Handheld games have made huge strides since the days of the Game Boy. The PlayStation Vita and 3DS are far closer to their console counterparts than the previous handhelds, and the Vita can even cross-play certain PS3 games. Despite that, they still have limitations. The biggest and baddest games on the market can't be done on handhelds. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention, and many handheld games have come up with creative ways to take on gameplay they couldn't normally handle. From Metal Gear Ac!d's odd card-style gameplay to Killzone: Mercenary's focus on arcade-style gameplay, there are tons of interesting games that exist only because they can't be something "bigger." You can't put Arkham Origins on a handheld, so approaching it from a different direction could lead to something special. Alas, Batman: Arkham Origins - Blackgate isn't willing to let go of its own origins, and the result is a decidedly mixed bag.
Blackgate begins about three months after Batman: Arkham Origins finishes. Without getting too far into spoilers, Batman has survived his encounter with the eight deadly assassins and locked up The Joker and other villains in Blackgate Prison. It only takes three months before they break free and take over the prison. The Joker, Black Mask and The Penguin have each taken over a part of the prison and are engaged in a war. They've taken the prison staff as hostages, so the police are helpless to stop them. Batman must sneak into Blackgate, reactivate its defenses, rescue the hostages, and take down the villains before they escape and cause harm.
Blackgate's plot is paper-thin. Between Arkham Asylum, Arkham City and Arkham Origins, we're up to six different prison takeovers, at least four of which occur at Blackgate Prison. It's difficult to care about it when it happens constantly. This stands out even more in comparison to Arkham Origins, which opens with one of many Blackgate escapes. The plot is more like an episode of a TV series than a big, dramatic adventure. There are a few villains, and Batman has to shut them down while trading a lot of innuendo-laden quips with Catwoman. It isn't terrible, but it's kind of dull and overlaps rather heavily with the game to which it's a pseudo-sequel.
Blackgate is clearly inspired by classic games like Super Metroid as much as its console brethren. Instead of the 3-D-style gameplay seen in the console titles, Blackgate has gone for a more 2-D style. The gameplay isn't entirely 2-D, as you can zoom into the foreground or background with your grappling hook or by walking through doors, but it mostly plays like a 2-D game. As in Arkham Asylum, you're stuck inside a giant prison complex that you can explore. As long as you have the gadgets and tools to advance, you can go anywhere on the map. There's even a nonlinear aspect to it, as each of the three villains has taken over a part of the complex, and you can tackle them in any order you want.
Combat is based on a simplified version of Arkham Asylum's combat engine. As with the rest of the game, combat takes place on a 2.5-D plane. Enemies attack from the left or right, and you pick a direction and attack. Fights boil down to counter, strike, and stun, without any of the cool variety in the console iterations. Each enemy has a specific weakness, but with such a limited selection, you'll likely stick to a routine. You can still do freeflow combat, but there's little reason to bother, aside from doing slightly more damage and seeing better combat animations. Sometimes, freeflow combat can even get in the way.
Enemies are difficult to target. They stand slightly to the front or back of the 2-D plane, and you automatically target an enemy when attacking. This works great against regular enemies, and the combat is strongest there. When they throw in enemies with special defenses like stun rods, it becomes annoying when Batman targets the wrong foe and you take damage for punching the wrong guy. You can get around it by being careful, but it really hurts the flow of combat and prevents you from reacting naturally. The combat is still fun, but coming to it from Arkham Origins highlights just how shallow it is. The boss fights are some of the highlights, largely because the oversimplified combat works better in one-on-one situations than it does in larger fights — almost the opposite of the regular Arkham fighting system.
Far more harmed by the transition to 2.5-D are the Predator Rooms. Gone are the giant free arenas that encouraged you to experiment with how to take down your enemies. Each Predator Room in Blackgate is more like a linear, rigidly defined puzzle, forcing you to take down the enemies in a specific pattern and with very little freedom. It's understandable that these would suffer from the transition to 2-D, but here, they represent some of the title's least enjoyable moments. All you do is hop behind enemies, take them down, or occasionally use a gadget. They're not bad, just extremely boring. Even if you fail one, it's tough to recover because there are so few options available. Some of the boss battles take the form of extended Predator segments, and those are better because the puzzle-style gameplay is more involved, while most of the generic mooks require no thought at all.
The highlight of the game is exploring Blackgate. The various sections of the world are interconnected, and you'll often find areas you can't reach on your first visit. You may need to venture into another area to find a gadget or unlock a door that lets you find upgrades and equipment. It makes it feel like a large environment that you are gradually overcoming, and the ability to take on the game in different ways helps keep it feeling fresh. There are a lot of Metroid-style upgrades, such as melee damage-increasing gloves, improved armor for your batsuit, and "rush" meters that offer additional health. It's very rewarding to find an area to explore and come out of it with a slightly stronger Batman. It's also fun to find hidden areas to explore or places you can revisit later with new gadgets. It does a good job of capturing the Metroid style of exploration, although it's more restricted than any Metroid game due to your inability to jump.
It isn't a flawless experience, though. There is a lot of backtracking, and it can be frustrating to advance steadily in an area and be forced to go somewhere else because you didn't have the right item, only to start an entire chain of backtracking to find the next item to advance. The game says you can fight the three villains in any order, and that is technically true, but this occurs so close to the end that you don't feel like there's any significant nonlinearity. You need so many gadgets that you'll be close to taking down all three villains at roughly the same point. It's also possible to get stuck because you missed a specific area or — this happened to me a few times — the game refused to scan properly because I wasn't standing in exactly the right spot.
Speaking of scanning, Detective mode also makes a return from the console titles. By tapping the touch-screen, you can turn on Detective mode, which lets you see enemies through walls and occasionally highlight enemies. To get more in-depth information, you have to scan the environment. Holding down on the touch-screen activates scan mode, which allows you to drag a reticle around the screen. Hold it over a color-coded object, and you can scan it for more information so Batman can interact with it. When you want to do anything in the game, it involves scanning. That means every room you enter boils down to holding down on the touch-screen for five seconds and then wiggling your finger around for scannable objects. It wrecks the pace of the game because every few moments, you're forced to scan, scan, and scan some more. Even if you know what you have to do in an area, you're not allowed to do it until you scan it. I have to scan the wall, switch to the Bat-Claw, and then drag it down. If I want to find the many Detective Secrets, I have to scan constantly because some of them are quite hidden. It's not fun and could have been easily replicated by making Detective mode function like it does in the console games and highlighting everything of note in one fell swoop.
Blackgate is a nice-looking game. The environments are detailed but largely drab, and the character models and animations are quite good for a handheld system. The story is mostly told through flash-styled animated cut scenes, which take up the bulk of the dialogue sequences. They're not the nicest-looking cut scenes, but they do the job well enough. The voice actors from the console game reprise their roles here and do a solid job. Roger Craig Smith's Batman sounds even closer to Kevin Conroy than he does in the console version, and the music is the usual bombastic Arkham affair, but it fits the tone of the game.
Batman: Arkham Origins - Blackgate isn't a bad game, but it's a lesser game. It tries extremely hard to mimic its console brethren, but all it does is highlight everything it's missing. A Metroidvania-style Batman game would be fantastic if it were built specifically for the system, instead of trying to cram 3-D gameplay mechanics into a 2-D title. There are moments in Blackgate that shine and make it fun, but it remains forever torn between two worlds. There's enjoyment to be had here, but only those lacking a console or gaming PC should play Blackgate. Others should check out Arkham Origins on a console.
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