Batman is dead.
Despite this, he looms over the lives of his protégés. He only chose those he trusted, those who could endure the darkness he dealt with and, even posthumously, represents. It is these protégés, the so-called Bat Family — Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, and Red Hood — that take center stage in WB Games Montréal’s Gotham Knights. All are haunted by the death of their mentor and father figure. Throughout this third-person open-world adventure, players switch between any of the four prior to a mission, battling old enemies — and one new one — of the Dark Knight. While the game does a lot right, there is also a lot that holds it back from realizing its full heroic potential.
After setting up a base of operations in the famous Belfry tower along with Alfred, the Bat Family has to get on with the business of monitoring everyone’s favorite plagued city, Gotham. Though, to the public, Bruce Wayne is dead, only a few realize this means Batman, too. And when villains begin finding out, old enemies pour back in, like the Dark Knight was a blockage keeping out such villainy. It was interesting seeing Batman’s enemies discover his death: Harley Quinn’s face conveyed genuine sadness for a few seconds, Clayface’s showed disbelief, and so on.
From the base of operations during the day, the Bat Family prepares for a night of patrol. You can research and craft new suits and weapons, engage in banter and cute cutscenes with your Bat Family, and discover more about the person behind the mask in this beautifully realized old clock tower. Sunlight pours through dust, video games sit waiting to be played, a small gym waits covered in sweat behind a detective board that grows as you progress with each case.
While on patrol, the whole of Gotham is open to explore. Crimes are being committed constantly while others can be prevented by collecting clues from defeated enemies — this evidence can only be collated upon returning to the Belfry. Also, our heroes don’t automatically heal: while you do have some restoration points while on patrol (and enemies sometimes drop health), you are forced to return if you run out. I quite liked this, as it made me feel like I really was on patrol as a powerful but nevertheless mortal hero.
While a lot of crimes are procedural and repeat, these are only side activities. However, sometimes you will be required, for the main plot, to partake in stopping a bank robbery or preventing a prisoner escape (these all repeat around the city) in the open world.
The game is split between the main case file — Batman’s last but incomplete case — and two or three others concerning bigger villains, like Harley Quinn. You can switch between these at any time. While a lot of these occur in the open world itself, others are set in their own enclosed stages. Indeed, what I liked about this world and this Gotham was how many interiors I could navigate — all beautifully detailed with gorgeous lighting and sound design. From the Iceberg Lounge to Arkham Asylum, luxury hotels to Blackgate Penitentiary: all are fully realized and designed. In contrast, I found the open world to be quite monotonous, unable to really work out which district I was in from sight alone. However, I did appreciate seeing citizens on the streets making snarky remarks about vigilantes. And once you’re on the ground, you do see some distinctions between, for example, rich and poor areas, commercial and more residential.
There is little doubt of the influence of the Arkham series
Gotham Knights is set in its own universe, completely separate from Rocksteady’s Arkham series. However, there is little doubt of the influence Rocksteady’s series has with Knights’ fighting mechanics: a single hero surrounded by multiple goons using abilities and movement mechanics to deal and avoid damage. Further, grappling and glide abilities also look and feel similar to those in the Arkham series. Fighting and traversing are the two things you’ll be doing most in the game.
It’s a pity, then, that because of the game’s terrible frame rate, the fighting was often a chore to play.
I was unpleasantly surprised to discover that the game ran at 30 frames on Xbox Series X, and even then, it felt like less. Proper performance reviews will no doubt give the hard numbers, but the game felt like a slog to play — especially during fights. Every punch felt like it was being forced through sludge. Precision and reaction were always off because of the poor response time between pressing a button and a hero performing an action.
Also, it’s a shame that Arkham’s telegraphing wasn’t used here. Instead, in Knights, vague white halos emerge from enemies’ hands and feet that, in the haze of a battle, are hard to make out; when you’re about to be shot, a very thin white line from a gun’s barrel to your body will “warn” you. But you also have no off-screen telegraph prompts, meaning you will be punched or kicked by enemies off-screen. Perhaps this encourages you to constantly face enemies, but I found this ridiculous: our highly trained heroes can at least sense movement behind them.
