I remember the day that Batman: Arkham Origins was first announced. I was excited to read that a new entry in the series was being developed, but prudent when I read that it would be developed by a studio other than Rocksteady. While everyone was busy complaining about that, I noticed another announcement that was made alongside the console game. For the first time in the Arkham franchise history, a title was being developed for handheld gaming consoles. Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate was set to release on the Nintendo 3DS and the Playstation Vita, and was being developed by Armature Studio. I was more excited for the handheld version than the console title. The same people that made Metroid Prime were making a Batman game in the 2D style of Metroid?! Yeah, I’m in.
October 25, 2013, the game is released and I am ecstatic. I don’t even buy the console game. I just want to play Batman on my Vita. The first night that I sat down and started exploring this world, I immediately noticed that it felt like Batman. The combat that I had come to love on the previous Rocksteady titles was right here in my hands on the Vita. That is something that this game does well; they get how to bring the Arkham combat into a 2D playing field. Throughout the entire game, every enemy encounter is rhythmically executed much like the titles’ console counterparts. Batman’s arsenal of gadgets and weapons allow you to flow into and out of combos, and give you a variety on how you fight. The only negative thing about combat is how little there actually is. Once you clear an area of the very few thugs that inhabit it, they are gone for good. No others will appear later on, and eventually you have a giant empty prison to run free inside of. All that remains are the boss battles once low-level enemies have been taken out.
Additionally, the combat that occurs when fighting a boss feels unique to each villain. The developers were even thinking inside of the characters when designing each boss battle. The Joker, for example, uses cheap techniques like a stun baton as he chases you in a circle and forces you to use the Line Launcher in order to get behind him for the strike, whereas Deadshot shoots at you through his scope and you must dodge his fire from his point of view. The folks at Armature not only understand how to stay true to the series’ combat, but how to pay respect to these iconic comic book characters and pull from the source in inventive and refreshing ways.
Because this game is the first in the series’ history to take place on a 2D plane, the developers had the challenge of incorporating Batman’s traversal through Blackgate Prison differently than a full 3D game would. While his Grappling Gun gets him to out of reach ledges and he auto-climbs as you approach lower climbing points, navigating Blackgate often feels awkward. Something as simple as crouching to enter a ventilation shaft is made difficult by restrictions put in place. You should be able to crouch, walk, and enter, but here Batman must stand next to the vent and the player must hold the crouch button until an animation cycle rolls that puts Batman inside of the shaft. It might not sound like a problem, but when you are exploring the world and trying to backtrack for collectibles, it really slows down the flow of play.
If you can get past the few seconds of time it takes whenever you try to enter a vent, I wish you luck trying to make your way around the world. Hopefully your memory is great and you won’t need to rely on the map to navigate the halls of Blackgate. This game has one of the worst maps I have ever seen in a video game. While gameplay takes place on a 2D field, the map is top down. While you are running to the right, the map indicates that you are heading North. Another section finds you running left, and you are again heading North. No matter what floor you are on, the map stays the same. When trying to pinpoint just where a secret is, you’ll spend fifteen to thirty minutes checking each floor for a breakable wall. While the map might make sense for the way the levels are designed, it most certainly would have benefitted from a separate floor layout. The game encourages you to collect new pieces to different Batsuits, as well as upgrades to your armor and weapons, yet the map prevents you from easily finding most of them.
One of the strongest aspects of this game are the collectibles. For the first time since the series began, alternate Batsuits have meaning. Some will increase the rate of your health regeneration while another reduces the amount of damage that you take. In addition to Batsuits, the game hides away armor upgrades and Rush upgrades, the latter will help you deal more damage on successive enemies when your health is full. Besides the usable collectibles, there are also Detective Cases which will have you circling around the same areas. In order to complete a case, you must find all of the clues within each one. Finding these clues can only be done when holding down on the screen to scan the area, and not all of them are as easy to notice. Sometimes you have to find a ripped shirt or a body, but others might be a USB drive or a few bullet casings. Combined with the map, you’ll spend a good deal of time hunting down every piece of evidence if you truly wish to.
The game’s story doesn’t take too many bold steps, and I desperately missed Paul Dini’s writing here. Aside from a few teases that Amanda Waller is recruiting the Suicide Squad, you can easily watch something else in the background and not miss anything. However, if you aren’t paying attention you will miss the voice acting, notably from Batman and the Joker. Roger Craig Smith adds his own nuances to Batman while still sounding a lot like Kevin Conroy, while Troy Baker gives us a twisted Mark Hamill with bits of his own flavor tossed into his performance. Both stood out to me and it’s a shame that there wasn’t more of them throughout the title. The story is presented in an awkward mix of motion comics and in-engine cut scenes, that should have picked one route or another.
For a game on a handheld with limited hardware power and capability, Arkham Origins Blackgate looks pretty decent. The backgrounds are dull and repetitive but the character models look sharp for the handheld. Again, none of this is ideal or the best, with plenty of aliasing occurring but for what hardware the developer worked with, the game doesn’t look all that bad. I’m unsure if I can attribute the faults to the handheld or not, but there were several times throughout playing this game where I had to reload form the previous checkpoint in order to save myself from being trapped within the walls of the game.
Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate is everything that it needs to be but nothing more. The developers understand the character and his villains and it shows in the way that each one is animated and how they interact. Even more, they understand the formula for making a game in the style of 2D Metroid games. This game has the same feeling as a great 2D Metroid, where you can start in any one of the three sections of the prison and work your way around until you’ve hit a wall and must backtrack for a particular gadget. You can even play the bosses in any order that you pleased, and it’s actually required to replay in a different order if you want to obtain every Batsuit in the game. While the game is more than serviceable, it just doesn’t know who it wants to be and that really hurts the overall product. If they had gone full Metroid while using Batman as a basis, this game could have been so much more. Instead we get a jumbled approach that pulls from several different directions and never forms an identity of its own. A weak story combined with a horrid map is not saved by scarce combat and some broken sections.
I think Armature had a good first start in the world of the Dark Knight, and I don’t want them to stop. They do a lot of really great things with the character and the Metroid style of game here. If they could heavily improve on the map, add more enemy encounters, and fix some of the bugs that made it past testing: they could have a great game. I think that Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate is a recommendation for Batman fans and those of the Arkham series, as well as fans of the Metroidvania sub genre of gaming. The game has problems, but for a 9 to 10 hour experience, its fairly enjoyable.