Batman is dead, and it takes four people to do his job. That’s the central conceit of Gotham Knights, the new third-person action game from WB Games Montreal. In the opening cinematic, which drags on for what feels like an eternity, long-time villain Ra’s al Ghul uses some magic, a sword, and his general annoying demeanor to essentially badger Batman into a heroic, yet sacrificial death. To keep the heroics of Gotham going, Batman’s four protégés – Nightwing, Batgirl, Red Hood, and Robin – pick up where he left off in combatting, and investigating, the criminal underworld of Gotham.
Notably, Gotham Knights is not a follow-up to 2015’s Arkham Knight. While there are many shared characters between the games, this is fundamentally a different story in a slightly parallel universe. I have to say that directly here, if only because it could be quite confusing. That game ended with a dead Batman and a Gotham city in need of a new generation of saviors – that’s not this dead Batman, and these saviors are not the ones that city needed.
This game does share a substantial amount of game design substrate with that franchise, however. This is an action game based on one-vs-many combat encounters. There are heavy and light attacks that get better the more you commit to rhythmically punching them out, and you charge a meter that allows you to unleash special Momentum attacks that can instantly KO an enemy or stun a group. If you have played an Arkham game, and you pick up Gotham Knights, you will not feel alienated; if you’ve never played one of these before, you’re probably going to pick it up fairly quickly, anyway.
What sets Gotham Knights apart from those previous outings in the Bativerse is the ensemble setup. Instead of playing as the lone brooder, you pick from one of the four inheritors of the Batman legacy. There’s Nightwing, a former Robin and circus performer named Dick Grayson, who was raised by Batman to become a vigilante after the death of his parents; Batgirl, aka Barbara Gordon, is a tech whiz who practices Batman’s outsider methods alongside her late father’s sense of justice; Tim Drake, the most recent in-game Robin, is a smart teen who is always running his mouth and taking the sneaky detective route; and rounding out the team is Red Hood, Jason Todd, who is also a former Robin, who was kidnapped by the Joker, killed, eventually resurrected, became a murderous vigilante, and then was eventually “woken up” and brought back to the side of good by Batman.
If this sounds like a lot of information, it is, but Gotham Knights does not really expend much energy explaining this backstory to you. Like most DC comic books today, Gotham Knights is content to drop you in this absolute morass of canon statements and just assume that you will either figure it out through exposition or break down and read a wiki alongside the in-game, menu-driven information about these key characters. This general feeling of comic-book-ness — that you’ll either figure it out or give up trying to — permeates the game.
Across Gotham Knights, a truly impressive number of canonical Gothamites appear, and there are some complicated levels of canonicity to them. Is this a new interpretation of the character? Are they slyly referencing an Arkham game? What about a film or the comics? Early on, a character mentions that Harley Quinn had been off doing a “government job” that reads very clearly as a Suicide Squad reference. What should I know about that? How much does it matter? The DC Universe’s tendrils are wrapped around everything and nothing here in a way that is much more ambivalent than the clear “pocket canon” of the Arkham franchise.
And, ultimately, these references and connections have very little impact on the meat and potatoes of the Gotham Knights experience, which centers on a few key activities: You patrol the city to fight crime, you learn about these four heroes and how they are living after Batman’s death, and you do more grandiose linear missions where you hunt down key villains like Harley Quinn, Clayface, and the mysterious Court of Owls.
All of these activities are elided beautifully into one another. For example, Mr. Freeze’s “case file” (or questline) begins with a linear mission centered on some thefts at STAR Labs. Once Red Hood, the character I was playing for that mission, got inside the lab, he realized that the theft was being perpetrated by the Regulators, a gang of data thieves and techno-criminals. He cleared a few rooms of them, and then realized that the theft was centered on some cryo-whatever supplies, and damn it don’t you know that Mr. Freeze is all about that stuff.
Then, of course, Freeze got away, and the only way to continue the open case was to roam the open world map, find Regulators committing crimes, and interrogate them to find Freeze’s next location. This revealed new missions, and sometimes big heists or kidnappings, that my hero had to resolve while tracking down the big bad cold guy. This is the wax and wane of the game, and it flows in a way that I personally find more engaging than the similar structures that have appeared in games like 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man. Here, it feels like real Batman stuff — like you’re hitting the streets and coming back with hard data about the supervillains piloting ice mechs in a bid to control the weather.
What is less appealing to me is what most people are probably most interested in: the moment-to-moment combat, which dominates at least 75% of the game’s playtime.
It offers a standard mix for this genre: Heroes punch bad guys, and there are some bad guys who need to be defeated in specific ways, so the heroes have a series of rock-scissors-paper abilities to deal with them. A random Mob fella might get punched out easily; Talons, a special pseudo-zombified creature, have to be hit with a ranged attack that knocks them down before you can clobber them with your punches. The operation of combat itself relies on memorizing all of these enemies and their counters to them while mixing in special Momentum abilities that have their own charge bar. For the most part, Momentum attacks are about ending things as quickly as possible. By the end of the game, I was no longer deploying Batgirl’s pummeling blow attack tactically. Instead, I was just charging the bar and spamming it as much as I could, since it took out enemies efficiently (if boringly) and allowed me to get to the next plot beat.
On top of this are a series of expected, but unexciting, combat granularities. There are levels that give you ability points, and those can be used to gain abilities that improve specific attacks or maneuvers. Some of these matter very little, like gaining more crit damage, and others matter a whole hell of a lot, like Batgirl’s ability to remotely disable some electronic devices. There are collectable suits and weapons, each with their own stats that go up, and there are mod chips that can be equipped to those items, which make the numbers go even higher.
Playing through the game on medium difficulty, I had to pay very little attention to this other than making sure I kept that number increasing across the game. Similarly, there is an elemental status mechanic that allows you to build status effects that do additional damage in ways similar to The Division games — but this did not seem to make or break any fights across the entire experience. These might matter more seriously on the hardest difficulty, or they might become relevant in the announced Heroic Assault mode that launches later this year.
It is worth saying here that Gotham Knights is apparently playable all the way through in online co-op, although the tight timeline of this review prevented me from trying that out. Some boss fights felt tuned explicitly for this kind of co-op experience, and most of them followed a pattern of “do a thing, do a different thing that’s harder, do both of those things at the same time” that required intense time and space management from a solo player. Ultimately, though, I found most of those fights to be engaging, even if they did eventually become a little boring due to their extended length. I imagine that a co-op partner would make those feel a little tighter.
The vast majority of the time I spent playing Gotham Knights was spent nodding my head and thinking “OK, yeah, cool.” It’s that kind of game. There are some brilliant moments, like Harley Quinn’s turn as an evil wellness guru, that I think are well executed and plotted. However, the vast majority of the game consists of roaming the world from point to point and doing fights, which is sometimes punctuated by excellently written comic-book storytelling about four people trying to fix the world in memory of their dead Batdad. I was happy to clonk my way through some of those less-than-memorable fights to get to the next plot point about Red Hood or Batgirl, and I think anyone itching for some basic Bat-family action will feel the same way.
But Gotham Knights is lacking some of the interpretive moves that made both Rocksteady’s Arkham games and WB Games Montreal’s own Arkham Origins so fascinating and unique. It’s yet another encounter on the same rain-soaked streets.
Gotham Knights will be released on Oct. 21 on PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PS5 using a pre-release download code provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.