The excellent writing and performances deserved better combat
It’s so disappointing the combat feels this way because the animations are truly wondrous when they occur. This game is a visual stunner. And the excellent writing and performances deserved better combat.
Combat, after all, is central to the game. And sometimes you need precision for certain game mechanics, like stealth. However, because of the sluggish frame rate, you will aim wrong or mistime a beat. The game also doesn’t do a very good job with stealth mechanics, as there are few tools to use. You will simply have to learn how to silently take down enemies and escape with a grapple: there are almost no lures or ways to hide bodies as in other stealth games (including, I’m sorry to repeat, Arkham — but even Marvel’s Spider-Man had great stealth mechanics. Spider-Man?!).
But the game also does a lot right: as I said, the visuals and sound are wonderful. A standout is the writing and performances, as all members of the Bat Family navigate their grief and hardship with fighting crime, dealing with their past together. There are entire cutscenes dedicated solely to each member dealing with their feelings and a member of the family, who knows them best, helping them come out the other side. It’s wholesome and loving. It doesn’t advance the plot at all and is entirely skippable, but it was always welcome. I felt genuine love for these characters and their world from the game’s writers.
What’s more is that there is unique dialogue for each scenario depending on who you play. So, if you chose Red Hood to fight Harley, there are unique cutscenes specifically mocking him for his past. During fights she calls him “Dead Hood”; as Nightwing, a character conveyed his knowledge about Dick Grayson’s real identity. Even small cutscenes with minor characters result in different dialogue. I cannot fathom how long it must have taken to record all of this. This is not merely dialogue but cutscenes, too: for example, fight scene cinematics play out differently depending on who your chosen hero is since each hero uses different kinds of weapons.
Characters level up by earning XP by fighting and completing missions but all level up at the same time. Finding a better weapon for one means finding a better weapon for all. The combat blends Arkham fighting with build-up abilities, as seen in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Suits and weapons can be found or crafted, and all look incredible. They can also be modded when you return to the Belfry.
Synchronizing character levels encourages you to switch between heroes depending on what mission you want to do: for example, Robin is the best at stealth, Batgirl at hacking, Nightwing at sass, and Red Hood for range. I quite liked tying specific heroes to specific stories or enemies, as it felt like a character arc. For example, I made Nightwing the central character for dealing with the Court of Owls, and he gets injured badly. While being patched up by Alfred, he points to a poster of the Flying Graysons, his dead parents, and talks about how they inspire him to get back up and defend Gotham. If I had not chosen Nightwing, I never would’ve seen this.
What anchors this game is the characters and the writing — and, as I say, this is managed incredibly. It’s a testament to both the writers and performers that I felt connected to these heroes and found solace in their building trust and friendship with one another.
What anchors this game is the characters and the writing
The main case and story start off strong, and the Court of Owls make for fantastic creepy villains. Our heroes are forced to engage with the world of the superrich as outsiders (despite being wards of Bruce Wayne, since Bruce shied away from such people). There is some subversion since the final boss was somewhat foreseeable but nevertheless very welcome. It’s rare for me to enjoy a final boss battle, but like all good fights, the game spent a lot of time building up to it; it’s not merely about throwing punches but confronting inner emotional conflicts, too.
I don’t know what to do with what’s before me. On the one hand, great writing, beautiful visuals, and enjoyable performances sold the world to me. I could spend hours with these heroes and in this world. But considering so much of that time would be spent fighting, which is severely undermined by terrible frame rates, I am also not entirely keen to do so. It feels like wanting to eat a delicious meal that’s being served in a trash can.
I enjoyed my time with these heroes, villains, and this beautiful world. But I am hesitant to return to or recommend it given the choppy frame rate and sluggish combat. If you can overlook those issues, you’ll find an enjoyable open-world action game with moments of levity and wholesomeness. While Batman himself may be dead, it felt great to play in the spandex and capes of his protégés.
Gotham Knights launches on October 21st for the PS5, Xbox Series X / S, and PC.