Gotham Knights Review

Gotham Knights

by Matt Kamen |
Published on

Platforms: Xbox Series X, PS5, PC

Hot take: Batman is the least interesting member of the now vastly expanded Batfamily of characters. Whether portrayed as campily as Adam West, as suave as Michael Keaton, as brooding as Christian Bale, or as, er, murderous as Ben Affleck, audiences have seen endless remixes of the Caped Crusader. Fans of the original comics have even more creative takes and iterations to choose from.

Far more interesting now are the partners, protégés, and sidekicks that Batman has gathered, each having different approaches to superheroing and more interesting personalities to explore than poor orphaned Bruce Wayne and his questionable approaches to reducing crime in a major metropolitan area. That's what makes Gotham Knights so exciting a prospect at first glance – in the wake of Batman's apparent death, protection of Gotham City falls to Nightwing, Red Hood, Robin, and Batgirl. By switching focus away from ol' pointy ears and towards these four other heroes, developer WB Games Montréal has a chance to move the whole franchise forward, out of the Shadow of the Bat, and show these legacy characters for the icons they are.

Much of the framework of Gotham Knights manages this – the entire game is a love letter to wider DC Comics continuity. Background info found in files and emails peppers in references to niche supporting characters from the comics and members of other superteams such as Young Justice or the Titans, while the streets and districts of Gotham are named after comics creators. It unapologetically presents its core characters as having long-established relationships and personal backstories – Jason Todd/Red Hood having previously died and been resurrected, Barbara Gordon/Batgirl having recovered from spinal injury and taken on the identity of Oracle, Robin/Tim Drake's father still being in the picture, and more – rather than being blank slates for newcomers. While the main story is fully accessible for anyone without a deep understanding of the wider Bat-lore, those who know these characters will get so much more out of the game.

Unfortunately, outside of the writing and the back matter, Gotham Knights struggles to make the case for its cast being the next generation of heroes. On the plus side, each has a notably different play style, reflecting their personal approaches to crime fighting: Nightwing, with his circus background, is more flamboyant, flipping around between enemies and dazzling with speed; Red Hood is more of a tank, delivering brutal blows and the only character willing to use guns; Batgirl laser-focuses on one enemy at a time, while Robin is best suited to stealth and gadget-related takedowns. It should result in combat that feels unique to each hero and caters to different players' preferred styles.

In practice, no matter who you're controlling, fighting feels frustrating and samey; all the more so because there are all the components for a great combat system. A mix of melee and ranged attacks, light and heavy damage, well-timed dodges and counter-attacks – all of which help charge a Momentum bar that allows more powerful skills to be used – should result in fluid, versatile battles, especially when you're playing co-op, where another player can control one of the Knights. There's the option to be tactical, marking enemies and environmental hazards using an AR filter, or to try to stealthily approach enemies for silent takedowns.

There's nothing personal or unique to developing each hero, just the same drawn-out tasks.

Instead, every encounter feels more like button bashing, where enemy hits connect even after you've performed a perfect dodge – there's an animation cue to show you've been successful, yet enemies still seem to grab you or land attacks – and where stealth approaches rarely work. Even dropping down on enemies from above seems to randomly flip between allowing you to do an actual takedown, or simply an aerial attack, which instigates regular melee combat.

Meanwhile, those special Momentum skills seem to hit any enemy other than the one you're attacking. For instance, Nightwing has a Momentum move where he jumps on an enemy, then springs back out of range. More often than not though, he'll leap clear across an area to pounce on a distant grunt, rather than the tougher foe you're currently engaging. There's no aim or lock on feature, so it all feels terribly random.

Traversing Gotham also suffers from a lack of precision. The four heroes use grappling hooks to navigate the city's streets, but the cursor indicating where you want to grapple to is automatic. For generally getting around, it's not too much of a problem, but there are specific traversal challenges that prove almost impossible at times as you can't manually aim to a specific point, and the existing look-to-kinda-aim system drags you off target. And on the matter of imprecision, the game's UI is also wildly unclear – over-busy menus, an upgrade and gear mod crafting system that never feels suitably explained, and an 'Evidence Board' in the Knights' base of operations that seems to serve no practical purpose, all serve to confuse.

Gotham itself feels oddly empty, too. While the city is gorgeously constructed, and features plenty of comics-accurate landmarks to visit, the streets are barely populated. Roaring around on the Batcycle, you'll hear snippets of ambient dialogue from background civilians who simply aren't there. There's the odd crime to break up – and in a neat twist, certain grunts can be interrogated, to learn details of more challenging Premeditated Crimes to be foiled around the city – but this Gotham is mostly a ghost town. After swinging around the gloriously crafted, living hubs of New York in Insomniac's Spider-Man and Miles Morales games, it's a massive disappointment.

The biggest sin is how repetitive it all is though, and not just in the annoying combat and the series of side activities that pop up as you progress. There's an entire skill tree of 'Knighthood' abilities to be unlocked for each character, but doing so involves completing the exact same objectives for all four – a specific training tutorial, stopping ten Premeditated Crimes, and defeating several minibosses. There's nothing personal or unique to developing each hero, just the same drawn-out tasks, four times over; the very definition of grind. All four heroes even gain experience and level up in sync, which removes any real incentive to switch between them and experiment with play styles.

It's all the more disappointing given that, when it wants to, Gotham Knights can really deliver. There are some phenomenal set pieces – single-handedly stopping a prison riot to a punk rock cover of "Livin' La Vida Loca" is immensely fun – and the story really is one of the best, most comic-accurate tales we've seen in a video game adaptation. Importantly, it's even ensured that Nightwing's canonically great arse is not just lovingly modelled but commented on by other characters. Sadly, all this joy is lost in a mire off aggravating battles, iffy navigation, and endless repetition. Players – and these fantastic characters – deserved better.

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