The worst thing Batman: Arkham Origins: Blackgate has going for it is its mouthful of a title. The second worst thing is its plot and setting, a less interesting retread of the first great Batman game, 2009's Arkham Asylum.
But past those two flaws, we gamers are getting a gift with this game: a Metroid-style Dark Knight adventure designed by a few of the top people behind three great Metroid Prime games on GameCube and Wii. That talented team, which departed from Nintendo's Retro Studios in 2008 and have had any original projects for other publishers canceled and foiled since then, mark Blackgate as their return to action. For their new studio, Armature, this is an exciting debut. And for us gamers, this is arguably the best Metroid-style game since the Primes themselves, outshining their category compatriots Shadow Complex as well as a handful of 2D Castlevanias.
If you know what a Metroid is (the game, not the aliens that are in those games), you've likely read just about enough to be very interested. After all, Nintendo and Konami don't seem interested in making 2D games like this any more, so at least someone is. Sold! That's all we need, right?
If you don't know what Metroid is, let me explain: you're a character exploring a mysterious place; you walk -- sometimes run, jump and swing -- through it, automatically filling out a map as you search for clues about how to get from one part of the game world to the next; you discover obstacles that are in your way and then, somewhere far away after more exploring, you find new abilities and gadgetry that let you pass those obstacles; if there are enemies in the way, you fight them. These are games in which you're two-parts detective and one-third combatant. In other words, the formula is perfect for Batman, which is why the series has been lightly pulling from it since Arkham Asylum.
In many games, you travel a linear path, marching ever forward. In Metroid-style games including, say, Super Metroid (see speed-run video above), your journey draws a knot even as you, the gamer, are untangling the mysteries of the place you're in. You are constantly backtracking, using new tools to open new branches from old roads. Badly-designed Metroid-style games are tedious adventures full of time-wasting retreading; well-designed Metroid-style games are a complicated journey filled with eureka moments -- each return to a place you already visited is a potential moment of empowerment as what had previously seemed impossible to accomplish there is suddenly possible. Blackgate is this latter type.
Blackgate occurs shortly after the events of its companion October 25 release, the slightly better named Batman: Arkham Origins. The events of both games precede Arkham Asylum and 2011's Batman: Arkham City. We're supposedly playing a younger, less experienced, rougher-edged Batman, though that's not evident in Blackgate, where Batman throws a batarang and punches Penguin as well as he ever will.
The other Batman games, including Origins, are all big three-dimensional adventures controlled from behind Batman's back. Blackgate is "2.5D", which means it's mostly played as a side-scroller, with the player moving left, right, up and down (a la the original pre-Prime Metroid games) though this action happens in a game world that is still rendered in three dimensions. The player may be making Batman run to the right of the screen through a hallway, but if the game's designers decided that the hallway Batman is in will sharply elbow to the left, then running right will bring Batman down that curving hallway with the hallway seeming to swivel below Batman's feet. The world revolves around his linear movement. The result is a game that has the visual depth of a 3D game world but also the focused linear movement that allows each step to feel purposeful and directed as if, in a sense, our hero is smart enough to know where he needs to go and where he shouldn't.
Let me show you how the game looks and works:
The start of Blackgate sets up this game's extended locked room puzzle. While chasing and catching Catwoman, Batman learns that there's an uprising happening in Gotham City's Blackgate prison. Inmates have taken hostages. The Joker, Penguin and Black Mask have seized equal parts of the prison. Gotham's finest have surrounded the place, but it's Batman who will go into the prison, free any hostages, beat up any rabble-rousing inmates and take those three named villains down.
The game's set-up isn't that far a leap from Arkham Asylum's which trapped Batman on an island facility filled with Gotham's most deranged criminals. Unfortunately for Blackgate, Arkham Asylum did it first and did it with a more interesting cast of rogues in a more interesting-looking place. Pity the art director of the magnificent Metroid Primes whose team at Retro was unleashed to draw unique, memorable, fantastic sci-fi chamber after sci-fi chamber, space-cavern after space station. Here his team at Armature has to make dingy cell after dingy cell and concrete hallway after concrete hallway. The Armature artists do their best, especially when they play with a sense of scale and zoom the camera in and out for certain rooms, but the trappings of this game limit how much their skills can shine. Thankfully, at least, the game's graphics look very good technically, particularly on the Vita, which is what I played the game on. (Blackgate also sounds very good, too and makes great use of audio cues to signal the location of some collectibles as well as to distinguish some parts of the prison from others.)
