Earlier in the week, game developer Warner Bros. Montreal revealed a new look at its upcoming superhero Batman-less action-RPG, Gotham Knights. Where the game’s debut back in 2020 featured footage focusing on Tim Drake’s Robin and Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl, this 13-minute presentation was all about the game’s other two leads, acrobatic Dick Grayson, aka Nightwing; and once dead Robin Jason Todd, now Red Hood. With Batman seemingly dead, it falls to Dick, Jason, Tim, and Barbara to protect Gotham from villains looking to take advantage of the Dark Knight‘s absence, including the Court of Owls.
Knights’ footage didn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know back in 2020 — it’s a third-person superhero game in 2022, so of course it’ll have RPG elements, gear, and flashy combos. Whether Knights is intended as a live service game or will have an actual fixed end, WB Montreal doesn’t really need to sell gamers on the game’s combat or loot system. If you’ve played any western RPG in the last five years, you already know how Knights’ RPG mechanics will basically go, just include a fighting and stealth system similar to Rocksteady’s Arkham games. What’ll make or break the game, and what needs to be showcased more, are its titular Gotham Knights, their relationship to its deceased Batman, and the dynamic they have with one another.
Of all DC’s big-name heroes, Batman has probably one of the strongest supporting casts. Whether or not you’re a fan of Batman himself, there’s a strong chance that you love at least two members of the increasingly large “Batfamily.” In addition to Grayson and Gordon, heroes like future Batgirls Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown had beloved runs during the 90s and 2000s, and even non-powered players such as Renee Montoya have gone on to achieve popularity. But for much of the last decade, Batfamily fans were left wanting: if their favourite Gotham character wasn’t mysteriously absent during DC’s “New 52” era, chances are that character was being either controversially reworked or trapped in a comic readers straight up didn’t like. Things weren’t terribly better outside of the comics, as Nolan’s films had no interest in setting the stage for future Bat-heroes up until its final moments, and Ben Affleck’s DCEU Batman was kneecapped before he could start looking to conscript a new child soldier into his crusade.
In the games, the Batfamily got to have some fun. Injustice brought in several members of Batman’s entourage, and the ones who didn’t get casually murdered were fun to play or see pop up. Most notably, Arkham City and Knight had DLC chapters focused on characters like Nightwing, Robin, and Harley Quinn, and Knight had a mechanic allowing players to swap between Batman and another of his teammates. But narratively, Rocksteady’s saga was so focused on the idea of selling the power fantasy of being Batman that it forgot Mr. Vengeance has never truly worked alone.
Things have been looking up in recent years for Batfamily fans. Formerly missing family members in the comics are now getting ample time to shine, either in solo and team books or the Batman: Urban Legends anthology comic. In the webcomic Wayne Family Adventures, the Batfamily gets to feel like an actual family in a slice-of-life context unlike anything DC has ever officially put out, and it’s been a delight since it first emerged in 2021. Family members like Harley, Batgirl, and Cass have been or will soon be starring in their own films, and there’s also the CW’s Gotham Knights TV show (unrelated to the game) expected to take shape. And with Matt Reeves’ Batman, it feels like Robert Pattinson’s version of the character is just hopeful (and stupid) enough to take a kid under his wing and teach him to fight crime using nothing but his wits and a bo staff.
Since it’s explicitly not set in Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham universe, Gotham Knights has a decently sized amount of freedom in establishing the heroes’ relationship with each other and their father figure prior to the game’s start. More than selling the power fantasy of being a disciple of Batman, WB Montreal will need to sell the idea that Dick, Jason, Tim, and Barbara are a family with complicated in this game, feelings about each other and the man who inspired them to fight crime. It’s those dynamics that have made the Batfamily compelling to read over the decades, and Knights is in a unique position to bring that across in a way that’s distinct from the comics that have preceded it. Dialogue and banter during missions is all well and good, but the game simply can’t rely on that to convey history and tension between its four leads.
There’ve been games that have successfully managed to make relationships feel as important as their combat, like Hades or Scarlet Nexus. Both games approach this through different means; Nexus lets its two leads give their party members gifts and spend one-on-one time with them in isolated one-off episodes that provide gameplay benefits. Hades has extensive conversations between Zagreus and the Underworld’s many denizens that help him grow as a person and make the House of Hades just a little bit more of a bearable place to be in.
Even in the space of superhero games, we’re seeing relationships explored in different, interesting ways. The pre-match banter of Injustice 2 does a great job in making the assortment of DC and guest fighters feel like their fights are small, emotionally charged stories in the moment. Marvel’s upcoming tactical game Midnight Suns is following in the footsteps of those games and Atlus’ Persona series, in that you need to bond with each Avenger in order to gain extra abilities and gear. Last year’s surprisingly excellent Guardians of the Galaxy game made the relationship between its titular a-holes feel meaningful with on-the-fly decisions, and Insomniac’s Spider-Man games feel prime to make Peter Parker and Miles Morales’ dynamic feel exciting and vital in a new way with next year’s Spider-Man 2.
Gotham Knights probably won’t let its characters exchange gifts, but even something as simple as the characters grabbing a bite to eat in the middle of the day or sparring in their base would give the game a little more life. The fun of having superheroes hang out has always been watching them interact when they’re not punching bad guys. There’s no doubt that Knights will deliver on the blend of combat and stealth that the Arkham games so perfectly nailed. But all the flashy cooperative fisticuffs and gear in the world won’t mean a thing if the game’s four heroes — and whoever else may show up down the line via DLC — don’t feel like they’re all in this together.
Gotham Knights releases October 25 on Xbox Series consoles, PlayStation 5, and PC.