“We always understood that there had to be a sense, by the end of the story and by the end of your investment in the hero, that you have in some way transcended the obvious potential of this character in order to become a symbol,” says Creative director Patrick Redding.
“This is someone who I believe can fill the vacuum Batman has left behind. So that’s such an essential aspect of the fantasy that we felt like there needed to be a moment where that was reflected in the ability tree, where it was reflected in the RPG foundations of the game.”
With that overall philosophy in mind, a game mechanic that has you constantly changing and experimenting with new techniques feels apt. Gotham Knights offers a lot of options in that regard, from new superhero suits, to ability-changing gear – but it doesn’t make that idea clearer than in its skill trees. Each character has four ability trees, which offer separate directions in which to specialize your hero.
“The main abilities that you see on the ability tree are abilities that you unlock after you’ve earned ability points, and that’s something that’s a natural functional leveling up in this standard RPG way,” Redding explains. “You get XP, you level up, you get some ability points. And there’s dependencies and prerequisites like you would normally see in an action-RPG, but that is the gating mechanism for those abilities. You’re spending points, you’re deciding where you want to spend them.”
Of course, with four heroes, you’ll likely want to experiment, and the game accounts for that, without feeling like you’re leaving anyone behind while not playing with them.
“So, obviously,” assures Redding, “we’re a multi protagonist game and we expect that a lot of players are going to identify, fairly quickly that, ‘Okay, I like this hero. This character matches my style of play. I’m invested in their progression and in their evolution. I want to play that character for a long time.’ That said, there’s three other heroes that you may decide at some point, it would be interesting for you to try, and that you want to be able to jump into playing without feeling like you’re being penalized or need to go back and redo a whole bunch of work in order to get them advanced.
“So then what happens is, if you decide to switch characters, basically, you now have a surplus of ability points that you can go into the menu and spend. You’ll sit there, you’ll allocate them. You can look at the whole ability tree. You can decide what you want to have access to.”
The skill themselves trees are made up of a mix of ability or stat-changing upgrades – but the paths they can take you down are purposely varied, allowing you to build different versions of the same hero.
Batgirl can specialize in 1-on-1 melee combat, but she can also focus on hacking abilities, or survivability. Nightwing can build on her acrobatics, but can also offer massive buffs for co-op play. Robin can build on his preternatural talents for stealth, but could equally work on tech that helps provide decoys, or enhance elemental effects.
We got a more in-depth look at the trees for the final hero, Red Hood (which you can see in the slideshow above) – Marksman, Brawler, and Vengeance. “So the Marksman tree is self-explanatory,” says game director Geoff Ellenor. “It’s really about dealing more damage at range. That skill tree focuses mostly on damage per second and rewards for shooting and rewards for taking the time to use precisioning.
“The Brawler skill tree is about melee combat, but more importantly, it’s about powering up the fact that Red Hood is our largest character and he’s got the best grab and throw mechanics in Gotham Knights. And that’s a really brutal hand to hand focused skill so if you’re into that style of play, it’s a great place to invest early, to get the most out of Red Hood.
“The Vengeance tree is essentially reflecting Red Hood’s rage in different ways. He can be an intimidating character, so it’s about leveraging parts of his personality and embodying them as abilities to be more frightening and to deal more damage against certain types of enemies that he is truly angry inside about.”
You may have noticed that we talked about four skill trees earlier, and there is one more unique set of options – Knighthood. Perhaps the most interesting of all the ability options, Knighthood is available for every character, and represents a moment of self-actualization where your hero has worked out how they can become their own Dark Knight, rather than just a new Batman. It will begin to unlock after a specific point in the story, but every character will have to complete a set of unique challenges to begin earning the abilities inside.
“Unlocking the Knighthood tree gives you a couple of things,” says Ellenor. “It unlocks the hero traversal for that hero. So if you’re Batgirl, suddenly you can glide. It unlocks your ultimate ability – for Batgirl, that’s the drone – and it unlocks the Knighthood ability tree where you can start to add additional, very powerful mechanics to your hero that are otherwise not available to you until that point in the story.”
Redding adds, “Once you’ve unlocked Knighthood for one character, you don’t need to go and do the story beat again for the other heroes in order to gain access to that progression, but you’ll need to go out and do the challenges for that hero that are associated with these additional abilities.”
Knighthood is a truly interesting combination of narrative and mechanic, a way of using traditional RPG ideas to help tell the story of Gotham Knight’s budding heroes.
“So literally, there is a moment where it’s possible for you to have this epiphany with your character,” Redding enthuses. “It can be the moment that Robin, suddenly… he’s staring at the Batman shrine in the Belfry, and he’s looking at the gauntlet and thinking about the technology and how Batman used it, because he’s like the most recent member of that team . And Robin’s thinking to himself, ‘Wait a minute. Batman wasn’t just what was in the Batcave or what he had on his person. It was also his relationship and his connection to the bigger universe of these superheroes.’ The Justice League Satellite.
“So that’s kind of the moment where he goes, ‘Wait, I can tap into that. I can absolutely tap into that, and if I use it this way, it’s going to open up a set of abilities and some ways of fighting crime .’ And so that first moment is what opens up his heroic traversal of him. It’s where he goes, ‘I can do short-range teleportation. Okay.’ So these are the kinds of thematic links that we’ve tried to create with the Knighthood branch.”
Alongside all of these skill trees is another menu of unlockables – Momentum Abilities. These amount to special attacks that can be assigned to specific button combos. Many of the Momentum Abilities tie into the skill trees – but they’re earned differently.
“In the case of the Momentum abilities, you’re getting those by engaging in challenges in the world, explains Redding. “You know when you look at the momentum ability breakdown, ‘In order to unlock that, I need to do the following four or five things.'”
Ellenor continues: “I will say that the most amount of synergy between abilities in different trees actually happens between the Momentum abilities tab and the rest of the trees. For example, Batgirl’s beat down is a Momentum ability, but can be powered up by other abilities in her tree that allow her to do it more effectively and with piercing damage, which the ability doesn’t usually have at the start.”
The developers’ goal with all of these trees isn’t just to tack on RPG mechanics to an action game, but to provide a legitimate sense that your heroes are growing, learning, and changing throughout the course of Gotham Knights’ story. As a player, you’re being asked to help create your own versions of those heroes – and the team doesn’t want you to simply be able to fill out an entire skill tree on your first playthrough, encouraging you to pick and choose carefully .
“If [I’m] playing through Gotham Knights in a regular way – so, I’m going after all of the main story arcs and I’m fighting the villain arcs – I will have unlocked most, but not all of the skill tree. So your choices are always going to matter as you, at least as far as what it takes for you to beat the story.
“I think players will, and probably should, mix and match to get the best out of the abilities in Gotham Knights. We know that players will choose ability clusters as we’ve arranged them in the trees, because they are excited about an individual ability, but there is a lot of synergy between trees and also, you have to experiment to find out what you really like.”
You’ll see how that experimentation can play out in our video of two different versions of Red Hood playing co-op together, and you can see how visual expression will be important alongside all this in our reveal of 28 superhero suits. If you want to see everything we’ve revealed from Gotham Knights so far, check out our IGN First hub.
Joe Skrebels is IGN’s Executive Editor of News. follow him on twitter. Have a tip for us? Want to discuss a possible story? Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.