Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate Review – PlayStation Vita

People always ask me why our reviews are posted days or weeks after a game launches.   Part of it is that we don’t get pre-release copies.  We play the same retail games that you are playing, plus we playing them longer than most other sites and play them in the same style that you play them; like leisurely gamers.   Sure, we might marathon a game, but if we do it’s because that game is awesome and not because we are trying to meet some arbitrary deadline to guarantee site traffic and ad revenue.

The only reason I even bring this up is that I did get my copy of Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate a few days ahead of release day and I still chose to spend some extra time with my review after it shipped, and I’m glad I did.  If I had reviewed this game  two weeks ago (or even a week ago) it would have gotten a much lower score.  From the moment I started playing Blackgate until just a few days ago there was something that was bugging me about the game.   Maybe it was the lack of true 3D environments and the freedom of exploration in a sandbox city I normally associate with a Batman game; maybe it was the lack of direction, objectives, and goals that had me wandering aimlessly around the prison trying not to throw my Vita against the wall in frustration.  Whatever the reason, the things I hated about the game weeks ago are the very things I love about it now.  I’m not sure when, how, or why it clicked, but I’m a pretty big fan of Blackgate on the PlayStation Vita.

Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate took the bold approach of not trying to create a portable version of its console cousin.  Instead, we get a totally original game with a fresh story that picks up a few months after the events of Arkham Origins, but detaches itself enough from that plot so playing the console version is not required.  The game opens with quite the exciting tutorial stage that has Batman zipping around the Gotham skyline in pursuit of a highly sexualized Catwoman.  Though he’d never admit it, Batman shares a bit of chemistry with the kitty, even after he apprehends her at the end of the level and has her tossed into Blackgate Prison.

When he is forced to go into Blackgate and foil the plans of the combined forces of Black Mask, Penguin, and the Joker, Catwoman may prove to be more of an unpredictable ally than a nemesis.  Only time will tell.   The rest of the game takes place inside Blackgate Prison that has been divided into three main sections, each under the control of one of the aforementioned villains.   Batman will need to clear out each section of the prison, engaging in plenty of combat, puzzle solving, and item collection using his high-tech detective abilities that have been tweaked to make the most of the Vita’s capabilities.

Blackgate is a 3D world presented in a 2D view which allows for a lot of cool perspective shifts where the world will rotate to accommodate the action as well as provide some thrilling camera angles, although it can take a while to get used to the presentation as well as the controls.  While the sticks and buttons offer smooth movement and intuitive combat not unlike the attack-counter system from the console game, the real star of the show is the detective mode.  Tapping the screen will toggle the blue filter overlay, revealing key items and people as well as a few collectible secrets, but you will also need to tap and hold then swipe around the screen for more precise analysis.  You can click on a keypad to identify the type of encryption you’ll need to hack it or you can scan a person to find out their vitals and ID their weapon.  Thorough use of the detective mode on just about every screen is required to keep the game moving, and if you get stuck with nowhere to go, chances are you didn’t scan a room to find a vent shaft or hidden door.

Combat is excellent; perhaps even better than the console version of the game.   You can pick your targets and perform aerial glide attacks from a perched overwatch then mix it up with melee moves and cool blocks and counters or attack your foes from a distance with your trusty batarang.   Batman also has plenty of gadgets by the end of the game.  These are a bit slow to come by during the story, but are spread out enough to keep that carrot dangling at the end of the stick, and finding these gadgets will aid you in getting past environmental puzzles.

The graphics on the Vita are gorgeous with excellent detail, lighting, shadows, and special effects.   The animation for Batman is smooth and lifelike, and his combat moves are also flashy if not somewhat repetitive, but so are the enemies for the most part.   For a 2D game the camera is always in motion creating a fresh perspective on what would otherwise be a standard sidescroller.   While most of the action is presented from a distant camera, you will get the occasional zoom or slow-motion final takedown for added effect.   The between-mission story is told through some expertly crafted comic book panels with a fantastic art style.  Music, sound effects, and voice acting are all console quality and worth playing with a good set of earbuds or headphones.

The one thing I did notice is that the structure of the game isn’t really designed for pick-up-and play; at least not in the defined 10-15 minute mission blocks we normally see on handheld games.   Blackgate is a 6-8 hour game with no real logical breaks or intermissions, so I ended up just suspending and resuming my game a lot whenever I wasn’t fighting something.   The game does save and checkpoint but not in any obvious way.

Once you adjust to the game’s unique visual perspective, control scheme, and reliance on the detective mode to keep the game flowing, Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate turns into a fantastic handheld action-brawler that is hard to put down; and this is coming from someone who had to force himself to pick it up and play for the first week.   Sure, the game has issues, many of which have to do with some serious backtracking through empty levels, a poorly designed map system, and some overly ambitious and poorly executed boss battles, but for those looking for a console quality Batman game they can take on the road, Blackgate is definitely worth checking out.

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