At the start of his adventure, Batman only has his batarangs, a grappling hook that can pull him up ledges and a basic bat-suit. The Blackgate prison is full of problems he doesn't have the gear with which to immediately deal. There are doors he can't unlock, grates he can't pull off walls and chasms he can't pass. He's mostly trapped, options limited. From this predicament spills the great flow of a Metroid game, masterfully presented by the Armature team. You walk around and notice a door you can enter or a computer you can hack. You spot a ledge and climb to it, notice a little air shaft you can duck into. You crawl between the walls into a room you feel you're probably not supposed to be in. Eventually you'll be finding hidden entrances and exits in and out of the game's three major sectors, repeatedly bridging the wonder of how-will-I-ever-get-over-there to -- minutes or even hours later -- the epiphany of wow-I-am-finally-over there.
In the Metroid Prime games, players had to use a variety of visual filters to scan their environment, spot clues, discover enemy weak points and learn lore. That concept was already borrowed by the Arkham series and presented as a blue-toned "detective vision" view of the world that players could toggle on or off. In the Vita version of this new game, players can tap the screen to toggle it on or off. But to find the really hidden stuff, they need to touch the screen with their thumbs -- literally touch the part of the Blackgate environment about which they're curious and they'll scan it. If there's a clue, it'll show up in a different colour or as an icon. This way, players discover weak points in walls that they can blow through (only once they attain the gadget that lets them do so, of course). They will discover clues to mysteries Batman is solving while going through Blackgate, learning about stuff the Joker or other bad guys did before Batman got to the prison. They'll also find batsuit upgrades and eventually a full armament of gadgets. The scanning system has come full circle here and works wonderfully. So too does the melee combat system, pulled not from the Metroids of the past but from the Arkham games. The fluid, acrobatic, counter-based melee flows well in 2D. It's a pleasure, if not much of a challenge, to clean Blackgate's rooms of their idiot thugs.
The quality of a Metroid-style game can be measured in the amount of intangible delight that they give a player as he or she explores and suddenly figures out that they now have the ability to go back to an old area and get past whatever was blocking them. These games are essentially designed to make players feel smart and they do this best when they hide some of their clues well. Blackgate is a winner in this regard and will likely provide even players who follow only its critical path of mandatory missions with some head-scratching moments and some moments of eureka breakthroughs. The game's optional items are hidden even more deviously, giving the sense that its creators and their team are smiling at finally getting a chance to vex players like this again.
Blackgate also illustrates, to its detriment, how well Metroid-style games work when the new abilities that players attain are fantastical. It's too bad that Batman's abilities really aren't that amazing. In a Metroid or a Castlevania, the player is attaining freeze rays and magic spells; they're getting the ability to roll into a ball, run through walls or magnetize themselves to the ceiling. Batman's best moves, even with all his gadgetry, involve little more than grapple hooks and wires, batarangs and explosives. Late in Blackgate, Batman finally learns a move that lets the game's creators become playful with how their level layouts force him to use it, but otherwise, the game is limited in how grounded Batman is. Many times while I was playing, I found myself wishing Warner Brothers had asked Armature not to make a game about Batman in a prison but about Green Lantern or the Flash trapped, I don't know, in the Justice League satellite or some place. Those heroes would have more interesting move sets to play with in this genre, I think. Either that or, if they make one of these gain, Batman just needs some way weirder gadgets.
Or maybe Batman simply needs more interesting enemies to bring some more fantastic moves out of him. Metroid's Samus Aran and Castlevania's various Belmonts have enemies to roll under, zap with the aforementioned freeze rays, or to cut down in midflight. In Blackgate, Batman's mostly got dudes in orange jumpsuits to punch. Send in the space aliens. Or… at least do more with the surprise enemies that Blackgate teases will show up in a some sort of sequel. I won't ruin it here, but as been-there-done-that as Blackgate's setting and enemies are, a subplot and ending sequence introduce some classic DC characters into the fiction who seem primed to torment Batman in a future game. For fans of a certain DC cast of characters that I won't ruin for you now, this game ends on a very exciting and promising note.
It's a credit to Armature's designers that neither Batman's lack of flashy maneuvers nor the game's too-familiar plot and setting keep Blackgate from being consistently fun to play. It surely helps that Batman himself is a character who is as much about the excellence of the mind as he is about the power of the well-placed fist and is therefore still pretty well-suited to star in a Metroid-style mystery adventure. Armature, happily, is well-suited to make such a game. Their Blackgate, if nothing else, is a satisfying multi-chambered puzzle for gamers to solve. It's a pleasure to finally play a new game from these guys. Their return should be considered a success