On paper, Blackgate reads like a sure thing: a Batman: Arkham universe Metroidvania by Vita specialists Armature Studio (Injustice: Gods Among Us, Metal Gear Solid HD Collection), some members of which worked on the Metroid Prime series.
Built from the ground up for the Vita and 3DS, and with a voice cast featuring Troy Baker and Nolan North, there were plenty of reasons to be excited for the game’s release.
But a great premise does not a great experience make, and disappointingly, Blackgate is proof.
Set three months after the events of Arkham Origins, Batman must infiltrate Blackgate prison after an explosion allows Joker, Penguin, and Black Mask to take over the prison’s administration building, cell blocks, and industrial area respectively.
Written by experienced Batman scribe Adam Beechen (Justice League Unlimited, Batman Beyond), the story on offer is advanced mainly via attractive motion comic-style cutscenes, and while nothing particularly memorable, given the game’s genre it’s fine. Bats tracks down each villain in any order he likes, along the way gathering clues as to what caused the explosion.
Blackgate is Metroidvania in a very pure sense: it’s a 2.5D side-scroller whose interconnected, labyrinthine stages are tackled in a non-linear fashion and whose many gated areas are inaccessible until a specific item or hidden passage is discovered. Batman is well-equipped to traverse the prison environment and grapnels, ziplines, and crawls his way around with ease, although staying out of sight of enemies is only possible in dedicated stealth rooms.
As in the other Arkham games, Detective mode features, and a tap of the Vita’s screen lets players know most of what they can interact with in the environment – doors, grates, perches, barrels, and so forth. Not all of the prison’s secrets give themselves up so readily though: many must be discovered by scanning the environment by sliding a finger around the screen, and in fact it’s mandatory to thoroughly scan each screen just to be able to find your way through the game.
Not only are solutions to environmental puzzles found this way, but so are secret passages, breakable walls, side-mission clues, and more that generally isn’t visible otherwise. The balance on secret items is way off though, with long journeys through hard-to-find secrets often yielding a stingy single piece of a five piece armour suit, for example.
Hidden items appear as a question mark on the game’s map, so this wouldn’t be such a big problem at all, except that the map is awful. Like, seriously useless. Part of the problem here is that while the game is played from a side-on perspective where movement up several storeys and around twisting, intricate passsages is often possible, the map is a bare-bones top-down travesty that doesn’t even distinguish different floors from one another. That means it’s possible to be standing on top of a mission icon but actually be several floors above or below where you need to be, which in all probability is only accessible via an entrance on the other side of the facility.
Navigation is confused further because Batman can often grapnel or otherwise move along the game’s z-axis into the background via vents, doors, or a zipline. While a dynamic camera gives these actions a cinematic flourish, it is easy to completely lose one’s bearings and become disoriented as it swings back around to a side-on view.
Not only do these problems quickly excise any desire to search for secrets and items, they also make the game’s already excessive backtracking utterly tedious. Revisiting a section with a new item to access previously walled-off content is one of the pleasures of the genre, but Blackgate makes finding one's way back both frustratingly difficult and incredibly boring. In short: prepare to be lost and confused, but not in a welcome Metroid manner.
The fluid combat system from the other Arkham games has been squished into 2.5D by Armature, but the fun left with the third dimension. It never flows the way it does on console, there is a fairly small move set, and having only two sides to defend makes it a cinch. The latter complaint is exacerbated by Blackgate’s small groups of timid enemies and a dearth of variety – per group usually only one foe is present that requires anything more than a mashing of the attack button. And guns are a massive threat in Arkham games, but here henchmen with automatics can only chip away at Batman’s regenerating health while he punches holes in their fellow inmates.
Targetting enemies is also a problem if an enemy happens to be slightly in the background, but honestly the combat is so easy it’s never that bothersome that the wrong guy is punched or stunned. As mentioned, some rooms may be cleared covertly by choking enemies out from behind and remaining hidden, but these sections are just as easily conquered by going loud, as it were.
The game's three mid-level bosses are equally disappointing, the battle with one of which is essentially a quick time event, but encounters with the prominent villains are intriguing puzzles rather than battles. Alas, their trial-and-error nature is ruthless, with death sending the player back through several rooms and a loading screen before another attempt may be made.
At least the open level design allows the player to face the bosses of the game in any order with the last one defeated dictating the story's ending and a New Game Plus mode allowing experimentation in that regard. But after eight hours of dull backtracking and disorientation most will have easily had their fill long before the credits.