Gotham Knights’ Batkids fake it but never make it

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The trailers for Warner Bros. Games’ Gotham Knights have pitched a pretty straightforward concept: What would Gotham City look like without Batman? How would the various proteges of the Dark Knight function in this grim city? The answer, is very badly, it turns out. Please Brucie, come back to me!

Let me start this by saying I didn’t make it to the end of Gotham Knights’ story, so I suppose this is a review in progress. I won’t score it for that reason, but to be honest, I don’t think I’m going to finish this game, because I don’t really want to. I don’t want to keep playing Gotham Knights, even for the benefit of GamesBeat’s readers, because it is one of the most desperately un-fun things I’ve played all year.

The story is a simple one: Following Batman’s death, his four adoptive offspring — Dick “Nightwing” Grayson, Jason “Red Hood” Todd, Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon and Tim “Robin” Drake — come together to take over his job. They face several of Batman’s classic villains, including Harley Quinn, Mr. Freeze, the Penguin and the mysterious new threat called the Court of Owls.

The hero Gotham needs …

Let’s get the good things out of the way first, if only because this review will be mostly bad things. Gotham City looks cool, its layout drawing real-life inspiration from New York City. It’s also, as always, a hellhole. But it’s a much brighter, more vibrant hellhole than it’s been in past games. It also has actual citizens for the Gotham Knights to defend and protect — a lot of them, in fact.

One amusing quirk about Gotham City being so populous is that regular people can, and will, walk within a few meters of criminals at work or one of the Knights beating the daylights out of said criminals, without either acknowledging or reacting in any way. In any other game, I would call this poorly implemented A.I.. In Gotham, however, I completely believe that every civilian lives by the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” mantra.

While the gameplay between the four protagonists is mostly the same — same combos, same ranged and melee options, etc — their individual abilities do have unique flavor. Nightwing creates some sparks, or Red Hood can unload on one enemy with both pistols. They also have slightly different skills, such as Robin gaining the early ability to use stealth takedowns against minibosses. I wish the protagonists felt more different. It might make me like them more.

… but not the one it deserves

If I can put Gotham Knights’ problems down to one source: it’s pace. Everything about it is much slower than it needs to be, from the action to the traversal to the story. Locking the game at 30 FPS is just one of the proofs of this problem, but it’s a massive one. Maybe I’m spoiled by years of 60 FPS action games — including the Arkham games, to which I can’t help but draw comparisons — but this framerate just doesn’t feel workable with a game like this.

The gameplay is almost unbearably slow. Every punch and kick lands with minimal impact, and the combos feel like the signals are going from my fingers to the characters at the speed of a maple syrup drip. Considering almost everything in the game is a punch/kick-fest, this is not optimal. Also, you can only do stealth takedowns on ground-level, meaning you can’t whisk people into the rafters like Batman did in Arkham. That wouldn’t be such a big deal, except the takedown animations are excruciatingly long, and increase the chances you’ll alert the other enemies by a significant degree.

Here’s an example: There are two ways to traverse Gotham. One is by using grappling guns to basically zipline from point to point. The other is to jump on the Batcycle and go via the streets. Both methods lack any kind of fluidity or speed. The grapple hook is chaotic about where you’ll grapple — more times than I can count, I would be running in one direction and, when I hit the grapple button, my character would zip to a point somewhere behind me. The Batcycle will materialize on the street in front of the character, requiring them to run over to it, mount it and then drive.

Again, I’m trying to keep comparisons to the Arkham series to a fair minimum. But I never thought I would miss the days of summoning the Batmobile and watching Batman dramatically dive into the cockpit with no prompting from me. Because at least that was fast. Riding the Batcycle is another exercise in tedium. The game puts white smoke trails on all sides of the screen to give the illusion that the player is moving fast, but in practice it feels like I’m crawling down the streets of Gotham.

How many proteges does one Bat need?

It’s not just in literal speed that the game whiffs the pacing. Gotham Knights has a crafting system where you can build and upgrade various parts of their kit. My first words when I saw it, “What in the Injustice bullshit?” There is no location in the multiverse where I need a Batman game to have a suit crafting system. Having different suits to unlock and wear is one thing. But having the kids craft incremental upgrades for their suits and weapons, and having to see if anything is two points higher in armor points is beyond tedious.

As for the story, I’m not sure there’s much I can talk about. In much the same way that the gameplay is slow-paced and boring, all of the characters are tedious and flat. The four leads barely have a chance to show any character, and their dialogue is generic at best. Even the villains don’t seem particularly thrilled to be here. I don’t blame the actors for this — there’s not much they could have done with the paper-thin lines they’re given to read.

One strange addition is an email system that basically lets the Knights get flavor text from other DC characters. These can include major heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman, other members of their superhero teams, their close friends, etc. It begs the question of why these people are not actually visiting Gotham City and helping them out — gameplay-wise, it would be impractical, but in that case, why bring their existence up at all?

Actually, this creates a number of problems. Why isn’t Dick Grayson back in Bludhaven? Where’s Tim’s dad? Why is Batwoman not here, helping her cousin’s kids? I won’t spoil any of the game’s story beats, but I will say that another major figure in Batman lore is also revealed (almost casually) to be dead, and Gotham Knights barely deigns to acknowledge this.

Night-winging it

In case I hadn’t made it clear already, I really didn’t like Gotham Knights. It lacks the speed, flow and character of previous Batman games, and its action-oriented gameplay is hamstrung by the 30 FPS lock. It became such an exercise in boredom that I couldn’t bring myself to continue playing — and because I didn’t finish, I’m leaving a score off the end of this review.

Perhaps there’s a DC fan out there who really wants to see villains like Clayface and the Court of Owls in a game and who might get more of this experience than I did. But I think everyone else can safely skip Gotham Knights.

Gotham Knights launches on October 21 for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S and PC. Warner Bros. Games provided GamesBeat with a code for the purposes of this review.

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