, elevator shafts, control rooms, etc. blend together once backtracking – something most fans do habitually – becomes mandatory.
For example, while chasing Black Mask through Blackgate’s industrial sector, I happened across a barred door. The single solution: retrace my steps through half of the facility for a sequencer code. Begrudgingly, I returned twenty minutes later, passcode in hand. Not ten minutes passed, however, before I met a pressure-sensitive door, this one requiring a whole new bat-tool and even longer scavenger hunt.
Enemies do not respawn once defeated, leaving return trips to certain rooms feeling bland and empty.
Also, why is Batman infiltrating a prison with just batarangs? I realize that stripping heroes of their powers and starting them afresh is a cornerstone of the Metroidvania concept. But would the World's Greatest Detective really prepare so poorly for the dangers he must face, since eight assassins tried to kill him months prior? Batman confronts three of those notorious serial killers again, as well as a majority of the criminals he helped lock up. Why not carry actual protection?
Even mindless thugs pose a great risk, and Batman’s bite-size fisticuffs tarnish the combat’s intensity. Enemies attack from two directions, though they stand on two planes (an off-center background or foreground) to avoid lining up for beatdowns. Sadly, Batman seldom targets the inmate you had in mind, foolishly ending combos when goons wielding knives or stun batons step up to bat. The problems snowball from there.
In DC’s comics, Batman mastered dozens of martial arts disciplines. In Arkham Blackgate, his sluggish movements betray established lore. His fists often connect with thin air instead of a henchman’s face, getting him to turn the opposite direction mid-brawl is a battle in its own right, and ground takedowns rarely work because you cannot distance yourself from assailants. Without instant disarm maneuvers, Batman possesses none of the flair, either. The developers skimp on the experience system, so any upgrades to the batsuit (extra armor, stronger gauntlets) must be acquired through exploration.
What are you swinging at, bro?
The gameplay highlights another unfortunate problem: the aesthetics. While cutscenes unfold via dismal gray comic panels, Blackgate is one unsightly game in motion. When the camera zooms in for a knockout blow, players witness every texture in its poorly modeled glory, right before attackers melt into the ground. Perhaps Killzone: Mercenary spoiled me, but I know Sony’s Vita can produce more attractive characters than a PlayStation 2. Ignoring missing facial movements, however, the voice work holds up. Roger Craig Smith, Troy Baker, and Grey Delisle revise their roles, delivering triple-A performances that match their console counterparts.
The predator-style stealth rooms carve out some limited screentime as well. The developers do what they can with the perspective – detective vision reveals enemy vision cones, and fire extinguishers distract near-sighted inmates, allowing Batman to dangle bad guys from perches before vanishing from view – though Mark of the Ninja this ain’t. Floor grates, rafters, and ledges restrict Batman's assortment of takedowns.
Still, Batman cannot interact with most doors, walls, switches, or clues before you drag a finger around the Vita’s touch screen and scan them. Scanning works remarkably well in the early hours without feeling invasive. Then Batman obtains the explosive gel, at which point I could not go two minutes without deciphering destructible walls or pipes.
Really? They really can't see Batman?
It is impossible to iterate, then, how the game slowly goes to pieces. The developers do not respect your time. Although Blackgate wraps up in six hours, twice I expected it to end prematurely, only to be pulled back in for further fetch-questing. After Batman immobilizes his three primary antagonists, he must prowl migraine-inducing environments again, disarm five bombs, and finish off a final boss.
Coming across bosses unprepared is a one-way ticket to the afterlife, though these confrontations twist Blackgate’s mechanics into unique one-off duels. Batman dodges sniper rounds from the angle of Deadshot’s scope; Black Mask’s defeat plays out like a puzzle, as you ring bells and break lights to trick him into a takedown position; and Penguin’s exhibition of trial-and-error stealth is a game of cat and mouse, where gun-toting cronies inflict serious injury if they spot you. Armor upgrades temper any difficulties you might have, provided you collect them, except I never felt a tangible payoff for straying from the critical path.
Too much investment, not enough payoff: a sentence that mimics my sentiments exactly. Blackgate should have been an excellent companion app for Arkham Origins on consoles, but the story treads tired territory, and the gameplay irritates more than it entertains. Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate is a mouthful and, on portable systems, a disappointing handful.
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Armature Studio
Release Date: October 25, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: PS Vita (Reviewed), Nintendo 3DS