The Caped Crusader swoops onto handhelds
The core Arkham series on home consoles may be going through something of a transition.This is due to development duties being switched from Rocksteady to WB Montreal, and the slight hiccup of Arkham Origins leaves the door open for this portable incarnation of the Dark Knight’s escapades to be the year’s best.
Developed by Armature Studios, who can boast ex-Rare staff such as Mark Pacini, the potential is there. With Pacini’s work as Director of the Metroid Prime series, the minds behind the game’s creation are well briefed in the Metroidvania approach to progression.
Blackgate hinges on this design; not just because of the pre-existing Arkham staple of unlocking new areas with acquired equipment and upgrades, but also because this is in essence a 2D game in the map-centric Metroid mould.
It’s 2.5D if you want to quibble, but the decimal point is all about perspective rather than gameplay, cinematically skewing your view and sweeping the camera for variation.
You can head into and out of the screen (with some occasionally picky contextual prompts) at various points, but your movement remains tethered to a limited plane, much like Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate.
Blackgate is far more dynamic than the aforementioned Vampire slayer though, thanks to the labyrinthine nature of the level design. Multiple paths cross over one another, creating a rabbit warren of holes in walls and vents to crawl through, all opened up with the same gadgetry we’ve come to know Batman will be kitted out with - the Batclaw, Explosive Gel etc.
Vita Utility BeltThe story - which takes place after Origins and seems independent - sees you team up with Catwoman to bring order to Blackgate prison, which has been taken over by The Joker, Black Mask and The Penguin. Each arch villain has his own domain in the penitentiary, and these make up the three distinct areas of the map open for you to explore at will in any order you so choose; the order you take down the bosses will effect which of the three endings you get.
The game does a fantastic job of recreating not only the look and feel of its console antecedents - it’s similarly dark, brooding and especially impressive for a handheld, with the same standard of voice acting - but also the controls; the transition for someone who’s played any of the other Arkham titles should be nigh on seamless. There are also some nice Vita-specific touches thrown in and - shock horror - they don’t feel gimmicky. To access Detective Mode - whereby Batman can view objects and people of interest within the environment - you tap the screen. Then to actually scan you just hold your finger over the object to initiate analysis.
There are also some nice Vita-specific touches thrown in and - shock horror - they don’t feel gimmicky
There’s the usual issue of obscuring your view during the process of touch integration, but it becomes second nature very quickly. If you’re interested in discovering all the non-essential equipment upgrades and hidden collectibles that litter Blackgate you’ll quickly become adept at walking a few paces into a new area followed by a zig-zag sweep of a digit over the screen to check for booty.
The other Vita feature integrated is the motion sensor. This is used when hacking doors with the Crypto Sequencer. The task of lining up numbers isn’t greatly enhanced by switching navigation to motion, but it’s a nifty addition that helps the techy nature of Sony’s handheld seem remarkably apt for a gadget-centric Batman outing.
Mapman?In terms of visuals, audio and replicating the staples of the Arkham series the game is certainly impressive, but there are some problems, and the primary one is tied in to the game’s greatest asset, its onus on exploration.
The 2.5D approach makes the setting feel larger and more expansive than it really is. If it were laid out in a linear 2D fashion it’d be fairly mundane, so the sleight of hand is to be applauded. But recreating what is essentially a 2D experience, supplemented and twisted into 2.5D, and then representing that with a 2D map without distinct layers or detail causes headaches. The game relies on a hefty degree of backtracking - with part of the final act devoted to it, in a shallow effort to elongate the experience - so a lack of clarity in navigation is problematic.
If anything, the map could be your greatest enemy, because the goons aren’t exactly deadly. Combat remains the same, but your enemies don’t tend to appear in numbers that could outmuscle or outmanoeuvre you - due to them not being able to attack from any direction - and the weapon-carrying variants are fairly rare. Disappointingly, the path to stealth takedowns is usually extremely well signposted, undermining any satisfaction you may get from that expertly executed swoop and chokehold. You just don’t get that feeling of empowerment and being the silent aggressor - watching from the shadows as your prey panic whilst their numbers are being whittled down one by one - that the other titles have instilled.
Boss fights offer a touch more invention, but it’s hard to create a big spectacle in a 2.5D game; Blackgate does well in this respect, with a couple of the encounters working extremely well, but you’re always in danger of the camera being as much of a foe as the villain you’re facing.
The scrimping on enemies and relatively low number of large arenas to tackle goons in only emphasises this game’s core, that Metroidvania map unlocking exploration, and when it gets it right it’s absolutely stellar. Yes, it relies heavily on destructible walls, but few titles offer the same sense of elation as when you’ve discovered how to get to that pesky question mark highlighted on your map; it might be a boring detective case clue, but it might also be a piece of one of the unlockable batsuits.
It’s only a pity that the game isn’t longer, with more areas to explore, as all but absolute completionists will be able to pick up most items, poke around the map a fair bit, and finish the story (what little there is) in under ten hours. The lure of multiple endings isn't really sufficient to drive you on, as they hinge on which boss you tackle last rather than any real fluidity of decision making.
The Dark Knight
- Metroidvania map unlocking
- Fitting art direction
- Nice use of Vita features
- Arkham Origins voice actors
Batman & Robin
- Lack of taxing combat
- Minimal stealth
- Map can be confusing
Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate Vita ReviewBlackgate represents a dynamic approach to level design and an interesting addition to the Arkham series. Its tortuous map belies the core of often simplistic corridors that lay underneath, but this is ultimately to the benefit of the game, even if it means you’ll get stuck occasionally.
The combat and stealth that underpin its home console siblings are far weaker here, however the emphasis is shifted towards exploration, making this a Batman adventure based on navigation rather than confrontation.
It fits the Vita extremely well, thanks to some slick integration of the touch screen and motion sensor features, but sadly the slightly lightweight adventure is over far too soon.
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