Great graphics; fun combat, particularly predator attacks and boss fights; strong voice work; abundance of sidequests and secrets
Okay narrative; rough cinema scenes; obtuse level design in some spots
Glide across the air, hack locks, creep through air ducts, brawl with multiple enemies, investigate crime scenes, and take on multiple Batman rogues; sounds quite a bit like Batman: Arkham Origins, doesn’t it? Well, you’d be half right in asuming that, as this is an Arkham game, albeit on a smaller pair of screens. Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate is the portable pseudo-sequel to Arkham Origins, taking place after the conclusion of the home console game and telling the tale of a night in Blackgate Prison. The penitentiary has been overrun by all the enemies that Batman rounded up in Arkham Origins, and is now under the control of Black Mask, Penguin, and the Joker, who are all involved in a vicious tug-of-war that the Dark Knight must bring to an end. To call Blackgate ambitious is putting it mildly; the developers at Armature Studio (which is comprised of Retro Studios expatriates, in part) have done everything they can to squeeze the Arkham series onto 3DS, and for the most part have succeeded. While a little rough around the edges, Blackgate is a fun, 2D take on the Arkham formula.
One of the key elements of the Arkham series is its sharp combat, which Blackgate replicates to a reasonable degree of success. Batman takes on multiple attackers at once, punching and countering his way quickly through each skirmish. I was impressed with how well Armature preserved the basics of fighting for 3DS, as Batman controls much like his console counterpart. While entertaining, the fights are markedly simplistic, though, and don’t take a lot of strategy to finish. The predator encounters are handled more gracefully, with Batman sneaking through the environment, using objects to distract foes and then disarm them with ease. Equally well done are the boss fights, with foes that require a more thoughtful approach to take down. At one point, Batman must defeat Solomon Grundy in a sewer tunnel, avoiding his brutal ramming charges while manipulating arching electrical wires on the ground. The fight is visceral and tense, as Batman remains barely ahead of the mindless behemoth while trying to trap him. Other than the somewhat simple thug fights, Blackgate‘s combat has some decent chops that don’t disappoint.
Graphically, Blackgate boasts an interesting blend of 2D and 3D that fosters a strong sense of immersion. The environment is rendered beautifully and Batman is animated smoothly. As opposed to other Metroidvania-style games, which generally limit the camera to a strict 2D perspective, Blackgate will often send Batman into the screen, with the camera twisting to follow him as he embarks through the bowels of the prison. Gameplay, however, is exclusively 2D, and Armature somehow wrangled many of the Arkham conventions of exploration to work within these more restrictive confines. Detective mode is activated via a tap of the touch screen, and keeping the stylus pressed down the player then uses the circle pad to maneuver a large reticule over the environment on the top screen to search the prison for clues. Vent grates, structural weaknesses, and grapple points are all highlighted, though there are times when it can be unclear how to proceed. The prison is a labyrinth of tunnels and ducts, and navigating through them can be tough. At one point, despite my multiple scans, I found myself stuck trying to track Penguin, and only after repeatedly circling the part of the map I was on, was I finally able to decipher how I was supposed to move between ledges to progress. I found myself wandering like this a touch too often during my time with the game.
Fans worried that Blackgate is devoid of a classic Arkham narrative will be happy to know that’s not the case, for the most part. Blackgate features full voice acting and retains the actors from Arkham Origins. Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker both provide quality performances as Batman and the Joker, and the rest of the cast do a good job of making Blackgate come alive in cinema scenes and during gameplay. The cinemas, however, are not rendered using the game engine, and are instead a series of animated hand drawn scenes. The artwork is serviceable, though not quite up to the quality of other, similar efforts like Konami’s Metal Gear Solid Peacewalker. The cutscenes are a bit of a letdown, as they simply aren’t distinctive enough to match the impact of the visuals during gameplay. To reiterate, though, the animations are serviceable, and ultimately kept me interested in the narrative from start to finish. Unfortunately, the story fails to satisfy as anything more than an impetus for pushing Batman from point A to B. There is one, big twist at the end that serves as a partially redeeming bright spot in the plot, but doesn’t fully save it.
Besides detective mode, Armature brought along a handful of Batman’s gadgets for Blackgate, and they all operate much the way they should. Batarangs pummel and distract foes, the grapple sends Batman soaring, and so on. Taking another cue from the Metroid games, they are largely upgradeable in a stackable way (though the items are more limited in number than in other Arkham titles). For instance, the Batarang eventually is imbued with electricity and allows Batman to activate switches he was unable to previously. It’s a clever way of milking more gameplay from the lesser armory. Batman can also find a number of WayneTech crates squirreled away in the prison that upgrade his suit and provide him with new ones. Armature further kept with Arkham tradition by including sidequests to encourage poking through every corner of the prison. There are replica Black Mask masks, Penguin cages, and Joker teeth to find and break, along with a series of detective cases to solve. Found in detective mode, the player must scan the environments to find hidden clues to solve them. Armature has filled Blackgate with content and provided players with quite a lot to do.
Blackgate is a good first step for the Arkham games on a handheld. Armature was able to translate much of the core experience of the console titles without sacrificing the essential aspects that make them so fun. The graphics are excellent and the bulk of the combat is faithful to what fans have come to expect, but a middling story, so-so custcenes, and sometimes frustrating level design keep Blackgate from reaching the heights it’s capable of. Regardless, there’s plenty to love about Blackgate and it deserves a shot from Arkham and non-Arkham fans alike.