This article contains spoilers for Batman: Arkham Knight.
As something of a glutton for punishment, I can take all sorts of abuse from a game before giving up the ghost. I worked my way through most of the mediocre Murdered: Soul Suspect, completed most of the latter-day Battlefield campaigns and even finished the abysmal Aliens: Colonial Marines. If you hand me a game that isn’t broken from top to bottom, I’ll do my best to reach the ending, regardless of whether I’m enjoying myself.
Yet here I am, uninstalling Batman: Arkham Knight from my PS4 after reaching the halfway point, confident that I’ll never return. It’s not like Dark Souls, where a sheer wall of difficulty makes me cry uncle before accomplishing anything significant. Nothing’s wrong under the hood, either (unless you’re unfortunate enough to own the PC version): despite the Batmobile’s nonsensical steering, throwing a punch has never been easier. Yet its mechanical excellence means next to nothing when propping up a game with a heart colder than Mr. Freeze himself.
Rocksteady’s award-winning Arkham franchise has always had its issues with women (It’s a problem DC is particularly familiar with, but that’s an article for another day). Everyone from Talia al Ghul to Harley Quinn is given as little clothing as possible, and the goons in Arkham City love to openly fantasize about sexually assaulting the heroes and villains alike. Despite this objectification, the women in Gotham were also treated as forces to be reckoned with. Catwoman saved Bruce’s skin, Ivy was a considerable threat to the Asylum, and Oracle constantly kept up with Batman’s demanding adventures. Sure, they all played second fiddle to the World’s Greatest Detective, but each felt fleshed out and treated with a modicum of respect, given enough agency to stand on their own.
Within its first two hours, Arkham Knight takes what little kudos it had earned and smashes it against the ground, demanding that you rescue not one, not two, but three damsels in distress. Oracle, Catwoman and Ivy are all put in harm’s way, only milling about in Gotham as pawns for the familiar rogues gallery. The Riddler snatches Catwoman to goad Batman into solving more inane challenges, Ivy acts as unwilling bait, and Oracle is taken to taunt Batman and hurt his relationship with Commissioner Gordon at the same time. The narrative gives them no greater purpose than to be taken and treated like breathing Riddler trophies, an ugly demotion for three women who once held more prominent roles in the series.
Halfway through, Rocksteady decides to “up the stakes” in the worst way possible. When you finally reach Oracle, you’re forced to watch helplessly as she’s doused with Scarecrow’s fear gas and shoots herself in the head. As Batman shakes with sadness and anger, we’re meant to ask how the Dark Knight and Gordon will ever come to grips with this blow. Random Gotham police officers go on about how Oracle was Gordon’s light, Gordon’s daughter, Gordon’s this, Gordon’s that. It is the laziest, most remarkably callous writing I’ve seen in a while: Barbara’s body isn’t even given time to cool before she is reduced to a plot device, an objective, a transparent arrow guiding players to the next green quest marker.
Even the bloated corpse of The Joker has it better than the women in Arkham. Yes, he’s back: despite losing his life in Arkham City and Mark Hamill claiming he’ll never voice The Joker again, Warner Bros. has kept him in the picture for each and every game- this time resurrected with the help of Scarecrow’s gas and a blood-based disease that turns the infected into Joker clones. (Seriously.) Despite Hamill’s return, his trademark cackle has long lost its edge, acting as a crutch for a series that should have found a new focus long ago. A new central villain (who, despite Rocksteady’s claims to the contrary, isn’t as new as he appears), further refined combat and even larger stomping grounds aren’t enough to save Arkham Knight from feeling like a stale retread, trying to maintain relevance by fixing the smaller problems and hoping the larger ones go unnoticed.
When it can’t rely on repeating the well-worn beats of the series’ past, Arkham Knight’s side quests instead desperately repeat each other. Whether you’re investigating serial murders or thwarting Harvey Dent’s robberies, you’re given one mission structure for each route, repeated ad nauseam until it decides to simply end. Identifying corpses in The Perfect Crime always involves finding one out-of-place mark in each X-ray layer, and the sequence for disarming the 10+ landmines littering the streets quickly turns into a chore. You even play an inane game of catch-and-release with Firefly, tackling him out of the air and getting in a few punches before he flies away and resets the process. Remember those tailing missions in Assassin’s Creed that everyone hates? You’re in luck, because Batman now wastes precious time following Penguin’s gun-running vans!
Batman: Arkham Knight is a bloated mess of a game, eager to pile monotonous busywork at your feet and employ old tricks to keep fans satiated. Instead of a lean, challenging behemoth that reinvents the way we think of action, we get a Greatest Hits playlist that callously endangers and kills its female characters as a cheap ploy for drama and motivation. It breaks my heart to see what was once a brilliant Dark Knight fall so far, and I just don’t have the willpower to finish this technically “solid” adventure.