Batman is back, this time on the 3DS.
Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate is the first major handheld release in the Arkham series. Released alongside Arkham Origins on consoles, I wouldn’t be surprised if the average consumer just assumed it was another poorly done handheld port. Luckily, it’s more than that.
Set three months after the events in Arkham Origins, Blackgate follows our Caped Crusader as he is tasked with cleaning up a major prisonbreak at Blackgate Prison. Batman’s old nemeses—Joker, Penguin, and Black Mask—have partitioned off the prison into three sections—Cell Blocks, Industrial, and Administration—each taking control of one for their own purposes. In order to infiltrate the prison, Batman forms an uneasy alliance with Catwoman, who keeps him informed as he explores different parts of the facility.
Sadly, Blackgate’s story never quite reaches the level of its predecessors. The game’s dialog is fully voiced, though Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamil, best known for their roles in Batman: The Animated Series, don’t return as Batman and Joker this time around. Nevertheless, their new voice actors, Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker, do a great job of sounding the part, and are, for the most part, indistinguishable from their forerunners. That said, the game’s dialog isn’t nearly as well written as in previous games. Whereas Arkham Asylum’s story expanded upon the characters of the Batman mythos, Blackgate’s story feels more like a means to an end. It’s there just because it has to be, not because it has anything interesting to say.
Fortunately, Blackgate’s gameplay more than makes up for its lackluster story. For the most part, playing Blackgate feels like playing Arkham Asylum, but with less freedom of movement and with everything locked to a 2.5D perspective. With the new perspective, you can really only move Batman left and right using the Circle Pad, with no ability to manually jump. At first I thought this made the game feel a bit too on-rails, but that changed once I finished the tutorial and entered Blackgate. While the tutorial mainly consisted of running right and pressing the R button to use the Grapnel Gun to propel Batman across gaps, the three sections of Blackgate require you to be much stealthier with your movement. You’ll often be forced to crouch to cautiously avoid Joker’s goons, or to traverse one of the many hidden ducts in the game.
The series’ exploration elements are still present, and in some ways, they’re improved due to the fixed perspective. As in previous entries, your progress is largely tied to the tools and upgrades that you’ve collected. Each new tool adds a new dynamic to the game, opening up several new areas to explore in Blackgate. For instance, the Gel Launcher lets you shoot a sticky, explosive gel that detonates weakened walls and structures that would otherwise block your way. The game uses these tools to create several satisfying and sometimes unexpected puzzles. Nevertheless, exploration in the game is slightly hampered by a map that only shows you a bird's-eye view, with no visualization of the buildings’ depth or layers. It’s usable, but it’s not ideal.
Also returning from previous entries is Detective Mode. It plays an important role in the game, allowing you to scan your environment for objects to interact with. You can use it to find clues, and it even lets you see the nearby enemies and whether or not they can see you. It can be activated by touching a button on the corner of the touchscreen, and you can scan the area by moving a reticule with the Circle Pad. Unfortunately, there does seem to be an overreliance on Detective Mode at times. Even if you see an object that you can interact with, tools like the Gel Launcher or Batarang cannot lock-on to it unless you’ve scanned it first. It can be especially frustrating if you die during a boss battle, as you’ll need to rescan the items again to finish the fight.
Equally as important, and rarely as frustrating, is the game’s combat. Armature Studio has done a remarkable job in adapting the Arkham series’ acclaimed combat system to a 2.5D perspective. If you’ve played any of the previous games, you’ll know that timing for and countering your enemy’s moves are critical if you want to survive. In addition to the brawler sequences, there are also areas where stealth is the preferred method of combat. These usually involve goons with guns who force you to think of ways to remain unseen, lest you be riddled with bullets. The game’s boss battles mix both the stealth and brawler sequences in such a way that makes them almost feel like puzzles. You can expect to die a lot before you figure out their solution, but thanks to their puzzle-like quality, they never really felt frustrating.
What Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate lacks in its plot, it more than makes up for with its gameplay. It may not be on par with its console brethren, but it’s still an enjoyable experience, whether or not you’ve played previous games in the series. And with several collectibles to find and an eight-hour-long story mode, it’s at least an excuse to revisit Gotham.