In the video game "Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate" for Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita, players take the role of Batman and quell a villainous rebellion at the infamous Blackgate Prison. (Editor's Note: 'Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate' for PS Vita is not available on Amazon.)
It would be easy to look at "Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate" and decry it for not being "Batman: Arkham Origins," its big-budget console sibling.
But despite the fact that the games came out on the same day, take place in the same narrative world and share similar titles, "Blackgate" is not the same game, nor does it try to be. Unfortunately, without those narrative ties, this platform-based puzzle game is little more than average.
If you've played any of the games in the "Arkham" video game series, then "Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate" will seem familiar: The basic controls and actions are all the same, just vastly simplified to fit a simpler, less dynamic game.
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The game's visual style is so-called "2.5 dimensional" meaning the graphics and camera angles give the illusion of three dimensions to a two-dimensional platformer game.
This makes the combat both easier and harder than in a 3D game; there's not much room for creativity when your only choices are left or right, counter or attack.
But "Blackgate" isn't really about the fighting, so if you're playing for an "Origins" experience, you're going to be frustrated. "Blackgate" was developed by Armature Studios, many of whose developers previously worked on the highly influential "Metroid" video game series.
Like the 2D "Metroid" games and similar titles, players must find their way through a sprawling maze of mostly linear corridors, collecting new items and abilities to open new doors and travel deeper into the prison's interior.
A series of detective-based sidequests (optional missions that run alongside the main plot) tries to shake up the repetitive gameplay, but these consist of little more than using Detective Mode at every available opportunity to scan for otherwise-invisible "clues."
Aside from remembering to look for them, there's nothing challenging about these mysteries: Finding all the clues in a set wins you an experience bonus, but it does little to contribute to the game's narrative or atmosphere.
One thing to be said of the overall simplistic gameplay is that it makes for decent on-the-road entertainment, an important quality in games for handheld consoles, such as the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita.
In an opening narration, Batman briefly informs us that it's been three months since the events of "Arkham Origins." The game then launches into a prologue/tutorial of sorts that has Batman pursuing the thief Catwoman across the rooftops. He eventually captures her and informs her she's headed to Blackgate Prison.
Two weeks later, a massive explosion at Blackgate has the Gotham City Police scrambling to lock down the area, while inside the prison, the villains Bane, Penguin and Joker and their gangs have each staked out their own territories.
Of course, Batman volunteers to go in and recapture the bad guys. Upon arrival, he spies Catwoman being propositioned by thugs from the three villains' gangs.
Rather illogically, instead of using Batman's intervention as her chance to escape the prison entirely, Catwoman agrees to act as Batman's eyes and ears for his mission in Blackgate in exchange for getting a shorter sentence in a less violent institution.
In the meantime, another mysterious person is taking an interest in Batman's activities in Blackgate Prison, one whom fans will recognize from the comic books and a brief appearance in "Arkham Origins."
Over the course of the game, Batman will travel between the prison's administrative, industrial and cell block areas to gather the tools he needs and take down Joker, Bane and Penguin once again, with Catwoman serving a role similar to Oracle in the "Arkham Asylum" and "Arkham City" games, as Batman's guide and snarky conversation partner.
Most of the look and feel of "Blackgate" has been copied directly from "Arkham Origins," though the graphics are, by necessity of the less powerful PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS, below the level of "Origins."
You'll see a lot of gray: gray concrete, gray steel, gray skies, gray clothing. In the level aesthetics, the industrial grunge of Gotham City's architecture has been taken up a notch in order to create the creepy, haunted environs of Blackgate Prison.
In fact, the prison stops looking like a prison pretty quickly; instead, you'll find yourself crawling through sewage tunnels and smashed-up administrative corridors far more than actual cell blocks. When these graphics look sharp, it's because the camera is zoomed out; on the rare occasions it chooses to zoom in, such as when Batman's delivering a knockout blow or prying open a rusty grate, the blocky nature of the game's textures is revealed.
The environment and characters appear to be three-dimensional, as stated, but despite some clever camera rotations to give the illusion of turning corners, the game is entirely two-dimensional.
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In fact, the most visually interesting scenes in "Blackgate" are when it drops all pretense of three dimensions in its motion comiclike cutscenes. These are illustrated storyboards with only the most basic animation effects, such as fadeout transitions and the appearance of an occasional "biff!" or "fzzt!" or other onomatopoetic turn of phrase overlaid on the art.
Sometimes, these motion comics look a bit cheesy, and their slightly more cartoonish style in comparison with the rest of the game makes them feel slightly out of place. On the whole, however, these scenes are far more effective at communicating story and evoking emotion from the player/viewer than the rest of the game, and they help "Blackgate" stand out among the now-crowded playing field of games that have "Arkham" in their title.
The brilliant cast of "Batman: Arkham Origins" returns to voice the characters in "Blackgate," with Roger Craig Smith as Batman, Grey DeLisle as Catwoman and Troy Baker as the Joker. Unfortunately these actors are working with material of a poorer quality than the other times they've played these roles.
Christopher Drake, the composer for "Batman: Arkham Origins," is also credited with the music score for "Blackgate," and on the whole, "Blackgate" appears to share the same sound. This is far from a bad thing; Drake's soundtracks are excellent, with a strong baseline and an emphasis on mood that well suits the pacing of an exploratory video game.
The linearity of "Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate" means there's little in the way of replayability here. Completionist players will enjoy going back to find missing clues and collecting WayneTech crates containing powerups and costume accessories. Like "Origins" and its mobile beat-'em-up spinoff, "Blackgate" lets players find and don many of the Batsuits that the character Bruce Wayne has worn in his almost 75 years as a pop culture icon.
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The so-called "Soviet Batman" costume from the graphic novel "Superman: Red Son" makes another appearance, as do costumes from many Batman's other comic, film and TV appearances.
"Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate" continues the story of "Arkham Origins" proper while still standing alone as a Batman experience. That alone is enough to make it appealing to a significant demographic of players.
Aside from that, working your way through the mazelike levels can be fun and engaging, but if you're looking for a truly challenging puzzle or a thrilling story, you'll need to look elsewhere.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Developer: Armature Studio
Publisher: WB Games
Requirements: 3DS, PlayStation Vita
Release Date: Oct. 25, 2013
Platforms: 3DS, PlayStation Vita
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