I’m a sucker for Batman films, but once the net loosens a bit, my experience with the world of Batman becomes a little spottier.
Luckily, it’s essentially impossible now to avoid a run-in with The Caped Crusader and the gallery of misfits that populate Gotham City. There are too many TV shows to count, and while I don’t read comic books, a recent visit to a comics store in Chicago tells me that iterations of the character are exploding even now. The recent film The Flash seemed to feature Michael Keaton’s return as Batman more than The Flash character himself, at least in the previews.
One of our tabletop marketing partners reached out because he had a new copy of The Arkham Asylum Files: Panic in Gotham City ready to ship. I watched the trailer, and had to admit that this looked like a fun activity, even if it was very close to the line of board game versus video game. There are plenty of tabletop elements, all secretly packaged in a handsome black box, but players must use an app to drive the entire gaming experience.
(As of the writing of this article, Panic in Gotham City is only playable on newer iOS devices. That meant I actually couldn’t play this game when I first got it. I own an iPad mini 4, and that device isn’t compatible with the app’s features; my Android phone couldn’t be used either. Be sure to check the game’s website to ensure device compatibility.)
During a recent holiday weekend, my wife and I got this one to the table. As massive fans of all things escape room / single-play mystery experiences, Panic in Gotham City got my wife off the couch in a heartbeat. After playing through four of the game’s seven chapters (63% of the game)…we have spoiler-free thoughts to share.
[Insert Sound of The Joker Cackling Here]
Panic in Gotham City is a seven-chapter, one-shot escape room game that deftly mixes a wide array of analog, IRL mini puzzles with an app that often requires the use of your device’s camera to sprinkle in a cool set of augmented reality visuals and scripted video content.
The game’s story features Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a psychiatrist who works at maybe the worst prison (real or imagined) in human history, Arkham Asylum. The character is more prominently known as Harley Quinn, now played by actress Margot Robbie in films like The Suicide Squad. In this game, she is the lead character and a person you’ll be playing as or assisting throughout this adventure.
The presence of Harley Quinn also means The Joker is around, once again creating havoc on the streets of Gotham City. In the game, though, he is a token figure; save for a very consistent cackling sound whenever you get a puzzle answer wrong, Joker only shows up a handful of times to introduce new story segments. He is called a host in the press materials for Panic in Gotham City, but if you are hoping for lots of Joker-themed content, look elsewhere.
Each of the game’s seven chapters takes about an hour (this is also printed on the side of the box). Using the app and large, sealed envelopes filled with goodies that have to be scanned, constructed, rearranged, and even worn (!!!), players try to solve a series of puzzles to solve each situation. There’s a nice range of difficulty to the puzzles, both in terms of variety but also how those puzzles are solved.
Some of the puzzles in one of the chapters required the use of my device’s camera (we used my wife’s three-year-old iPad), and the way we had to scan parts of the physical components in the box actually took a lot of work to “see” every part of Gotham City. Another puzzle required the use of a small booklet, and the app was only used to enter simple codes.
Like some of the Cold Case games from ThinkFun, Panic in Gotham City also features a fictionalized newspaper, full of articles that have to be read and later used for clues. The app really brings this experience to life thanks to the AR components of the game; in one puzzle, the newspaper basically appears as a living, breathing document.
The app also does a great job of creating atmosphere for the game; dramatic music, the sound effects, and some of the sillier visuals landed well during our plays.
It’s Never Safe in Gotham City
As a puzzle game, Panic in Gotham City is a fun ride. AR really sells the game as something unique in a marketplace that seems flooded of late by escape room experiences. The puzzles themselves aren’t terribly special. I still think the Exit games do unique puzzle elements better than anyone else in this space, but the thinkier puzzles in Panic in Gotham City are still pretty interesting.
Really, what makes Panic in Gotham City stand out is the Batman license. But here’s the thing: almost nothing about the game makes it feel like a Batman game.
That’s not to say the theme is a complete miss; in fact, the only complete miss in this game is the voice of Harley Quinn. By the time she had uttered her second line in the app, my wife and I knew we were in for a long sit. Maybe we are spoiled by the work of Robbie in the films, or maybe I just don’t like the put-on nature of Quinn’s faux Brooklyn accent. But Quinn in this game didn’t work for me, and there’s nowhere to hide—Quinn is the star of the game, so you are going to be stuck with Quinn’s voice throughout.
No, the theme is mainly a miss because this is sold as a Gotham City game, but there are really no Gotham City-like things going on. The bad guy gallery you are expecting to see in a game featuring the prison where most baddies get locked up? Not a wink of the characters I grew up with, like The Riddler, The Penguin, or Two-Face. Batman? I think I caught a glimpse of the Batsignal, but “Bats” was mostly nowhere to be seen either.
When tackling puzzles, most could be pasted on for a variety of settings. Many of the videos feature a villain that I was not aware of prior to playing this game, and no matter how you feel about this character in the context of Panic in Gotham City, they are not used to sell the game in any way (no mention is made of this character in the press releases or box art).
All of this is to say that I was hoping for a Batman game. I got a fun puzzle game that makes exceptional use of technology, but it’s not a Batman game. This includes the fact that the game comes with either a Batman mask or a Joker mask (this is literally listed on the back of the box!), but one does not feel more or less like those characters when asked to take the mask out.
The game is good. Also–the game is expensive. The MSRP is $149.99. As a person who received this game for free, and regularly plays two-hour escape room-style games that cost $15-$30, $149.99 still hit me as a big number. When I told my wife the MSRP, she did as close to a “spit take” as I’ve ever seen her do when I revealed the price of a review sample.
And it is this number that gives me pause. I’m genuinely curious to see where the market lands on this game. It’s a special production, but for a game that can only be played once, will people want to pony up the cash?
Mind you, I have friends who regularly drop $250 on a crowdfunding campaign game, wait 2-3 YEARS to get the game, then never open the box or play the game once. In many ways, that person might get more value out of Panic in Gotham City because it’s a very easy game to table. You can break this up nicely into an all-day play, do seven straight one-hour game nights, or something in between with ease.
Now, for me, Panic in Gotham City is a one-shot deal. But the game can be completely repackaged to regift this to another gamer. That’s what I will do with my box, and my hope is that this thing can be moved between a number of players with ease.
If you’ve got the cash, Panic in Gotham City is a very cool gaming achievement, mixing the old and the new in a way I personally haven’t seen before. The game is only nominally a Batman game; while I thought the theme was a miss, the occasional appearances of Gotham City lore keep the game grounded and reminded me of why I was interested in the first place–this is a fancy puzzle game for a fancy puzzle gamer, so keep that in mind when gifting this holiday season!