Review: Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate (3DS)

Throw away the key

Being ambitious is no easy task. Playing a full, big-budget console game on a portable system is likely in every gamer’s wildest fantasies, but due to hardware limitations, we’re often left disappointed by half-hearted ports. Armature Studio, in its infinite wisdom, recognized this concern and chose to take this one in a different direction. Rather than attempting to squeeze Batman: Arkham Origins onto the 3DS, it has instead crafted a completely original game with different gameplay than the rest of the series and an entirely new plot. Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate is an optimistic new entry to the beloved series that does its best to stand on its own two feet, but the weight of those hefty combat boots is just a bit too much for it to handle.

Taking place shortly after the events of Arkham Origins, Blackgate attempts to bridge the story gap between Batman: Arkham Asylum and its recent prequel. Right from the get-go, Batman learns of a robbery that leads to his meeting the beautiful burglar Catwoman. As events quickly unfold, the temptress leads the Caped Crusader to Blackgate Prison, home of Gotham’s criminals who haven’t been deemed criminally insane and consequentially sent to the much more infamous Arkham Asylum. The villains already behind bars, the most nefarious being Penguin, Black Mask, and the Joker, have managed to escape from their bondage and take control of the joint. With the rest of the inmates at their employ, Batman has his work cut out in attempting to stop the complete takeover of the prison. The plot does well to stay true to its comic roots while not attempting to squeeze in too many divergent elements just to please the fans.

The map is broken up into three main sections of Blackgate prison, each of which is governed by a different chief villain. As you sneak and fight your way through each area seeking out the boss, you will pick up new gadgets along the way. Rather than having a proper upgrade system to hone your attacks and enhance your equipment, Blackgate instead opts for a much simpler system in which you find new gear that will eventually aid in your explorations as you traverse deeper and deeper into the labyrinthine prison. Because the game is set up this way rather than taking on more RPG elements, it tends to follow closely in the footsteps of traditional Metroidvania exploration games.

Combat in Blackgate draws much of its influence from the console games, but changes up the formula in an attempt to fit into its own 2.5 dimensional style. Side-scrolling combat has been a standard in countless games for years now, so it’s always surprising when a game manages to find a way to ruin a formula that was refined so long ago. The majority of combat consists of repeatedly tapping the Y button until you knock the opposing thugs out, and as you can imagine, that works just fine in its simplicity. It’s when you begin to add aspects such as countering, stunning, dodging, and combos – you know, anything that makes combat interesting – to the mix that the whole system falls apart.

In the console games you find yourself brawling in three-dimensional environments, so quickly moving between one enemy to another and delivering a swift boot to the face makes sense and flows smoothly. In Blackgate’s flat environments that only allow you to travel left or right, Batman’s movement is hindered, often sending him careening off in one direction or the other towards an already downed foe and ruining a steady combo. Countering and dodging is just as flaky, often targeting the wrong enemy when a group is attacking, leaving you open to a knifing from an opponent who should be rendered harmless by the Dark Knight’s combat skills. Dodging attacks and environmental hazards is done by double tapping B, but the controls are not nearly responsive enough to effectively evade in time. Even after figuring out the baffling timing to properly land a dodge, the game only recognized our actions about half of the time, often resulting in swift deaths or stepped on spikes at the hands of faulty mechanics.

Beyond the sluggish combat and finicky dodging, the other big gameplay feature here is the use of the 3DS touchscreen to scan environments. With a thumb firmly placed on the virtual button, the Circle Pad is used to navigate the top screen and locate objects hidden within the environments. Found objects range from electrical mechanisms that need to be turned on in order to open a new passage to hidden clues that, when all are found, unlock bits of concept art and new costumes. Scanning the locales is a unique mechanic that helps place more emphasis on Batman's detective skills rather than his punching skills, but after a while it can start to wear thin.

Rather than simply being used to uncover hidden objects or clues, you'll actually find yourself scanning the environment just to detect locked doors that are obviously standing in your way. By the time you realize that you're practically scanning each new screen and room that you walk into, the charm has already worn off and has been replaced with boredom and frustration. Including the scanner as a necessary mechanic would have been wonderful had it been limited to certain rooms or situations, but forcing it on players to uncover the most obvious of objectives is insulting to his or her intelligence and a waste of time. It wouldn't be far off to describe this as vastly too much of a good thing.

As mentioned before, the plot is fitting with its comic origins, but the way in which it's presented is easily one of the most polished and impressive aspects of the game. Rather than using fully animated cinematic sequences featuring in-game models, an approach that surely would have taken a visual hit due to hardware limitations, Blackgate instead opts for fully voiced motion comics. For those unfamiliar, a motion comic is a medium of storytelling that blends the static style of comics with animated elements to give life to the otherwise still images. Using motion comics rather than CGI scenes allows the plot to unfold in a captivating way that feels like a natural fit with the desolate comic books aesthetic. The voice acting and dark soundtrack also help to bring the story to life, each contributing to setting the appropriate mood.

The character models in game are detailed and animated well, but the environments that they’re placed in all look drab and overly similar. Obviously too much appeal couldn’t be put into the environments – it is a prison, after all – but the similar settings get repetitive after a while, and all of the hallways begin to look the same. As a game based on exploration, this is never a good sign as it makes traversing new areas completely dull. Fortunately, the console’s 3D effect does add a sense of location to where Batman stands in the midst of all this, and some of the environments, though motion is still limited to two dimensions, look gorgeous with a little extra depth. Overall, the environments look good for what they are, but they don’t do anything to really stand out as technically or artistically impressive.

The campaign can be played through in around seven hours, or a little longer for those insistent on collecting all of the hidden objects and unlocking concept art and costumes. Once the story is over and everything has been collected, there’s not much to return for. The lack of an open world and character customization ensure that there is little to no replayability to be found here. Only obsessive collectors and speed-runners will have any reason to return to Blackgate once its doors are sealed.

Conclusion

Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate is a game that is brimming with great ideas that are, sadly, poorly executed. As a detective and crime fighter, it makes sense to have Batman star in a game that insists on exploration and backtracking. Regardless of how fitting the subject matter may be, as a Metroidvania title, this one tends to fall flat on some of the more crucial elements. Exploring the prison’s different locations using Batman’s array of gadgets makes sense and works well conceptually, but when you mix in the troublesome combat, unresponsive controls and repetitive environments, the combination becomes a bit batty. The cast of classic characters and original story might draw in fans of the Caped Crusader, but the glaring gameplay flaws simply can’t be ignored.