Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate Review
When I heard that Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate would be a 2.5D adventure complete with many of the sweet abilities we enjoyed in the console iterations, I was excited. The PlayStation Vita could definitely use a top-quality title featuring the uber-popular superhero and besides, the fresh 2.5D perspective offers a very different style of gameplay. Ideally, it’d be a blend of old-school entertainment and current technology; it has been done well in the past. Sadly, while Blackgate can be fun, the repetition gets tiring and there are several glaring, disappointing design miscues that hinder one's enjoyment.
The visual presentation isn’t bad, but I found it too dark and largely uninspired. Perhaps the developers felt a little constricted operating within that pseudo-side-scrolling format, and the result is a game that seems oddly outdated. The character designs, which are a definite highlight in Arkham Origins for consoles, aren’t especially impressive in Blackgate. And just as I wasn’t a huge fan of the world design in this game’s bigger brother, I’m not enamored with the layout of the Vita/3DS effort, either. Still, there are some well-implemented encounters with iconic villains, and there is some appreciated environmental variety.
The sound could certainly be a lot better, as the music selection is somewhat bland and the effects are just a step above generic. It’s always tougher to gauge the audio of a portable production when you’re accustomed to console games, but I have heard superior sound in other Vita games. It’s not that the sound is poor or even mediocre; it simply lacks that dynamic appeal one would expect from a fast-paced, engaging superhero adventure. However, when the Caped Crusader surprises a hapless foe, you’re often treated to a rewarding – and fitting – set of effects. Those decent effects further complement hectic combat, and that’s a good thing.
Blackgate is a prequel to Arkham Asylum and is set after the events of Origins, so it can act as a worthwhile follow-up to the new Batman quest on consoles. You just have to be willing to put up with a few significant problems, such as a mostly worthless map, a throwaway story, and some control issues that pertain not to responsiveness but to the environment. If you’re okay with those drawbacks, you’ll probably get plenty of entertainment out of this handheld offering, even though it does start to feel repetitive and tiresome after a while. The key so the fun factor is Batman’s power and capability, which is abundantly clear.
The basic idea is that you’re working your way through Blackgate Prison, and three villains have each cornered a separate section of the prison. There’s Joker, the Penguin and Black Mask, and after a brief introductory sequence, you can decide which of the three sections you wish to tackle first. This gives the game a semblance of freedom that it desperately needs, as you sometimes feel a little claustrophobic in the close-quarters areas. Plus, as there’s quite a bit of backtracking involved, the player may get bored of his surroundings all too quickly. Hence, the freedom to go after the three villains in any order you choose is a blessing.
The other good bit of good news involves the combat. Although there are some issues with the perspective, in that Batman’s targeting of foes can be problematic, the core mechanic is solid. It’s fluid, accessible, and provided you’ve got decent reactions, countering isn’t too difficult. Even though you’re not hitting a ton of buttons in succession, you’re still in full control and Batman is consistently doling out large amounts of pain. This was a highlight of Origins as well and I’m happy that fighting and much of the stealth remains as dynamic and engaging as ever. You just have to get used to some 2.5D eccentricities, that’s all.
For instance, fights often occur on two different perspective planes and you can’t control which plane you’re targeting. Batman just nails the foe that’s closest to him and when facing tougher enemies that require more strategy, this drawback can be mucho frustrating. This leads me to the boss fights, which were a hang-up of mine when playing Origins. They’re a little better in Blackgate but only because puzzles are often a part of the encounter, and I enjoyed the extra mental challenge. However, they can be just as irritating because there are many instances where failure is common and the trial-and-error approach starts to grate. I normally don’t have a problem with trial-and-error, by the way.
The prison itself has plenty of secrets to find, and it helps that Catwoman is there to assist at the start. You can enter the always handy detective mode to spot enemies and other important elements of your environment, and to get the most out of the game, you’ll want to be on the lookout for secret rooms and other surprises. In some ways, I actually like the prison – despite its cramped nature – more than the open areas on Origins, mostly because the latter feel dry and lifeless. And because I’m a completionist by nature, I really like going slow and finding all sorts of hidden goodies in my surroundings; it immerses me further into any game.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to fully enjoy myself in this capacity because the map sucks. It doesn’t seem to give me any useful information and worse, it doesn’t really give you an accurate idea of your position in the prison. Sure, you can see where the game wants you to go and where you’re situated, but how to get there can be awfully tricky. This is doubly irritating because there are many objectives that require Batman to go far out of his way, just to activate a power switch or something. If you can’t rely on the map as a helpful guide, and it doesn’t really impart much in the way of critical information outside of the bare basics, then what’s the point?
I did like the adventure aspect of the game; i.e., finding tools and pieces of equipment that allow you to access different parts of the prison. I’ve always liked that mechanic, even if it does require some fetch quests. But again, I’m a little disappointed in the rewards; I put a lot of effort into getting to a certain room and too many times, I’m saying to myself— “This is all I get?” There are plenty of cool gadgets, though; it’s weird that Batman can’t actually jump but hey, that’s just an excuse to use another gadget (zip lines FTW)! In general, the gameplay feels repetitive and is marred with annoying shortcomings, but I can still appreciate the fun stuff.
Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate isn’t the top-tier AAA portable production I was hoping for. The map is borderline useless, the repetition and fetch quests get tiresome, the rewards for diligent exploration aren’t high, and that 2.5D perspective is definitely problematic in certain combat situations. Still, if you’re a big fan of the old-school side-scrolling style of game, and you’re a big Batman fan, you should give Blackgate a whirl. If you’re a completionist like me, you’ll like delving into every square inch of your environment, and the freedom to tackle each major villain whenever you see fit is a big bonus. It just lacks a coat of polish and there isn’t enough inventiveness, and that's what it desperately needed.
The Good: Interesting environment layout. Accessible, entertaining combat. Plenty of secrets to find. Appreciated freedom to attack each villain in turn. Love some of the gadgets and skills.
The Bad: Map sucks big time. Rewards don’t always match the expended effort. 2.5D is the root of some wonky combat. Ultimately quite repetitive and even tedious.
The Ugly: “Okay, so I’m here and that’s where I need to go…so why, why is it taking me so fu*&%^(* long to get there?!”
10/29/2013 Ben Dutka