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I Really Want to Love It, But...
on January 7, 2014
The Short Form:
While it might be easy to cut Arkham Origins: Blackgate some slack for being on a limited hardware platform, other games do a better job of the "2.5D" style. Blackgate tries to be faithful to the spirit and gameplay of the Arkham games but ultimately has too many gameplay problems to make it a worthy entry in the series.
The Full Review:
As a fan of the Arkham series of games, I was excited at the idea of a game that ties the Arkham Origins prequel to the Arkham Asylum storyline. The idea was that Arkham Origins: Blackgate would explain the story behind the fire at Blackgate prison and capture of The Joker that begin the game Arkham Asylum. The way this game plays is called "2.5D" - it's a side-scrolling game with a bit of depth to it and there are times when you move to another part of the room and the camera swings around with you so that your point of view is still from the side--this is similar to the later "Castlevania" games. The graphics really do rival the console games, but the nature of 2.5D is problematic on the Vita: sometimes you're not sure if you can get to a location you can see on the screen, and sometimes when Batman moves to a spot that's further back, you're controlling a tiny, hard-to-see Batman and can't easily tell what you're doing, or even which direction you're facing. There are also places where you have to scoot around to find the magic pixel that lets you continue forward. Worse, there are times you want to sneak up on the enemy, and the environment would easily let you do so, but you can't enter the room without dropping into the middle of the action and giving yourself away. Last, being able to follow the map is extremely difficult since different parts of the level shift your perspective around--I often found myself going the wrong way, turning around...and still going the wrong way.
The Vita hardware is used cleverly, but it can get tedious. It's a great idea that you can tap the screen to engage Detective Mode, and it's neat that holding your finger on the touchscreen gives you a magnified 'scan' ability to look over items while you're in Detective Mode. But the gameplay is so in love with this idea that you find yourself having to scan just about everything in every room. For example, you can see exploding traps clearly in front of you, but you can't hit them with a batarang until you enter Detective Mode and scan them in Detective Mode. Every time. You can pull down loose debris blocking a doorway, but only after you use a slow scan in Detective Mode to confirm it...and even then, sometimes it's pulled down with the batclaw, sometimes with a batarang--you have to experiment to figure out which is which.
Combat flows similarly to the other Arkham games, but it's much harder to work. Using Cape Stun is much slower and you need to be closer to the enemies. Blocking and countering are less likely to succeed because at times you might accidentally start interacting with the environment, or simply be facing the wrong way. Throwing a Quick Batarang may or may not work. While you have a variety of moves that increases as you find gadgets, it can be frustrating when a boss battle only has one way through it, with a very specific sequence of moves, each of which has to be executed perfectly. I really enjoyed the difficult challenge of battling Deathstroke in Arkham: Origins; I really hated the linear 'dance steps' of battling Bronze Tiger in Arkham Origins: Blackgate.
Cutscenes are mostly shown via minimally-animated gray comic panels. Some are rendered in-game instead. Most have some interesting ideas, just some awkward dialog. It's annoying to watch a cutscene, be told to go to the Lighthouse, exit the level, get a cutscene en route to the Lighthouse, get about 100 feet into the Lighthouse map, and be told you need to turn around and go back to the island to complete another section of the map (cue cutscene), then come back and try again.
While it's a shame that Mark Hamill is no longer voicing The Joker, in a way it's a bit of a blessing because he doesn't have to read the painfully bad dialogue in Arkham Origins: Blackgate ("I'd love to say it's been a gas, but it hasn't. THIS is a gas!" *lets gas into the room*). The idea in other Arkham games that finding clues and hearing dialog adds to the story is explored here, but it lacks a feeling of being relevant--where Arkham Asylum's Patient Interviews gave you some background to the characters and their story, items like "Burnt paper pieces in the trash" don't really tie the story together. When you come across "the safety cap for a nozzle to a gas canister, used for transport," it might be relevant that you also find, "It contains traces of Joker gas"...except that by this point you've already encountered Joker gas and this does nothing to change that or advance the story. It's like finding out that the Joker prefers Coke to Pepsi and uses a blue ballpoint pen when he signs his name--a pointless explanation for hunting trinkets.
Overall, if you're a fan of the Arkham games, if you can lower your expectations you might find some of Arkham Origins: Blackgate to be fun. The "kinda side-scrolling, kinda 3D" effects make gameplay more frustrating than a game like Uncharted: Golden Abyss and the storyline doesn't measure up to the other games, but it can still be an okay diversion when you want something different to do in the Arkham story.