It has plenty of faults, but Kemco’s new Batman game should appeal to fans of the comics and anyone who loves a good story.
Batman: Dark Tomorrow is a classic clash of what’s fun vs. what’s cool, and usually what’s cool wins out. The game’s presentation is nothing less than excellent, and its graphics and sound are great too. On the other hand, the control and camera are awful, and the gameplay often fails to deliver on its lofty intentions.
At the heart of nearly all Dark Tomorrow’s problems is its terribly flawed camera. The game is played from mostly fixed camera angles, not unlike the Resident Evil games, though the graphics are rendered in real-time and some shots do pan and zoom a little. This approach, while limited, can work well if the environments are designed properly and if camera shifts are kept to a minimum. Dark Tomorrow (DT) fulfills neither requirement. Environments are often very large or very cramped and twisty, full of corners and other architecture that become confusing when the camera jumps around. To make matters worse, there are actually far more camera angles than necessary to convey most environments, so running around shifts the perspective abruptly and far too often. Consequently, it’s easy to get lost in even simple rooms, and gameplay tasks become needlessly frustrating because Batman’s movement, which is relative to the camera position, never stays consistent for more than a few seconds at a time.
The control itself is also riddled with problems, though they might have been bearable with a better camera setup. Actions aren’t laid out very intuitively on the controller, and Batman sometimes responds sluggishly to commands. Jumping, in particular, is floaty and generally unresponsive, though you don’t need to jump too often.
The best way to describe DT’s gameplay is “overly realistic”. The game tries to put you in Batman’s shoes, sometimes to a degree that hurts playability. For instance, you are usually thrown into a volatile situation without a clear idea of how to handle it. The game gives you very few clues on how to beat each level, leaving you to experiment and find what works. You’re left to play the detective and solve the crime, but in the context of a game, more guidance would be appropriate. The physics can be surprisingly accurate; Batarangs will bounce off walls and floors realistically, and pulling up too much in the hang-gliding level will cause a stall (an aerodynamic condition in which a wing can no longer produce lift). Batman’s grappling hook and cable will not function at all unless there is an overhead surface for them to latch onto, and if you lose your momentum while swinging, you’re pretty much screwed. Lone henchmen are hardly a match for the Caped Crusader, but if you get knocked down and surrounded by enemies, it can be extremely difficult to escape. DT is full of these realistic touches, with little regard for how they affect the gameplay.
Combat is a big part of the game, and it generally works well. Batman’s move list is a bit lacking, but it does contain some satisfying punches and kicks, as well as a few combos. There is only one jumping attack, and it’s too hard to pull off…a shame considering how adept Batman’s aerial moves are in the comics. Items from the utility belt, like Batarangs and smoke grenades, can subdue enemies from afar, but they aren’t very practical once the fighting begins. One rather interesting quirk of combat is that enemies must be “Batcuffed” to be permanently defeated. If you knock someone down and wait too long to tie him up, he’ll get back up and start fighting again. The whole process seems rather trite at first, but it adds extra strategy when fighting off groups of enemies, since the other guys can and will attack you while you’re trying to Batcuff their downed buddies. Luckily, the continues are unlimited, and you’ll usually respawn very close to where you last died. The frequent deaths and continues result in a “trial and error” style of gameplay that will certainly turn off some players.
DT’s graphics are one of the game’s strongest suits. Batman himself looks great and moves naturally, and his cape is beautifully animated, obviously running on a separate physics model that reacts to wind and movement. The enemy character models are quite respectable too. Environments are often depicted in excruciating detail, reminiscent of the pre-rendered backgrounds prevalent during the PlayStation era. Everything in the game is rendered with a sharp, clean image quality. Most of the textures have a very high resolution, and there are some nifty special effects here and there. I do have to complain that there’s no way to tell which parts of the environments are interactive and which parts aren’t, so there’s a lot of running around rooms blindly pressing the A button in hopes of finding something. Also, Batman is totally missing a couple of animations, namely for walking down stairs and climbing down ladders; in both cases, he just falls down, as if from a ledge. It’s quite strange, considering how good his animation is otherwise.
Also impressive is the sound design, which boasts some incredible original music recorded at Abbey Road by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The sound effects are wonderfully accurate, and the extensive voice-acting is of unusually high quality. There’s even an Engrish-tastic theme song played over the end credits, as good a reason as any to beat the game.
But where Batman: Dark Tomorrow really shines is in its storytelling. The game contains nearly forty FMV cut-scenes, all expertly directed and produced. Basically, the entire story is told through these movies; the game itself is just all the standard crime fighting stuff that happens in between encounters with Commissioner Gordon, Robin, and Gotham City’s many criminally insane villains. In terms of style, the movies are somewhere between the comic books and animated television show, and as I noted above, the acting is terrific. It becomes clear early on that these abundant FMV scenes were the focus of DT’s production, and they are also the main reason to play this game at all. Batman fans will love the fully developed storyline and faithful characterizations, and the lure of the next video snippet will be enough to motivate them through the mediocre and often frustrating gameplay scenarios.
In short, Batman: Dark Tomorrow is designed to appeal to hardcore Batman fans who will trudge through all the flaws in search of the fantastic story. If seeing our masked hero confront his greatest foes in an arduous trek through Arkham Asylum doesn’t get your blood pumping, stay far away. Dark Tomorrow brings plenty of good ideas to the table, but without its superb presentation, it’s just a miserably failed experiment in realistic physics and ambiguous mission design.