"Batman: The Enemy Within builds upon the foundation set by Batman: The Telltale Series and delivers a compelling Joker origin story."
Note: The reviewer played all five episodes of Batman: The Enemy Within over the course of a few months, instead of at the time of each episode's release. This review contains some minor spoilers for Batman: The Telltale Series.
Batman, like any superhero originating from comic books, struggles with his double life. Bruce Wayne is a businessman, socialite, and philanthropist who secretly fights crime as the costumed vigilante Batman, using technology, resources, and training bankrolled by the vast Wayne fortune. Bruce Wayne's chief motivation for becoming Batman is the death of his parents, who were shot by a gunman when Bruce was nine, and Bruce takes his role as Batman much more seriously than his role as CEO of Wayne Enterprises. But chances are you already knew that. Batman is one of the most popular comic book superheroes in the world, and his origin story has been told and retold dozens of times over the past 70+ years.
This version of Batman begins with 2016's Batman: The Telltale Series. It starts early on in Bruce Wayne's crimefighting career, but he is already collaborating with James Gordon, Lucius Fox, and his faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth. No clashes with any of his famed rogues gallery yet. Harvey Dent isn't Two-Face; Oswald Cobblepot isn't Penguin; Selina "Catwoman" Kyle is just an acquaintance; and most importantly, the quirky Arkham Asylum inmate John Doe isn't Joker. At the end of the first season of Telltale's Batman, Penguin and Two-Face are behind bars, Catwoman is out of Gotham, and John Doe receives his release from Arkham.
Batman: The Enemy Within throws in several classic Batman and DC Comics characters into the story beyond Joker, Alfred, and Commissioner Gordon, including Riddler, Harley Quinn, Bane, Mr. Freeze, and Amanda Waller. Lucius Fox's daughter Tiffany (who becomes Batgirl in some comic book storylines) and a few of Amanda Waller's Agency employees also play important roles. Batman and Bruce Wayne's actions and conversations influence the feelings and behavior of these characters, and even though players will always hit specific plot points in the same order, the circumstances getting there and the character alliances and interactions may change from playthrough to playthrough. Telltale doesn't adhere strictly to any specific comic or film continuity; in both of their Batman miniseries a few characters are subversions of their traditional roles. Bruce learns disturbing new truths about his family in the first episode of Batman: The Telltale Series, and two important characters die in the first episode of Batman: The Enemy Within.
John Doe has a very minor role in the first Telltale Batman game, striking up a conversation with Bruce at Arkham Asylum and helping start a riot that gives Bruce a chance to escape. Regardless of Bruce's actions towards him in those conversations, John Doe believes that Bruce Wayne is his trusted friend, and he asks a favor of Bruce in the first episode of The Enemy Within. Really, you could rename "The Enemy Within" to "Making the Joker," because this second season of Telltale's Batman is all about Bruce Wayne's relationship with John Doe, and John Doe's transformation into Batman's most famous foe.
One major criticism in Telltale's adventure games is that Telltale's creed of "this game series adapts to the choices you make; the story is tailored by how you play" is an illusion. Most, if not all, Telltale Games from The Walking Dead onwards will end in the same situation, and choices made earlier will only affect the final chapter's dialogue and epilogue. The Enemy Within doesn't break this mold. Playthroughs with different player choices will have different scenarios and different character relationships, but Episode 5 will always end in a confrontation between the same characters, and then show roughly the same lengthy epilogue. One of the choices at the end of the epilogue is jaw-dropping, but it's there regardless of previous decisions.
But the illusion of choice argument only works if you focus on the destination and not the journey. There are at least ten characters whose attitudes are affected by player choice and dialogue, none more dramatically than John Doe. In Episode 1, John is naive and tries to find his place in society; he loves Bruce Wayne as a friend, loves Harley Quinn romantically (in other Batman stories it's usually Harley with the unrequited crush), and idolizes and admires Batman. John Doe will always become the Joker in Episode 5, but Joker's actions, motivations, and connection to Bruce and Batman are very different depending on the Joker-related decisions in earlier chapters. "Making the Joker" is the main narrative thrust of The Enemy Within, and this is a very interesting, emotional Joker.
But Joker's not the only strong character performance in The Enemy Within. Troy Baker's Batman is intimidatingly grim while his Bruce Wayne is impressively smooth. Nearly every voice performance is a fitting, energetic adaptation of a classic comic character; I particularly enjoyed Laura Bailey as Catwoman and Debra Wilson as Amanda Waller. The musical cues in The Enemy Within are usually heavy and swelling; I noticed more minimalist instrumentation only during a few emotional moments with Catwoman, Alfred, and (yes) Joker.
Like many Telltale joints, The Enemy Within's dialogue is governed by player-selected responses to directed questions, often with a countdown timer present. Major choice breakpoints don't have a timer, but most of the time players will need to read and choose their response promptly if they don't want Bruce to remain silent. Action scenes are dominated by quick-time events, which also have occasional alternative outcomes (press Q to attack Bane's eyes or press E to attack Bane's legs, for example). If you miss a few button presses and Batman falls, the game takes you to the start of combat. There is no major penalty in time or story for failing a combat scene that I discovered.
Occasionally, The Enemy Within has players engage in a point-and-click interface to check out a crime scene, or tasks them with solving a puzzle to continue the investigation. These puzzles are mostly trivial, never getting more complicated than searching selectable scenery until a switch or key is exposed. During the end credits after each episode, players are presented with breakdowns of what choices the entire playerbase made, and these are always fun and illuminating.
Setting aside the more active gameplay elements, Telltale's adventure games are all about the story and the choices. Batman: The Enemy Within builds upon the foundation set by Batman: The Telltale Series and delivers a compelling Joker origin story. As a longtime Batman fan, I occasionally find Joker too gimmicky (and weirdly omniscient) and Harley too obsessed with her beau. Joker isn't typically one of my favorite Batman opponents. The John Doe Joker in The Enemy Within starts out vulnerable, ends up empowered, and is consistently entertaining throughout his character arc. And no matter how John Doe's story goes, Bruce Wayne feels responsible for creating a monster. Batman: The Enemy Within has most of the positive and negative trappings of recent Telltale games, but as an exploration of the relationship between Batman and Joker, it's excellent. I'd play a third season.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.