When Batman: Arkham Asylum was first released, it looked interesting, but I didn't have anything that would run it. Thankfully, it wasn't long before the Onlive service launched and I was able to stream it through my aging laptop. I was hooked on the series and had to pre-order Arkham City. With Arkham Origins, I waited until a Steam sale because I was a little worried about the change in developers. When I did finally get around to playing Origins, it was mostly because I'd just picked up a game I was really looking forward to. A game that takes place right after the events of Origins. A game that promised something a little different. A game called Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate.
Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate was originally released exclusively for the handhelds Sony Vita and Nintendo 3DS. Since then it's been released on a larger variety of platforms, making it easier to find. I picked up the 3DS version which while at a lower resolution than the Vita release, and with lower quality textures, still looks better to me thanks to the stereoscopic 3D effect of the 3DS screen. Most 3DS users I know have long since given up on the 3D effect by now, but it still looks good to me, so I always keep it cranked.
When Batman: Arkham Asylum was first released, its design flow drew many comparisons to the Metroid series and the games that it has influenced. I mentioned in my Guacamelee review what a soft spot I have for the metroidvania genre, and Arkham Asylum did not disappoint. Later sequels moved away from this to more of an open world style with entire cities to explore. Arkham Origins Blackgate not only returns to the series' more claustrophobic roots, it even switches from an over the shoulder camera to a classic side view providing an even more authentic metroidvania experience!
One of the biggest design innovations found in Blackgate is how it constantly tries to blur the line between 2.5D platformer and full 3D adventure. The action primarily happens in 2 dimensions as you move either left or right, but at any corner or intersection you can choose to turn, and the camera will swivel to follow. Many corridors have the camera at more of a following angle providing a God of War style cinematic quality beyond the standard side scroller. Specific actions also lead to close-ups and perspective angles. It's a unique experience that while is at times confusing, shows immense promise for being an entirely new genre of gaming perspective which will hopefully be seen more in future games, either by Armature themselves or at least some ambitious imitators.
Converting a series from a 3D Beat 'em Up to a 2.5D platformer brings with it a number of necessary changes, yet satisfying existing fans of the series requires limiting those changes as much as possible. The first place you'll notice this is in the game's combat. The Batman: Arkham series has been built on its addictive flowing group combat with just the right combination of strategy, QTEs, and good old fashioned button mashing. Arkham Origins Blackgate does its best to fit this into a 2D plane. Actually, it fits it into a couple 2D planes. To better replicate the mob combat aspects of the previous games, enemies approach on foreground and background layers that you switch seamlessly between while attacking back and forth. It does a better job than I expected, but felt a bit more on the strategy side and less on the flowy side.
As I mentioned in my review of Batman: Arkham Origins, it's not a Batman game without gadgets, and many of the series favorites return here reimagined for this new format. such as the Batarang, Batclaw, and Explosive Gel, as well as the detective mode. While all of these have been reworked in order to fit this style of gameplay, I was surprised by how well they maintain the feel of the earlier games. Along with the bat-tools themselves, environmental features also translate well such as floor grates and vent shafts to provide hidden passage, and elevated perches to attack silently from. The thrill of entering a large room full of machine gun wielding thugs you'll need to cleverly take out one at a time is still here.
For better or worse, I decided to play Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate almost immediately after finishing Batman: Arkham Origins, so I couldn't help but be critical of the differences. Now obviously I didn't expect this 3DS title to match the graphic quality of it's predecessor running on a high end PC, but I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed at the lack of detail each time there was a close-up. That's not to say that the graphics are bad however, far from it. In fact, had I waited a week or two before starting this one, I probably wouldn't have noticed the difference much at all.
The controls were also a bit of an adjustment. I'd played Origins using a 360 gamepad, and the Blackgate controls were close, but due to the smaller number of buttons, obviously not the same. The on-screen prompts also took some adjustment due to the differences in button placement between Nintendo controllers and Xbox controllers. Even though I was obviously use to pushing the button at the bottom to open doors, I can't count the number of times I swung my cape at the wall instead because the prompt said to press "B". As with the graphics, a week or so between games would have probably resolved the issue, but jumping straight from one to the other was a little odd.
As a compromise between the go wherever you want nature of open world games and the more linear if backtracking heavy nature of metroidvania titles, Arkham Origins Blackgate provides a degree of Megaman inspired freedom to choose your own path. Blackgate prison is divided into three separate compounds, each controlled by a different one of Batman's arch enemies. While there are sections of each requiring equipment found only in another area, they can be explored in any order, and the stories run parallel to each other, all leading up to the big finale. There are also a handful of collection quests thrown in, but no real side missions. Still, it's nice to have the option of pursuing a different path when you get stumped by the puzzling area you're stuck on.
With the combat being simplified from the other games of the series, I was expecting the boss battles to be tedious exercises in patiently wearing down a health meter while avoiding overpowered attacks. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of inventiveness displayed in these encounters. Rather than being a simple one on one duel, these boss fights are treated more as environmental puzzles requiring you to utilize your surroundings as well as the various gadgets in your bag of tricks to weaken your opponent's defenses and expose vulnerable weak spots. It's the type of inventiveness I hope becomes more of a trend in future games.
In my Batman: Arkham Origins review, I mentioned how the pre-rendered cut-scenes broke the immersion of the experience by showing how good the game could have looked. I was expecting this to be even more of an issue with Blackgate due to the lower level of detail, but they went a different direction with it. Returning to Batman's comic book roots, the between level cinematics use an animated hand drawn style. Not fully animated as a cartoon, but more as if the panels of a comic were given subtle movement. These are fully voiced and pull you into the store in an attractive way that doesn't spoil the look of the gameplay sequences.
Without a doubt, the strangest aspect of Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate was the map screen. As with most side scrolling metroidvania style platform adventures, you'll spend a lot of time studying your map as you explore and backtrack throughout the maze-like environments. It drives many gamers insane, but for fans of the genre, it's what makes it special. What's strange here is that even though the game plays entirely from a side perspective, the map is from a top down view. There's no indication of height, and it's often unclear how exactly to turn a corner to head a different direction. The perspective sometimes flips as well so that left on the screen corresponds to right on the map. Sure, it's more realistic than the standard practice of entirely flat architecture, but it never quite felt right.
So, who should play Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate? First of all, I'd recommend it to Batman fans. It's a solid experience of living briefly as our favorite Dark Knight. Second, fans of metroidvania games who aren't afraid of trying something a little different will likely enjoy it. But what about fans of the already established Batman: Arkham series? That's a bit more tricky. Sure it has a similar look, and tries hard to replicate the feel, and while it often reminds the player of the other games, it never really feels entirely like one of them. Is that a bad thing? No, but it is a warning that if you're looking for more of the same, this isn't it.