Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate is the latest entry in the Batman Arkham series and serves as a sequel in storyline to the simultaneously released Batman: Arkham Origins. Unlike the console instalments, Blackgate is a 2.5D Metroidvania, but it does use many of the trademark elements from the Arkham series, such as the free-flowing combat, breakable grates and walls as well as glide kicks and detective mode.
The story is set after the events of Origins, but doesn’t spoil anything except ‘Batman wins’ and the subsequent incarceration of several of his arch-enemies; Black Mask, Joker and the Penguin all return in the story, which is very much like the other Arkham games and, in particular, Arkham Asylum. A bunch of criminals take over a prison and Batman has to save the day. In the introductory chapter of the game, Batman first meets Catwoman, who guides him to his objectives and helps him get his high-tech equipment which he had hidden in WayneTech crates littered throughout the prison for a reason the apathetic narrative does not clarify. In contrast to Arkham Asylum (the only of the console games which I have thoroughly played) Batman’s adventure does not feel grand or epic; it’s just another day in Batman’s life where he fights crime. While there is not much wrong with this story concept except for a slight lack of originality, Blackgate neglects the narrative and only occasionally inserts a cutscene to advance the story. This did not motivate me to play the game, as the objectives provided in the game are usually nothing more than that: dull targets such as ‘get to the elevator’, which are devoid of greater context. It does get better near the ending, though.
This turns Blackgate into a more run-of-the-mill experience. While many elements are similar to the other Arkham games, Blackgate is bad at hiding that it’s just a generic Metroidvania. The player has to navigate through three different sections of the Blackgate prison, each controlled by a different villain. The game allows you to start in the area of your choice, but before finishing an area the game forces you to explore another section at least partially; they are not self-contained, and gadgets acquired in one section are necessary to progress in another area. This causes a lot of travelling, and the problem here is that the prison is fairly empty and a large portion of game time is spent merely wandering around. Enemies do not respawn (except in one part of the game, but I’m fairly sure that was a glitch) so the time spent backtracking is largely just that, backtracking. It is a problem which gradually started to influence my enjoyment of the game, starting out to be relatively non-existent but as I progressed it became my biggest issue with Blackgate. It really affects the pacing for the worse.
That said, when exploring a newly found area, the game is very enjoyable, as the Metroidvania formula hasn’t been tinkered with too much. The puzzles are diverting and make great use of Batman’s detective vision and his scanner, which is very usable thanks to the Vita’s main screen coincidentally also being a touch screen. Regular objects turn out to hold clues and provide access to areas containing secrets and upgrades to weapons or armour.
The combat is engrossing, too. It is probably the best way in which the Arkham games’ combat could have been ported to a 2.5D game; the button commands are the same, and the combat flows similarly well. The only thing different is that it is in 2D, and enemies can only approach you from two sides. That does not stop them from hopping into the background and circling around you, however. There is also ample variety in the enemy types. Blackgate throws your standard, fist-fighting goons at you, but also prisoners armed with flamethrowers, machine guns and electrical weapons which can do nasty damage. Furthermore, I found that the timing required for regular brawling was not an issue, but some boss fights required cat-like reflexes almost to the point of frustration.
I feel generally positive about the visuals of the game, too. Being a 3DS and a Vita title, I was worried the Vita version would be compromised due to the power gap between the two systems. However, my fear has not come true, as the game looks very sharp. Close up, the textures can look rough, but the nicely animated cutscenes, with a hand drawn look to them, make up for that. They are in comic book-like style and further perpetuate the feeling that you really are Batman, one of the world’s most skilled and richest detectives. The creators of Blackgate really put a lot of effort into the camera angles, too. They often shift when you walk around a corner or perform a certain action, such as using the zip line or crawl in an air vent, where the camera shifts to an over the shoulder look and a zoom from the side, respectively. It is quite an achievement to dress up a two-dimensional game as a three-dimensional one, for which I applaud Armature studios’ employees. A big problem which arises from this visual perspective, though, is that the map is very, very hard to use. The changes in perspective aren’t accurately displayed on the map and all the areas in the prison look similarly dark and drab, with the exception being some parts of the Joker’s Administration building. This makes it very easy to get lost and can become very frustrating after a while because the poorly designed map complicates the backtracking.
The map might be unusable, but the voice acting is excellent, not too serious, but not over the top, either. Especially Grey DeLisle as Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman) shows off her talent, managing to perfectly bring across Catwoman’s teasing nature. The music is not that great, sadly. It is too soft and feels absent most of the time, while also being extremely repetitive. It does fit the murky mood of the game, though.
In conclusion, Batman Arkham Origins Blackgate contains both the good and the bad parts of the Metroidvania genre. The combat is smooth, the puzzles are fun but the backtracking and the map cause pacing issues and become irritating after a while. The game does not drag on long enough to let it become completely overpowered by its design flaws, though, and still manages to be an enjoyable experience.