Whenever a company comes out and says they're making a game like Metroid, I get a little apprehensive. There's a lot of nuance in making a title like that, good level design being paramount. Hearing that this year's Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate was going to be Metroid inspired gave me a warm tingly feeling inside, since the excellent Arkham Asylum and Arkham City were like big 3D Metroid-inspired playgrounds. Seeing that Blackgate was also going to be 2.5D gave me a moment of pause, because some of the best in the genre, like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Shadow Complex were exclusively 2D affairs. But hey, how much could trouble could that extra half dimension cause? In the case of Blackgate, a surprising amount.
There's quite a bit I didn't like about Blackgate. Well, let's get the plot out of the way first. Basically this is a follow-up to the console versions of Batman: Arkham Origins, so playing them out of order might spoil a thing or two, but overall the story stands alone, with Catwoman getting herself on to Batman's radar and bringing him back to Blackgate Prison where The Joker, The Penguin, and Black Mask have taken over the prison and are holding hostages. One cool detail here is that the story alters depending on the order in which you take down the three main bosses, and you can take different paths by using the game's 'New Game Plus' feature that carries over the Batsuits you can unlock, and the case files that you uncover by finding objects in the game's signature 'Detective Mode.'
That's pretty much all that I have to say in terms of positives, because it's all downhill from here I'm afraid. Where to start though? Well, this game is a pretty big letdown in terms of graphics. I think this is one of those instances where the developers at Armature got saddled with assets from the current-gen visuals and had to scale them down to work with the Vita. Unfortunately 'realistic' models simply don't work on the Vita, it's just a matter of texture detail, and it's really obvious during the slowdown that occurs when taking out enemies, you see some really hideous textures here. The main villains and Bats himself aren't too shabby looking, but it would have been nice if something stylized had been done, like the comic-book styled cut-scenes that play throughout the game at key plot points. The visuals of Blackgate itself are pretty bland, with a lot of dark textures that say 'don't look over here.' The soundtrack is pretty forgettable, with nothing standing out aside from the excellent voicework, but even that gets to be grating during the boss fights. Especially against The Penguin, who rattles off the same four lines of dialog. If anything they made me impatient to complete the fight because I just got sick of hearing them.
The gameplay of Blackgate follows the Metroid formula of explore, find something you can't get past, and then find the item or items that allows you to progress. Although that's a rough and dirty breakdown, it's kind of how things go down in Blackgate, which is to say that it feels like they missed the point. Games of this genre typically have a linear progression path early on to lead them to a certain point and then things kind of branch out from there, in Blackgate that doesn't seem to be the case at all. In fact, if you don't know the path you're supposed to take here, then get ready to start wandering around for quite a while. Once you find the location you're supposed to reach, then things kind of clean up, mainly because at that point you've reached the boss of one of the three major areas that make up the prison. To reach each of the bosses, you'll be required to find an item that is located in another area, so the item you find in Penguin's portion of the prison will grant you access to Black Mask's boss location and so on.
The map system and level design don't help matters in the slightest. Being a 2.5D game I thought this meant that you'd be on a 2D plane, with 3D visuals. Instead Blackgate rotates on a regular basis, meaning it's not uncommon for you to reach a corner, and find that you're going to move perpendicular to where you have been going. The map system in turn does a rather poor job of conveying this information to you, because it only maps you out on a 2D plane and doesn't really account for the height of a given area. Instead the maps are more of a 'top-down view,' giving you a very disorienting visual representation of where you are. This got to be absolutely maddening when I was on the hunt for some of the hidden items that are necessary if you want to stand a fighting chance against some of the game's cheap enemies.
Combat plays out just like Blackgate's console big brothers, but it doesn't quite work as well as it does on console. Attacking an enemy will move Batman to wherever the enemy is, this is all well and good, except enemies can move on a 3D plane, and if two enemies happen to be next to each other this can cause Batman to whiff attacks, which also breaks your combo. In order to cope with the lack of leveling and experience system, the devs decided that some enemies could only be attacked in a specific way (ie. Using the bat-cape stun, or jumping over them), this is fine for hand to hand enemies, but for enemies with more firepower than you, this becomes a bit problematic.
Encountering enemies with guns isn't terribly common but when you do run in to them, it's typically in an area where you can't prowl around and use stealth to your advantage, which seems to run counter to what Batman is all about. Early on the enemies with guns can easily fill you full of holes, dragging you back to the previous checkpoint. By the time you encounter Penguin's thugs with more powerful weaponry you'll be dreading the next time you need to face them. I'm going to give a little pro-tip here, you need to use the batclaw to rip their backpacks off to incapacitate them. It took me way too long to figure that out, and here's why, by using Detective Mode and examining them, you're told that you can rip the ammo pack off their back, but the first time I tried to do this, they just shrugged it off. This had the immediate effect of telling me that you can't actually do what the game tells you to. And the first time you encounter these guys, it's in a boss battle, so there's more than one, which doesn't give you a whole lot of room to experiment. It's also extremely contextual, you can only rip the backpack off when they have their back turned to you, and haven't noticed you. If you've been spotted, then it's either eat the bullets, or run away, and considering how much damage these guys do, odds are you're checking out the game over screen.
The boss fights are a maddening game of trial and error. Black Mask in particular was infuriating because if you screw up, it's an instant death. Granted once you figure it out, it's easy, but that initial first step requires that you be punished until you get it right? That is hardly what I'd call fun. But the other fights are tough in their own ways, Penguin's required a bit more stealth than the game really provides you with, and the Joker fight was another guessing game, and you'll have to contend with lethal Joker gas during the final portions of the fight. The final boss fight of the game seemed to have no discernible pattern to it, which made it feel like a big guessing game with really crappy consequences if you failed.
It's not bad enough that this game fails to ape the Metroid formula, it's also incredibly buggy. There are times where I'm utterly amazed at the type of bugs that occur in this game. In one instance I'm able to get the camera to flip around, which causes the controls to become reversed and the visuals to be messed up. There are also some instances where the button to trigger the batclaw grapple that allows you to access areas simply doesn't work, because you entered that particular portion of the prison from the right instead of left. How does that even work?
I was really hoping that Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate would live up to the potential that comes from being inspired by Metroid. Instead it's a confusing mess of a game that's riddled with bugs, it's visually uninspiring, and becomes a chore to play due to its poor level design that allows you to wander aimlessly. It's not very often that a game fails on every aspect of its design, but this is one of those rare instances where I couldn't find anything that could redeem this title. Consider this a warning, and stay away, even a rental from one of the various services would be better spent on something else.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
I recently cleared the 10 year club with Gaming Nexus. Kind of surprised I've been a mainstay here for a little over a decade now.
In a past life I worked with Interplay, EA, Harmonix, Konami, and a number of other developers and have recently returned from a job in Texas doing production work for a company that did cell phone games. Now I'm working for a record label, along with Gaming Nexus, and anywhere else that sees fit to employ me.