Batman Arkham Origins Blackgate review: Dynamic 2.5D

Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate is the latest in the excellent Arkham series, and its first handheld game. It's also the first original game from Armature Studio since it was formed by Metroid Prime expats in 2008. Because both sides of the family tree are so distinguished – and seem so likely to make beautiful children together – my expectations were, perhaps, unrealistically lofty for Blackgate.

No, Blackgate isn't an event on the level of the first Arkham Asylum or Metroid Prime. But it is a game that accurately transfers the feeling of Arkham Asylum into a new, smaller format, and a game that embodies both the best and worst of the "Metroidvania" genre.

Like most other Arkham games, Blackgate is about supervillains taking over a prison, and Batman going in to punch them. It's a prequel, so Batman is supposed to be less confident in his position, but in-game the timeline is reflected only in the fact that he doesn't know Catwoman. She plays the Oracle role for some reason, guiding him from objective to objective, on his quest to stop all the villains and recover the traversal equipment he had previously hidden in crates throughout the prison (again, for some reason).

It is, in fact, very similar to previous Arkham games, which is more of a feat than it sounds. Through some extremely clever tricks, Blackgate makes a 2D side-scrolling game feel remarkably like a 3D game, with camera moves and Batman's gadgetry working to periodically shift the plane on which you move. For example, Batman's ubiquitous grapnel gun frequently takes him onto ledges in the background of the screen, which then reorient into a side view from his new direction. Or the camera will simply turn when Batman comes to a corner. The ingenious design disguises a 2D game as a 3D game in which Batman just happens to walk with absolute certainty.

Of course, this means that the map is kind of a nightmare: a 2D representation of a 2D view of a 3D world. Combined with the generally drab look of most of the environments – this is, after all, a prison, and not even Gotham's cool prison – expect to get lost. Sometimes it's difficult even to figure out how to trigger the camera to swing around toward an alternate exit in a room, something that in 2.5D is a puzzle, but in 3D would be a matter of pressing down on the analog stick. A scanning system much like the one in Metroid Prime reveals interactive background elements. These frequently must be (slowly) scanned before Batman can interact with them. The world's greatest detective has to stare at a fire extinguisher for about five seconds before realizing what it is.

Partly because I kept getting lost, and partly because of the nature of the game, I spent a lot of time backtracking. It's a hallmark of the genre, returning to a previous location once you get a new weapon/gadget/ability, and it can indeed be satisfying to apply new tech to old environments, discovering weak walls you can blow up, electrical devices you can short out, etc. However, I feel like the backtracking is taken a bit too far in Blackgate. I often felt the onset of dread when I realized I was going to have to slog all the way back through part of the prison to get to the next objective.

Blackgate is divided neatly into three sections – prison areas under the control of Joker, Penguin, and a very lucky Black Mask – any of which you can tackle at any time. Each section holds secrets that can only be accessed with another area's signature item, and each eventually requires those items (for example, an electrically-operated lock that can be shorted out with an electrified Batarang), making them not entirely self-contained. It helped when I got extremely lost or stuck to know that I could get to an exit and try to work on another section instead.

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Fights are few and far between, and enemies usually don't respawn. When a fight does break out, it's an effective translation of the console games' Freeflow system, which relies on chaining counters and combos. The combat suffers only slightly from the fact that enemies only come at you from two directions. It's still exciting and dynamic to see, as Batman flings himself around the room taking down men who somehow smuggled clown makeup into prison.

Less successful are the bosses, which are about half pushover and half exceedingly frustrating trial-and-error-and-loading-screen-and-cutscene. They're far more difficult than any other aspect of the Blackgate, and not in particularly fun ways. One boss required dozens of attempts; another ate hours of my day for reasons that are mostly my fault. (A tip: the seemingly infinitely respawning enemies in the Black Mask fight are not merely distractions from the real boss; you have to defeat them to move on.) Bosses require Batman to use specific items, generally whichever item he just found, though executing the proper attack – like distracting the Penguin's gatling gun goons long enough to disarm them without attracting the others – is more of a challenge than figuring out what to do.

The delta between the bosses and the moment-to-moment gameplay make Blackgate a frustratingly inconsistent experience, but the good parts are truly impressive. The Freeflow combat, fun traversal and dynamic presentation helped me to overcome the unpleasantness of the confusing map and aggravating boss fights.

Batman: Arkham Origins - Blackgate is a sort of day-in-the-life of Batman, full of the normal (for him) joys of tossing batarangs and intimidating lowlife criminals. He's not always out on a grand galactic adventure with Green Lantern or time traveling to the year 85,271. Sometimes he's got to hide in an air vent in a prison, waiting to put some dude in a sleeper hold. And even on those days, it's pretty good to be Batman.

This review is based on a retail Vita copy of Batman Arkham Origins: Blackgate, provided by Warner Bros. Blackgate is also available on 3DS.

JC Fletcher is a stay-at-home dad to twins. He runs the handheld gaming site Tiny Cartridge in his spare time. You may remember him from websites such as: this one.

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