From the moment Paul Dini (writer of Batman: the Animated Series, Batman Beyond, the previous Rocksteady Arkham games, etc.) was revealed to not be writing Batman: Arkham Knight, I worried it wouldn’t have a satisfying story. Sure, I don’t know exactly how much he contributed to the previous Arkham games or their key moments (Joker dying, for example – did I mention we’d be getting spoilery?), but I saw it as a sign in the vein of Edgar Wright citing ‘creative differences’ when explaining why he didn’t direct Ant-Man. That is to say, a bad one. At the time of this writing, Ant-Man has yet to be released in theaters, so the comparison may not hold as much water later down the line, but it’s sad to see a creator who did presumably great work for Rocksteady not be allowed to end the story he helped begin. Rocksteady didn’t even reach out to Paul Dini to see if he would like to write the game, but I digress. For the most part, Arkham Knight has an interesting enough story, but five components of the main campaign prevent it from being good. Here’s the breakdown:
The Arkham Knight’s Identity Reveal: IGN’s Dan Stapleton has already written a great article on this topic and why it represents both a story- and PR issue, but I wanted to add a question to the overall discussion: Why wasn’t the Arkham Knight Damian Wayne? Ignoring Rocksteady Producer Dax Ginn telling the press that the “Arkham Knight is a completely original character,” for fans familiar with the Batman canon, they already know who the Arkham Knight is. For those unfamiliar, they don’t. The distinction between these groups, however, is that you risk the former thinking the Arkham Knight being Jason Todd – the Robin killed by the Joker, brought back to life by Ra’s al Ghul’s Lazarus Pit, and who became the Red Hood, a character whose identity is unknown when we are introduced to him – is an unnecessary cop out. As mentioned in the IGN article, Dax Ginn’s comments were probably made when Rocksteady was past the point of no return in development, but they had to know when they chose Jason that the reveal had a high chance of disappointing fans, so why hinge player enjoyment on this “surprise” when they could’ve picked someone without the baggage of a mystery storyline? Being Bruce Wayne’s biological son, Damian Wayne has a huge chip on his shoulder (arguably bigger than Jason’s), and the death of his mother Talia as an indirect result of Batman refusing to lead the League of Assassins not only provides him with the motivation to kill Batman, it also gives him a connection to the name of Arkham already established in the Rocksteady games. As it was, we got Jason being brainwashed into hating Batman for replacing him, which wasn’t nearly as compelling as the way the Under the Red Hood film built up Jason’s love for Bruce to enhance the intense betrayal he feels for Batman not killing Joker.
The Arkham Knight Thereafter: The Arkham Knight’s identity seemed like a completely avoidable issue, but Rocksteady still had a chance to do justice to the character and the story they were telling. However, the Arkham Knight’s last appearance in the game showed this to be wishful thinking. After an anticlimactic showdown in which Jason tries to snipe you from various perches while you attempt to take him out from below, he saves Batman when he’s in the Scarecrow’s clutches, a bat symbol painted on his chest like it’s all hunky-dory. He’s basically the Winter Soldier from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, only without the developing self-doubt leading up to the moment where he saves Steve Rogers’ life. The Winter Soldier wasn’t given much opportunity to make the audience care about him, but at least the film’s writers gave him time to reflect on Steve knowing who he was. In Arkham Knight, though, we don’t see any of this. We don’t even get any denouement moment of him walking off-screen to figure out who he is. We just see him shoot Batman free, imply he’ll become the Red Hood through his costume choice, and that’s it. No, “I get it now, Batman. Wow, I was stupid, huh?” followed by Batman saying, “you crazy kid, you” while probably mussing up his hair. Also, we’re not told what he’s been doing all these years/how Joker made it look like he died/how he got away from Joker/why Batman wasn’t on him far before he came back to Gotham. Of course, that could be in the Red Hood DLC I haven’t played, but it seems remiss of them to be missing a chunk of their own storyline.
