Video game creators have cranked out myriad superhero adventures over the years—from digital action featuring the Avengers to the virtual travails of the Tick, to name just a couple. But few games have captured the true, comic booky vibe of their central hero’s milieu the way Rocksteady Studios’ Batman games have.
Beginning with 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum and concluding with the new Batman: Arkham Knight, Rocksteady’s crew has meticulously constructed, piece by piece, an incredibly shadowy, gritty and authentic-feeling version of Gotham. It’s a wide-open, hissing-steam-grate environment populated by scores of fiendishly quirky villains … and one stalwart—but almost equally damaged—Dark Knight.
Joker on Your Mind
Arkham Knight’s opening scene sets the tone for this latest batarang-slinging challenge. We watch as Batman’s arch enemy, the Joker, is melted, charred and reduced to ash in a crematory’s flames. But that doesn’t mean that Bats can hang up his cape and take a night off. Oh no. In the wake of Joker’s exit, the Scarecrow and a militarized, anti-Batman villain called the Arkham Knight make it clear that Gotham’s burning torment hardly ended with the Joker’s fiery demise. Indeed, in other, even more nefarious ways, the city’s smoldering conflagration is just beginning.
After Gotham gets evacuated (thanks to Scarecrow’s latest fear toxin), Batman swings and swoops, dives and drives through the city’s three massive boroughs, singlehandedly sweeping the streets clean of various rouges as he goes: Two-Face, Penguin, Harley Quinn, the Riddler, Deadshot, Man Bat and, well, just about every other Bat-baddie you can brainstorm.
But that’s not all our cowled hero must deal with. He’s also struggling with the mind-altering effects of Scarecrow’s deadly toxin. Specifically, it’s mingling in a strange way with the Joker’s tainted blood lying dormant in his system (thanks to a blood-injecting event near the end of the previous game). The upshot? The Joker’s devious consciousness is somehow scrabbling to wrest control of Batman’s mind and body.
Can our hero determine which horror-filled event is real and which is toxin-induced? Can he figure out the identity of this mysterious and powerful Arkham Knight, not mention deciphering why the new villain wants Bruce Wayne’s alter ego dead? Can he unscramble environmental puzzles and traps created by the Riddler and other savvy scoundrels? Can he keep Scarecrow from destroying Gotham? Most importantly, though, can Batman save his beloved city from himself as the Joker’s consciousness slowly takes more and more control over him?
Brutal Beatdowns and Infernal Hallucinations
As far as the biff-bam-boom side of those activities is concerned, Arkham Knight builds on the series’ traditional strike-and-counter combat system, adding some new smack-backs and gadgets to the fray along the way.
The freeze blast, for instance, helps Batman battle through throngs of thugs when he’s almost overwhelmed by them. The game’s most significant new wrinkle, though, is the ability to call in and zip around town in the heavily armored and flexibly maneuverable Batmobile. There are some car chases, but the seriously weaponized Bat Buggy is used most often in a series of tanklike battles against potent bad-guy drones.
Of course, now that we’re getting into the game’s brutal hand-to-hand smackdowns and explosive urban tank battles, we also have to consider Arkham Knight’s other content issues. You may have noticed that the latest edition to the series is rated M rather than earning the T rating previous entries in the franchise got. That’s not because things are more visually bloody and gory—though the slamming, choking, bludgeoning, bone-breaking action is constant—but because this is a much darker game overall than its predecessors.
In addition to cleavage- and skin-baring outfits on some female villains, as well as profanities such as “b–tard,” “d–n,” “a–,” “h—” and “b–ch,” the Scarecrow’s fear toxin tosses hell-like hallucinations into the visual mix too. Rotting corpses leap into battle. A female character who’s crippled by a shot to her spine takes her own life with a bullet to the temple. There are visions of mass murder and images of Batman’s friends being tortured and killed.
Some side missions also involve a twisted “Christian” cult of sorts. Its members use kidnapped innocents as human sacrifices. Elsewhere, a mad butcher wields blades to mutilate and experiment on his poor victims in an effort to “perfect” them.
And if all that weren’t enough, there’s Batman’s constant conflict with the cackling Joker in his cranium. It’s an unsettling aural element that keeps gamers engaged with the central story no matter how far afield they may stray in this open-gaming world, a creepy filter that runs every choice Batman must make through the mind of a madman.
The Price of Play
It should be noted that like all the other games in this franchise, Batman gives everything he has to battle evil and save the innocent. And if you look at his sacrificial choices from that perspective, you might even see the Dark Knight as a something of a Christ figure who offers his all for a broken, fallen world.
But just as the Caped Crusader pays a heavy emotional, physical and psychological price to cleanse Gotham, so gamers pay a lesser but nonetheless real price while battling alongside him. Without question, this is an engaging game. It’s also a disturbing one. Batman: Arkham Knight could leave a dark imprint on the minds of those who soldier through its hours of dank gameplay, much the same way that Joker’s tainted blood leaves its dark mark on the city’s caped vigilante hero.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.