Gotham Knights sets up a promising Arkham series Action RPG, despite it being hard to see the finish line

On paper, Gotham Knights sounds like a great idea. Upon The Dark Knight’s untimely demise, his numerous proteges have to team together and step up to fill Batman’s enormous shoes; the idea that you can team up with your friends and fight together as different members of the Bat Family, each with their own unique playstyles is a strong enough argument for a co-op focused Arkham spin-off. Likewise. learning to grow into Gotham’s newest protector is a competent argument to make Gotham Knights have the stats and progression of an RPG. However, it’s hard to get a real feel for how exactly it’ll all fit together from the short preview session I was afforded last month at Warner Bros’ offices in Burbank, California - even if ultimately I stepped away from my session feeling positive about the game as a whole.

First off, the good - the concept behind Gotham Knights story feels like it holds a ton of promise, and even the small bits of the story I had a chance to check out left me interested to see more. The whole thing is set up like a classical murder mystery; but instead of Batman being the one doing all of the detective work, it’s the apprentices he left behind. Every time a new piece is added to the puzzle, you can find it posted on the evidence board and its ties to any other evidence, as it might come to light.

Simply put; it’s the detective aspect of Gotham Knights that I walked away from my preview feeling the most positive about. I didn’t actually get the chance to do too much of it - mostly relegated to a small section in the tutorial, examining the scene of a crime and piecing together the solution to some puzzle - but if the rest of the game’s main story has moments like these interspersed throughout the combat? I’m all here for it. The same can’t be said for the combat, which at this stage felt more than a little frustrating.

To Gotham Knights' credit, showcasing mostly the early hours of the campaign - before characters have been fully fleshed out, and have unlocked a good portion of their upgrades which go a long way towards making each of them feel unique - it’s hard to get a grasp on how deep the RPG progression goes. You have levels, which give you skill points. You have the craftable equipment, that can boost your stats (which have unique models, all of which you can overlay over your currently equipped set), and so on.

It’s nigh impossible to get a feel for the actual progression of a character within such a limited timeframe, and while looking at what skills are at each character’s disposal - especially their special Knighthood skills - it’s hard to get a grasp of how much they might change how the game feels. Sure, Nightwing’s basic ranged attack can deal significantly more damage when he triples the number of projectiles he’s throwing out with each input; but once these all stack up, exactly how different will the game feel at whatever endgame the developers have in store for the players?

Not helping matters is how I’m unsure exactly how well Arkham’s combat lends itself to the trappings of an action RPG. You have a ranged attack, you have a regular hit and a heavy hit with the only difference being the length of the button input, and then you have a dodge button. Perfectly evading attacks builds up a special attack meter one frustration I had with the combat came down to some miscommunication about how you can interrupt strong enemy attacks. 

Normal attacks will have a white highlight near the enemy to let you know it’s coming, which will then react in a way that anyone who has played an Arkham game in the past will know as a sign to dodge or counter. Strong attacks act in much the same way, except with a red highlight - as well as the game letting you know that you can technically interrupt these attacks. Maybe it’s something I’ll get used to over time; but I just could not get the timing right, as to interrupt these attacks requires using special moves that consume your meter. However, some confusion over which of these attacks can actually interrupt - is it all of them? Or this one? Or what about that one? - meant that I eventually just gave up actively going for interrupts.

Co-op does give the combat some more clarity, as the section of the story I was allowed to test the feature out in had the characters moderately leveled - to the point where it was more immediately obvious what each of their quirks evolve into. The session was spent with a member of the development staff, and being able to practice such feats as grabbing stunned enemies so your partner can execute a special attack on them was nice; I asked if there would be any special story dialogue if players were to go through story missions with a buddy, and I was assured that the team had made sure that co-op players were accommodated for the main story.

Beyond that? There’s not much else to say at this point. I can clearly see how Gotham Knights aspires to be an RPG, and even how it might come into its own near the end. Unfortunately, that’s all speculation tied to what was otherwise a fairly underwhelming demo. Which sucks, since looking at bits and pieces of what I played, I want to believe that it’s all things that won’t matter as much to a normal playthrough, and not some guy doing his job checking out in-development games to write about them. There's enough here to be excited for, despite it all.

Due to the nature of what sort of game Gotham Knights is going for, it was always going to be a bit of a tough sell. Large, open-world games - especially with RPG elements - are difficult to showcase at the best of times, let alone when so much of it is stuck on a time limit where even if the developers and PR haven’t set a stipulation for what you can check, you’d still be encouraged to try and breeze through the game at as fast a pace as you can manage. Despite any of my lingering disappointment, it’s plain to see that Gotham Knights has something going for it - and I’m more eager than I was going in to discover exactly what the game has in store