Batman: The Telltale Series – Episode One: Realm of Shadows review

The name on the tin is Batman, but it should really be Bruce Wayne. The billionaire playboy with a penchant for dressing up as an animal may have been sidelined by his growling alter ego in other Batman games, but under the guise of Telltale’s choose-your-own-adventure formula it’s the man, not the superhero, that matters.

The first episode of Telltale’s take on Batman packs a great deal into its roughly two-hour playtime. We open with an extended set piece, flit forward to press conferences, meet mainstay villains, do some hi-tech detective work and glimpse a few uncomfortable truths at the heart of the Wayne household. It’s pulpy, broad-strokes stuff, but between the on-rails fight scenes and character introductions, there’s interesting wiggle room for shaping Bruce Wayne’s moral compass.

The episode focuses on Wayne’s involvement in Harvey Dent’s campaign to be mayor of Gotham – as is his perpetual wont. Things go wrong when mobster Carmine Falcone begins to get involved, and Wayne is soon facing allegations about his family’s past, as well as trouble from an (inexplicably British) childhood friend returning to town and a thief with a fondness for cats. Like the first entry in other Telltale series, a lot of time is spent establishing protagonists and settings, although there’s an intriguing recasting of relationships that keeps you curious to see which main characters pop up where.

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“Telltale’s Batman lets you be a complete shit”

If you’re familiar with Batman movies, you’ll have an idea of Bruce Wayne as a serious man in private, and a bit of a playboy in public. He’s flash and elitist but ultimately a well-meaning person, if a bit conflicted about putting on a costume and beating people up. Telltale’s Batman lets you be a complete shit. You can flirt outrageously with reporters, verbally abuse those trying to help you, sidle up to crooks and brutalise your enemies. The long-term implications of these actions remain to be seen, but the short-term shock and horror from the likes of Alfred bring an interesting tinge of darkness to Wayne’s world view.

The comics – or at least some of them – present a much more nuanced depiction of the man behind the mask than the films, and this is the wellspring Telltale seems to tap into by offering the player the chance to not always do The Right Thing. At one point I decided to break a mercenary’s arm after getting information out of him. After cracking the skulls of countless bad guys in Rocksteady’s Arkham series, it was unnerving to see people freaking out over one violent act, easily done with the push of a button. It’s hardly Bad Lieutenant, but it’s a refreshing approach to a character that tends to be portrayed as a stoic do-gooder.telltale_batman_5

Elsewhere, action-based decisions are less effective. While Telltale’s dialogue-heavy focus fitted neatly with the political intrigue of its last big outing – Game of Thrones – here there’s a palpable tension between the company’s signature style and the combat-heavy source material. The unfortunate side of this is a reliance on quick-time events (QTEs) – those button-tapping signposts often employed by Telltale, intended to connect you to the onscreen action but which end up distancing you from any actual sense of control. The QTEs here are far from the worst, but I couldn’t help glazing over and waiting for them to finish so I could get on with the game. They’re lazy approximations of involvement, and it would’ve been nice to see Telltale go further in reframing combat to fit its style of play.

Much better is the episode’s one true throwback to adventure games, when Batman must piece together the cause of a rather gory crime scene. This is done by linking together different pieces of evidence, and while it won’t cause many people to scratch their heads, it’s a welcome change in pace for a relentlessly fast-moving episode. It’ll be interesting to see how Telltale expand on this detective side of Batman in further episodes, hopefully increasing the challenge now the basic mechanics have been established. If anything, it’s nice to have room to actually think, instead of making one rash snap decision after another.

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“A Batman game without Batman would pretty much be American Psycho

There’s a clear narrative need for your character to don the batsuit– a Batman game without Batman would pretty much be American Psycho – but, even with the odd crime scene thrown in, the dark knight ultimately feels far less engaging to play than Bruce Wayne. Troy Baker’s first-rate voice acting provides a suitable level of gravitas to the dialogue sections, and the updated game engine gives Telltale’s visual pallet a much-needed facelift. All this helps Telltale’s animations convey some nice moments of drama – a scene outside a cafe being a highlight – even though other moments suffer from gammy-faced dips into uncanny valley.

Overall, there’s much to enjoy in this pacey if over-packed episode. There isn’t an emotional centre to the story like there was between Lee and Clementine in Telltale’s breakthrough The Walking Dead, and there isn’t the appeal of seeing a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern version of a hit show like in Game of Thrones. But by approaching one of the world’s most well-trodden franchises, Telltale’s Batman may conversely offer its writers and developers the most narrative freedom yet – a chance to shape your own version of Wayne.  

Further episodes will tell whether Batman goes that far, and whether Wayne-the-shit will actually be a viable option to the story. For now, though, the first episode is a hearty dose of pulp fun – and if you’re fine with Telltale’s on-rails handholding, there’s plenty to enjoy across the initial high-tempo couple of hours.

Verdict: With engaging, if pulpy, moral choices hampered by on-rails action sequences, Telltale’s Batman is a game of two faces

Batman: The Telltale Series – Episode One is available on PC and Mac, PS4, Xbox One, iOS and Android, as well as PS3 and Xbox 360. You can also preorder the Season Pass disk via Amazon.

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