Super Villain Beatdown: To cite IGN (and Dax Ginn) again, last year the Producer said that “Scarecrow [would be] unifying the entire Rogues gallery…against Batman…a threat unlike any he’s faced before,” but after finishing the campaign, I found this to not actually be how the game presented itself. For one thing, it’s really only ever the Arkham Knight and Scarecrow you’re facing down, while Penguin, Two-Face, and even Harley Quinn never actively go after you. Penguin’s smuggling weapons, Two-Face is taking advantage of the lawless city to rob some banks, and Harley only enters the story to save the patients infected with Joker blood, to preserve the last remnants of her beloved Mister J. Playing the Harley Quinn DLC story pack after completing the campaign was just strange, as the purpose of the mission is to rescue Poison Ivy so she can decide whether to participate in Scarecrow’s plan to destroy Batman. As a result, both the game and Rocksteady’s PR hyped up a super villain team-up that never occurred. To address the second part of that quotation, the Scarecrow’s forces being “a threat unlike any he’s faced before,” it really doesn’t feel like you’ve been tested by any of Batman’s foes. Despite Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight’s continued overconfidence and boasts that “[Batman] can’t win,” you seem to be dismantling their operation at every turn. Of course, Barbara Gordon dying could be said to push Batman to the breaking point, but the scene where this happens progresses so quickly that it feels both mishandled and like they’re not committing to it (meaning she’s alive). It could be said that the psychological test Batman is put through is more important, anyway, but his conflict with the Joker is never again as emotionally resonant as in that scene where he almost beats a few militia soldiers to death, even when it seems like he’s won at the end of the game.
Too Much of a Good Thing: Videogames, as with any form of entertainment, offer up storytelling opportunities completely unique to the medium. A film or graphic novel could certainly depict Joker’s presence in Batman’s mind, but it wouldn’t be nearly as rewarding as any of the moments you’re gliding through the city and see a purple-suited figure standing or sitting on a rooftop. Sometimes he doesn’t even say anything. His mere appearance is enough. However, despite the interesting ways it pushes videogame storytelling, Batman: Arkham Knight proves that the line between keeping things fresh and using so many tricks that a game feels like a bunch of experiences jumbled together is paper thin. The misleading transition between Batman and Thomas Elliot as Bruce Wayne. The Agent Smith-esque army of Jokers. Individually, these experiences are awesome, but they contributed to the story not feeling like a whole (or maybe it was just residual pain from every other aspect of the narrative). Worst of all, though, is that seminal moments from Batman’s history seemed thrown in to enhance a narrative rife with clichéd and repetitive dialogue (primarily from the two main antagonists).
The Death of Batman: “This is how the Batman died,” Jim Gordon says at the beginning of the game. In the Batman universe, this always means various permutations of the same thing: Bruce Wayne is no longer going to be Batman at the end of the story. Bruce Wayne will not, however, die, because no. Christopher Nolan knows. And although Christopher Nolan has never made a video game, I’m sure he also knows that you shouldn’t require players to finish every side mission in order to access the true ending of a game, especially when you open with the promise that the Batman “dies.” Granted, Batman says it’s “for one more night,” but it takes the narrative tension away from Batman’s identity being revealed for him to just…continue to be Batman. In Arkham City, this was done more smartly. You wouldn’t get the conclusion to Riddler’s storyline if you didn’t find every trophy or solve every riddle, but the game felt done at the end. You got to see Joker die. With the reward of an Incomplete Knightfall Protocol after taking in only seven of Gotham’s Most Wanted, and the inclusion of Deathstroke as an interim boss while you’re waiting for the game to actually end, it’s like they were trying to pad what they realized was probably a tedious and disruptive gameplay experience. They even put Gordon’s foreboding line “This is how the Batman died” at the end of the Incomplete Knightfall sequence to “confirm” what just happened, remind you that a frame narrative is in play, and to be subverted by the pop-up telling you that the Complete Knightfall Protocol requires you to take out all of Gotham’s Most Wanted; doing so revealing all of what you already saw, along with the big gut punch ending everyone wanted. I understand they wanted to afford players the opportunity to finish the side missions if they so desired, in addition to them thinking Batman wouldn’t stop until his city was truly safe, but I would’ve preferred they just cut back to before Scarecrow’s brought in to explain your ability to do this, because for most gamers, the moment you put Scarecrow in lock-up after a very (again) anticlimactic confrontation, is the moment you’re done with the game. That is, until that awesome sounding Batgirl DLC comes out.
While my comments make it seem like I don’t think Arkham Knight is any good, I actually enjoyed the game quite a bit. I mean, they included the Batmobile, mid-combat character switches, and pushed the storytelling possible in videogames in unique and interesting ways. Credit where credit is due. Unfortunately, the way the PR moves prepared me for a very different narrative and Rocksteady’s execution of many aspects of the story they were trying to tell made me ready to finish the game far before it was over. Part of the problem was likely that they approached this as the end to the series, requiring a sense of finality while trying to tell the Batman story they originally envisioned (Christopher Nolan…). However, that doesn’t change the fact that the story had issues that almost tarnished the entire experience, something that not even the inclusion of the Batmobile can make up for.[Note: While I wasn’t opposed to the almost complete lack of physical boss fights in the game, the replacement of these experiences with Batmobile battles against boss tanks and a drill machine felt impersonal and monotonous. Yes, even the use of my beloved Batmobile wasn’t without its problems.]