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Batman: Arkham Knight is Closer to an RPG Than You Think

Christopher Coke Posted:
Columns The RPG Files 0

Over the last two weeks, I’ve found myself bouncing between games like a kid on summer vacation. Last week, it was The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. This week, it’s Batman: Arkham Knight. I’m not here to tell you how the latest Batman game is actually an RPG because it’s not. What I am going to tell you is how close it actually comes and just how much Arkham Knight succeeds where so many RPGs fail. Without a proper Batman RPG on the horizon, it’s worth investigating just how well it can scratch your RPG itch.

Be sure to read through to page two for news on Witcher 3 inventory improvements, Dragon Age: Inquisition is abandoning older consoles, how Skyrim will help Fallout 4 be more bug free, new No Man’s Sky gameplay, updates to Darkest Dungeon updates, and more!

Arkham Knight lets you be the bat. Well, of course, you’re probably thinking. It’s a Batman game, after all, but let’s sit with that for a moment. From the minute you boot up the game and find Gotham’s defender perched above the grimy neon squalor that is the perpetually gloomy Gotham City, you’re beginning a journey that so thoroughly pulls you into the Batman experience that it transcends being an idea. Gotham becomes a diorama that you can play in, a misbegotten mirror for the excesses of modern America, and you are the one speckle of justice that might redeem it all.

Every movement, every system, ties together so fluidly that Batman becomes an extension of yourself, connected through the wire of your gamepad. Responsive isn’t a word that does this kind of efficacy justice. Without ever considering narrative or choice or character building, those things so core to roleplaying games, Arkham Knight succeeds at making you feel like the hero of decades of comic books and the well-loved Animated Series. If you veer off the path from that first rooftop, the game will have already succeeded in making you feel like Batman. Then the game starts.

What’s wonderful about the Arkham games, not just Knight, is that they so effectively tell their stories. The way the character is embodied in his motion and mechanics perfectly marries with the story to draw you into being Batman. In every single way, you are this character. You are at once the detective searching for clues and following leads from crime scenes, to the predator hanging from the gargoyle. You are the one who leaps from rooftops into crowds of thugs and the one willing to sacrifice himself to save even one person that he loves. You face the worst criminals in the world with a steely reserve. You refuse to give in to murder.

And then, it breaks you. Rocksteady plays with reality more expertly than any developer I’ve seen, and it’s when these walls come crumbling down that you see Bruce Wayne under the cape and cowl, the damaged, hurting, angry, guilty man just crazy enough to put on a bat suit and avenge it all.

Arkham Knight is the dark and twisted masterpiece that somehow manages to make you feel more like your character than any RPG in recent memory. It does this without dialogue trees and branching choices, without stats and character customization (sans skins). It outclasses so many RPGs in this core, fundamental way through sheer storytelling, showing not telling, and voice acting that ranks some of the best in any video game. It’s a lesson for RPG devs. Atmosphere, storytelling, motion, movement, real empowerment to feel like a character is just as important as making choices for a character, player-made or not.

Arkham Knight hems surprisingly close to roleplaying games in other ways, too. Would you be surprised to hear that the game is almost entirely quest-based? Gotham City is a huge, multi-island open world. You’ll work on the main story but there are dozens of side-quests with major story characters. Doing these lets you see and be Batman in interesting new ways and drives you to new areas of the city. Importantly, it also gives you more opportunities to be the World’s Greatest Detective and solve mysteries.

Combat is excellent and more refined than ever before. Finishing encounters rewards you with experience points you use to level your character. We could write this off as yet another generic progression system, but I would argue that leveling up in Batman often feels more meaningful than your average RPG. When you earn a new skill point for, say a new move or upgrade to the batmobile or batsuit, it makes an immediate impact on what you’re upgrading. What is a new attack for Batman than a new ability in an RPG? Before long, you’re mixing and weaving new moves with upgraded gadget attacks and Batmobile call ins for more complex, and often strategic, combat than the series has ever seen.

What the game doesn’t have is also important. It lacks an inventory system. You can interact with the world by taking back islands from criminals, but you’re not picking through crates for leftover apples and spare bits of thread. That also means you’re not finding new gear all the time, but you do unlock new items by completing the campaign.

Sitting here reflecting on the game after playing The Witcher, it’s eye opening just how close Batman actually is. With just a few more systems it would be there, an RPG. But it lacks the most important thing, the ability to make meaningful choices. You are a passive observer to story beats, and walking through rather than forging your own tale.

Still, how easy it is to imagine a dialogue tree opening up as Batman approaches Gordon. How little it would take for Arkham Knight to achieve the best of both worlds. The game may not be an RPG, but for that reason, it’s certainly one RPG fans should look closely at.

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Christopher Coke

Chris cut his teeth on MMOs in the late 90s with text-based MUDs. He’s written about video games for many different sites but has made MMORPG his home since 2013. Today, he acts as Hardware and Technology Editor, lead tech reviewer, and continues to love and write about games every chance he gets. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight