Review: The Dark Knight Rises for iOS

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The Dark Knight Returns for iOS is the only offical tie-in game for the blockbuster conclusion to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. (There's also an Android version available.) As a point of historical reference, you can't overlook the importance of this release. The fact that it's a mobile game, and not a multimillion dollar AAA title from a major studio, heralds a huge shift in how Hollywood looks at movie tie-ins. But examined purely for its playability, it's a study in contradictions. I can't recall the last time I found a game that's both fun and frustrating in equal measure.

Time was, movie tie-in games only happened thanks to partnerships between Hollywood studios and big-name game developers like EA Games and Activision. Those still get made all the time. But the fact that a movie of this size and scope has only an iOS game that’s not available for any other formats… That’s huge. And it makes perfect sense. Why invest huge amounts of time and money in a game that will cost $60, but that fans and critics will almost certainly see as a disappointment? It’s easier to make something smaller, that costs significantly less to make and far less for consumers to buy. There’s no downside. Even if the game ends up getting poor word-of-mouth, it’s an easier investment for publishers to justify.

It also speaks strongly to the rising dominance of touchscreen devices over television consoles and desktop computers. But that’s another conversation for a different day.

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The Dark Knight Rises uses the Arkham console games as its reference for an open-world game set in Gotham City, where you can go anywhere you like, find secrets, explore, stop petty crimes, take down Bane’s thugs, and more. But there’s also a linear storyline. As a mobile game, it has to be a stripped-down version of those games, so it’s an unfair comparison to make. Compared to the technology used in other mobile games, though, it’s a huge step forward (except for the likes of Infinity Blade or Horn).

The story plays fast and loose with the plot of the movie, creating lots of new scenarios for Batman to jump into action (since there were actually just a handful of such incidents in the movie). The dialogue is fully spoken — a rare treat for iOS games, as sound files tend to be huge — but the game has the odd tendency to take lines from the film’s script and insert them in places that don’t match up with where they were in the film. The voice actors don’t sound much like their big-screen counterparts, either, and strangest of all, the game characters’ mouths don’t move or even open when they speak.

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Like the film, the game pits you against hulking adversary Bane and his army of minions. A surprisingly large number of missions send you throughout Gotham, solving crimes and beating on baddies. It’s a longer game than you’d expect, which makes it a great value for the $7 price tag. Of course, developer Gameloft hopes to get more of your money than that, so the game is filled with in-app purchase opportunities. You can earn in-game money to buy some of the upgrades, but you’re unlikely to get them all unless you’re willing to shell out some real dough, which is a serious letdown. You can also access items like safes and vaults via mini games, which give you some nifty goodies to collect and more money to add to your in-game bank.

Fighting in the game suffers from two serious flaws. First, it’s too simple. Most of it comes down to tapping a single melee attack button over and over. A block button will appear anytime you can block an incoming attack, but the enemy A.I. is so dumb, it’s rarely needed. There’s no strategy involved in the multitude of fights; it’s just endless button mashing.

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Which leads to the second flaw: virtual buttons are of-the-Devil. When the buttons that control the entire game aren’t real, tactile things you feel with your fingers, it makes the entire interface needlessly complicated. And it doesn’t help that the action buttons tend to appear under your hand or your fingers, not only making them hard to see when you need them, but also causing you to hit them accidentally. The bulk of the gameplay is mano-a-mano fisticuffs, and there’s almost no variation in Batman’s attack moves or combos. Add the two flaws together, and you end up having to work too hard for something that’s not worth the frustration.

Making matters worse is that the best parts of the game aren’t the fights — it’s everything else. Piloting vehicles is fast and thrilling, exploring the city is more fun than it sounds, and gliding and grappling is surprisingly smooth. The always-nighttime open-world of Gotham is an enticing place, but the game keeps pulling you back to those tedious fights, and it’s here that the game comes apart at the seams.

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Virtual button games on touchscreen devices always feel like lazy ports of games originally made for button-friendly handheld consoles like the PSP or Nintendo DS. Not so in this case, where the buttons are there for no particular reason at all. It’s like Gameloft just can’t get its head around the notion of playing with anything but console thumbsticks and buttons. Instead of giving players the gestures and intuitive touch controls that we need, Gameloft gives players the most annoying control scheme imaginable for a touchscreen. You wouldn’t play SimCity with a joystick, or Portal with a steering wheel, after all.

I can’t recommend The Dark Knight Rises for iOS, as much as I’d like to. It’s got a lot of strong ingredients, such as its well-done graphics and the length of its play time, but nearly all of its potential is wasted on a control scheme that defies logic.

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