It should have been brilliant: take the wonderful Batman Arkham combat, transpose it into a 2.5D side-scrolling metroid-vania and release it on the ideal platform, the PS Vita. And it’s difficult to know exactly where things went wrong, because it almost works; indeed, at times it really does work. But a combination of an unshakeable feeling of rushed work along with committing the ultimate video game sin means that it just doesn’t. That ultimate sin? Being boring.
It’s a simple enough premise, with a story designed to fit the gameplay. Starting out on the streets of Gotham, Batman encounters Catwoman, gives chase and eventually arrests her, sending her to Blackgate. It’s an opening designed to be a tutorial, introducing the combat, grappling hook and the other base-mechanics that anyone who has played any of the Arkham games before will instantly recognise. In fairness, they are executed pretty well.
Fast forward and it’s all going off at Blackgate Prison. Split into three distinct sections, each is controlled by one of the three main villains: Penguin, Joker, and Black Mask. As with any Castlevania styled game, each section (Industrial Offices belong to Black Mask; Admin Offices are Joker’s; Cell Blocks are Penguin’s) contains an upgrade to your arsenal allowing you to backtrack to older areas and find more hidden secrets. You can tackle the three areas whenever you fancy, but you will eventually face a locked door that forces you back to another area.
And this is the biggest problem of all. Collecting the explosive gel means that, sure, you can go back and blow up walls you noticed earlier, but the backtracking is so mind-numbingly boring that after a while there’s a real chance you just won’t want to any more. Once you’ve defeated an area’s enemies (and in honesty, for a prison, Blackgate is sparsely populated with inmates save for a few areas) they won’t return, which means for long sections you are just running through prison-grey environments to get to an area you’ve already visited – sometimes several times – previously.
This would even be forgiveable if it were exclusive to the backtracking, but it isn’t. One section in the Industrial Offices forces you to run all the way to the left, to go into some under-ground vents. Then, you run all the way right to see a short scene showing you where to go next. Guess what? You have to run all the way left again to a newly accessible area before (yep, you guessed it!) running all the way back to the right again because the door is now unlocked. It’s all contained on the one screen and highlights a real lack of invention.
Blackgate isn’t a hard game by any means, either, save for a few boss fights that aren’t immediately obvious, or a few areas you won’t notice at first. Much of the 5-6 hours you’ll spend with your Vita is spent grappling, running around, and returning to areas you’ve already been. Thankfully, the combat feels closer to the Rocksteady-developed Arkham games, meaning that you can interrupt pretty much any animation to counter, relieving frustration you might otherwise face. Given that the game is 2.5D you can only fight enemies to the left or right of Batman, and they’ll mostly wait their turn to have a go at you. Batman can move in and out of the screen ever so slightly so you aren’t forced to wait to beat up the thugs, which is good. On the other hand, without a 3D world to move around in, the combat loses some of the magic in the process.
Much of the environment is navigated via Batman’s grappling hook, but there are context sensitive areas that can cause frustration. Holding circle to enter a vent sounds fine, but when you press the button slightly too early and he won’t go in, it’s annoying. Equally, holding down on the stick and circle to “drop down” a layer is fine and dandy, but it wants you to do it exactly when the prompt appears. That might sound like looking for fault, but there’s no difference between spot A and spot B, save for the fact the devs decide spot B is where the prompt will appear.
But there are things to like here, too. The voice acting work is top notch, for example. Troy Baker’s Joker is second only to the master that is Mark Hamill, and while I’m not a fan of Nolan North’s Penguin, he does a good job. Roger Craig Smith’s Batman is excellent, and there’s a decent level of fan-service here in general, with boss fights including Deadshot (though that one is a bit of a dead-rubber), Bronze Tiger, and Solomon Grundy.
The comic-book styled cut-scenes are nice too, but fall a bit flat as they are used to further a plot that’s already wafer-thin. In fact, Blackgate is a nice looking game for the most part, though it does have a few horrible looking textures here and there that sully the overall look, especially when the camera zooms in.
A good attempt has been made to extend the life of Blackgate, with a reasonable amount of collectibles strewn around the three main locations. On top of that, tapping the screen enables detective vision, but holding it allows you to analyse specific spots, which in certain areas will reveal clues for detective cases, and in others reveal where to go next. Frustratingly, even if it’s blindingly obvious that you need to go to X to get to Y, you still have to use the touch screen to reveal it, almost as if you’re letting the game know you understand. The map doesn’t help much, either. It’s a top down map of a 2.5 game, and while it does give you an objective marker, it just doesn’t give you any indication of how to get there, meaning you will lose time in a confused state as you ponder how to get somewhere.
VERDICT: It’s a shame that such an interesting possibility falls so flat. Perhaps a little more development time could have yielded more positive results, but as it is we end up with a running time of around 5-6 hours that feels like it outstays its welcome ever so slightly, purely because the longer you play it, the more it falls apart and the more it becomes frustrating. That said, there’s definitely room for this kind of Batman game out there, as it offers something a bit different and is perfectly suited for handheld gaming. Just don’t expect the Vita game you want or deserve.
AVERAGE. The epitome of a 50/50 game, this title will be unspectacular but inoffensive, charmless but amiable. We aren’t condemning a game by scoring it a 5, but we certainly aren’t championing it, either.