It was clear years ago that Batman’s methods of crime fighting don’t work at all. He’s been gut-punching the same villains and thugs for years, but no sooner does he lock them up do they escape and return to their wicked ways; lather, rinse, repeat, for the better part of a century. In Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate, the portable companion piece to this year’s home game Batman: Arkham Origins, the villains don’t even escape. Instead, they take over the Blackgate correctional facility in which they have been incarcerated. It’s Batman’s job to, with the help of Catwoman, make sure his wild-eyed nemeses, um, stay where they are and slightly improve their behavior. The solution involves Batarangs.
It’s impossible to talk about Blackgate without noting its place in the hierarchy of Batman games because that history has shaped this game in conflicted, uneven ways. For example it is, as previously noted, a companion to Batman: Arkham Origins. It’s also a direct storyline follow-up to that game, but can’t really reference that fact because, hey, spoilers. So it instead paints a milquetoast, low detail Batman story. The prison has been overtaken! Something shady is going on! But that’s just another night in Gotham City, and these are events that are pretty easy to ignore.
It’s more constructive to go back a little further. This is the fourth game in the Batman: Arkham series, a highly regarded run of Batman simulators with a few trademark characteristics. These are games that let you stalk criminals in a variety of ways and let you explore every nook and cranny of an open world with a utility belt’s worth of gadgets. They also have a bare-knuckled fighting style that is so visceral, it makes your teeth hurt (in a good way).
Blackgate had to replicate most of these things to fit into the oeuvre, it seems, though it did get to tinker with one major part of the formula. The large open-worlds of previous incarnations have been replaced with a two-dimensional space that is explored in the four cardinal directions. This does nothing to diminish the joy of experiencing Batman’s world—Blackgate prison is a ramshackle place, and it’s enjoyable to go urban spelunking in it. And since the prison only sprawls out primarily to the left and right, it’s a bit easier to get your bearings if you’re playing this in quick bursts in buses and on the toilet.
But this one good change plays poorly with the series’ other trademarks that seem to only exist in Blackgate to fit some predetermined mold. The stealth and stalking aspects are particularly compromised. Where in earlier games you could easily take out a goon from behind and then hide in clearly delineated shadows, in Blackgate it’s rarely clear that you’re hiding at all. There are few corners to skulk in when you’re in a two-dimensional world, and the thugs scouting for you often need only look up, which they do. The street fighting, which is simplified but still a hard-hitting dance of acrobatic judo counters and knockout blows, accidentally injures the game technically. Because these battles require Batman to be surrounded by bad guys, this 2D game has to be at least a little bit 3D so Batman is not just hitting the thugs directly to his left and right. The camera is pulled out and skewed slightly, giving the fights a great look but introducing perspective problems and visual illusions that torque the brain. One time, I thought I was trapped in an area because I did not realize I needed to enter a vent that appeared too small to fit around Batman’s broad, sculpted shoulders. This sort of thing doesn’t happen that often, but it happened enough to make me question whether I was understanding all the necessary visual information the whole time.
There are other small issues, enough so that while the game doesn’t die from a thousand cuts, it’s definitely lightheaded and could use a cookie. The map, which is essential to figuring out where to go early on, has trouble flattening Blackgate’s strange simultaneously 2D and 3D world into something understandable at a glance. The primary boss fights against Black Mask, Penguin, and The Joker can be taken on in any order, but are frustrating walls to be splattered against, over and over, until understanding and reflex are combined into the exact pattern the game demands. And the end of the game gets buggy. There were two times where I used Bat-gadgets to get to places I apparently shouldn’t have been, necessitating a restart from an earlier checkpoint.
But despite all the little complaints, Blackgate is, on balance, slightly more good than bad. Most of your time is spent exploring and brawling, and these two parts have been, for the most part, successfully wrought. It’s easy to forget sometimes that being frustrated by a hiccup that halts progression means the game is making you want to progress, and there is reason to progress in Blackgate. It’s an uneven popcorn game; the flaws are visible, but the ride is enjoyable if unessential. After all, Batman will always come back, the villains will always get free, and the Batarang throwing will continue year in and year out. If you wanted to check in later instead, it would be hard to argue that you missed anything.