With Batman: Vengeance, Ubisoft tried to mold too many genres into one game; It was part plat-former, part fighter, a first-person shooter at points, as well as a driving and flying game. For the follow-up in 2003, Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu, Ubisoft took a far more basic approach to the design and the finished product, although lacking ambition, is much the better for it.
While paying respects to the place where his parents died in Crime Alley, Batman is alerted to a mass break out in both Stonegate Penitentiary and Arkham Asylum, flooding the streets with dozens of criminals and some of Batman’s greatest foes. It’s up to the Bat-family to bring chaos to the streets of Gotham City and find out who is the puppet master pulling the strings behind this caper.
The story in Rise of Sin Tzu lacks the mystery angle featured in Batman: Vengeance, but its backdrop does a great job of incorporating the various villains, enemies, and locations Batman and company find themselves visiting. The cut-scenes look great, even better than in Vengeance (they added the mouth slit!,) but even though four members of the Bat-family, Batman, Nightwing, Robin and Batgirl are playable characters, all of the cut-scenes only feature Batman talking to someone on a Bat-Communicator.
The weakest link perhaps is the title villain, Sin Tzu, voiced by Shang Tsung himself Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. The actor does a great job, but you don’t really learn anything about the character, his motivations or supernatural powers. It’s historic for this game as Sin Tzu, created by Jim Lee (Superman Unchained, Justice League, Batman: Hush,) is the first Batman video game ever to introduce an original character. In the behind the scenes material on the game’s disc you get the feeling that they wished the character to have the same cross-over success that Harley Quinn had on Batman: The Animated Series, but there’s a reason that you may not have heard of Sin Tzu, and why we haven’t heard from him since this game.
Ubisoft did away with all of the extra filler this go around and made a pure beat-em-up where you can choose to play as any of the above mentioned characters from the animated series. You can choose to go solo, or bring a friend along for the ride. While you can play as four characters, there’s only really two types: the heavier power types (Batman and Nightwing) and the faster but weaker characters (Batgirl and Robin.) Regardless of whatever character you pick, each hero plays the same: you can punch, kick, grab, block and use a variety of gadgets including batarangs, a grappling hook for a swinging kick attack and smoke pellets. Starting out you’ll have access to only a few basic combos, like three punches or kicks strung together, but points gathered by stringing together successful combo strings in levels provide reward points that you can use to buy new moves and gadget upgrades. The attacks feel great, much, much more so than in Vengeance, and the crazy combo strings that you can string together by games end help to elevate this over more repetitive beat-em-ups.
As the game moves from chapter to chapter your arsenal of moves and upgrades grows and you’ll find yourself playing just one more level to find out what you can unlock. As opposed to purchasing combat add-ons, you can also trade in your hard-earned points for tokens to unlock bonus material like character models, concept art, or toys produced around the time of the games release from Mattel. To add replay value and entice you to play on higher difficulties, you can only purchase certain tokens when playing on specific difficulties or in co-op mode.
Each of the chapters is broken down into several levels where the main goal is to clear out all the bad guys prowling the streets of Gotham. For every chapter Batman is put into conflict with a member of his rogues gallery: Scarecrow, Clayface, Bane and Sin Tzu himself. The enemies you encounter change-up depending on who your presently in conflict with, and the variety in the character models helps to alleviate the repetition inherent in this genre. My personal favorite are the goons of the Scarecrow who throw fear gas bombs in the air that change their appearance to skeletons and other monsters. The Scarecrow also happens to be my favorite boss encounter, as your character is in a room filled with gas and you have to pay attention to the parting of the mist to locate him to attack. Both Bane and Clayface are fun to go up against, but they wall into the make-them-run-into-the-wall or electrify-before-attacking-tropes, while Sin Tzu can be quite a challenge until you learn his attacking pattern.
Stages have other objectives that don’t involve fighting, like saving civilians or disarming a bomb, but they’re all solved the same way by walking into them in a level. Completing these objectives increases your time, which is your biggest enemy in Rise of Sin Tzu, and perhaps its biggest downfall. When playing on easy you won’t have to worry much about the ticking clock, but moving the difficulty up as far as even normal will have you sweating down to the last second to get to that level’s objective to survive. Having other objectives to accomplish in the level doesn’t add anything to the game other than to artificially add difficulty, so I wonder why Ubisoft bothered to add in this extra wrinkle to the gameplay.
Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu doesn’t try to be as genre bending as its predecessor, but what it lacks in ambition, it makes up for being a tighter overall experience in its singular focus. Attacks feel great, the look and aesthetic once again feels like it’s ripped straight out of the animated series and being able to take a friend along for the ride and play as characters other than Batman is a plus. A word of caution though, for a less stressful experience I’d advise starting out on the “easy” difficulty to avoid the dreaded clock, the REAL threat to Batman’s quest for justice.