Even if you haven’t read a single comic book in your entire life, chances are you’ve still heard of Batman. Since its humble origins back in the late 1930s, the brand has long transcended the confines of its comic book still frames. While these pages will always be his true home, The Batman has also graced more than his fair share of moving pictures. Be it the lovably cheesy TV series starring Adam West, Tim Burton’s gritty box office re-imagining, a fantastic animated series, or Christopher Nolan’s trilogy that brought Batman back to the big screen after…well…we don’t talk about that one. These examples are a mere drop in the ocean, and they just keep coming, isn’t that right Mr. Affleck?
However, Batman didn’t just make his way to TV and the movies; he also starred in numerous video games. Let’s be honest, games built around established superheroes are often tie-ins to theater releases and don’t have the best reputation, but when Rocksteady struck gold with their Arkham series, Batman became one of the few caped crusaders that can boast major success in this form of media. However, while the Arkham games feature robust plots, their gameplay is still focused on beating up truckloads of bad guys. So what happens when a company like Telltale gets their hands on the license?
After shedding their point and click garments and slipping into some hip “interactive narrative” hammer pants (look it up, it’s an 80’s thing), Telltale have established themselves as the go-to company for this genre. Batman: The telltale Series falls right into this category, with gameplay focused on quick time events and branching dialoge. Puzzle solving, while present, takes a backseat to the narrative, and any form of inventory is done away with. Most of your time is spent as a gray eminence, observing unfolding events and subtly influencing Batman’s actions from behind the scenes. There are several instances where you take direct control, but these boil down to exploring a single area and examining your surroundings. Unfortunately, Batman doesn’t run (which is ironic, considering the PC launch issues, but I’ll get to that later). Whenever I got to roam around as Batman, or his Bruce Wayne alter ego, I would start growing impatient as he slowly made his way to my chosen destination. These areas are small and few in number, which is enough to make this a minor complaint, but it is still somewhat inconvenient. Controls are kept simple, and I could use both mouse & keyboard and my Xbox control pad simultaneously, with key prompts changing depending on which device the game last detected input from.
Every now and again Telltale allows you to indulge in Batman’s detective side and includes segments like formulating a plan of attack (akin to Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes) or reconstructing the events of a grizzly crime scene. Both are very welcome additions that I hope to see more of in future episodes.
Batman has been jumping the line between Sunday morning cartoon and R-rated violence for decades, and Telltale’s iteration falls closer to the latter category. Batman can be very brutal, and the way violence is depicted feels a lot more realistic than the usual over the top affair we’ve grown accustomed to. At times, I even found myself thinking, “they won’t really let me do that, will they?” My Batman was usually as gentle as the script would allow, but during an interrogation scene I decided to test the adult nature of Telltale’s game and chose one of the more, though not most, violent options available. Batman then proceeded to give a goon the pinata treatment, cracking a few of his victim’s ribs in the process. The game can get grim, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it at first glance. There are a lot of dark tones, but the visuals feature lively colors and cartoony graphics that ultimately feel right at home with the character’s comic book origins, though that’s not to say this is an origins story.
Episode 1 takes place early in Bruce Wayne’s crime-fighting career. Batman is already an established vigilante in Gotham, but the episode begins with his first encounter with Catwoman. Sidekick Robin is nowhere to be found (though many might consider that a good thing), Jim Gordon is still climbing the ranks of Gotham’s police force, and several iconic key events have yet to take place. However, it is currently unclear if Telltale will stick to established Batman lore, put their own spin on things, or even let us influence these events in some way.
One significant departure from what could be considered the norm is the absence of Kevin Conroy as Batman. Instead, the titular role is filled by none other than Troy Baker, who you may know from…well…everything, including other Batman titles where, ironically, his credits also include a stint as the Joker. Among other notable names are Laura Bailey as Catwoman and Travis Willingham as Harvey Dent. Voice acting varies form decent to great, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from a game like this. Baker does Bartman justice, and while the absence of big Kev can be felt, the game obviously doesn’t suffer from bad casting. The rest of the audio, while competent, doesn’t fair quite as well. Aside from an instance or two of good tension building, the music acts as forgettable background, doing its job and not much else.
Upon completing the episode, the game lists major choices and displays a statistic of how your decisions stack up against other players. I was apparently in the majority, though it was frightening to see just how many people opted to snap a certain gentleman’s arm. Batman also incorporates Telltale’s new crowd play function. When activated, this feature allows friends to help the player make decisions through use of a web browser and their Telltale account. Unfortunately, the feature was designed with 6-12 players in a local setting in mind, not streaming services like Twitch. This was rather disappointing, to say the least.
Even more disappointing was finding out that Batman: The Telltale Series also suffers from what I have come to call as the “curse of Batman.” Sadly, the PC launch was a bit of a mess, and while the game isn’t about to be recalled, its release saw an early landslide of complaints ranging from poor performance to flat out being unable to run the game at all. I encountered some of these post-launch gremlins as well, but through a combination of community support and Telltale’s patching, I manged to resolve all issues and play through the episode with no further headaches. Hopefully, Telltale will continue to stamp out problems in the coming weeks, allowing everyone suffering from these issues to enjoy the game.
Realm of Shadows sets the foundation for future episodes but, clocking in at a mere two hours, is little more than an intro to what will hopefully turn out to be a satisfying narrative. It’s still too early to judge the game on replay value, as it’s impossible to tell how much your choices will ultimately impact the story and its outcome. Despite a slow and troubled start, I’m still optimistic about the series and its future installments.