Telltale Games has really proven its versatility lately.
For a very long time — since way before The Walking Dead took off — the game studio has been creating narrative-driven games, which they release in series of episodes. The decisions you make in each episode influence how the story will play out. Most of the gameplay revolves around making these choices, whether it’s a simple dialogue option in a conversation or a make-or-break moment for a main character.
In The Walking Dead, we got character conflicts, rationing supplies, and zombie fights. In The Wolf Among Us, we searched for clues and made moral decisions about whether to play “good cop” or “bad cop” as our werewolf investigator. In Game of Thrones, we suddenly played a whole cast of characters, weaving in and out of multiple storylines while the fate of the Forrester family waved in the breeze of our choices. And in Tales from the Borderlands, we hacked, lied, romanced, and shot our way through action-packed hilarity mixed with high drama. (We also became friends with the most adorable robots ever.)
Batman continues the tradition of a story-rich game experience, but it brings more style than I’ve seen yet in a Telltale game. Anything to do with Batman tends to be dark, daring, and cool. Telltale continues that. Even just seeing the flash of the episode title, “Realm of Shadows” appear over the backdrop of the Batcave feels exciting.
Planning the Action
I’m always eager to pick up a new Telltale game series and see what they’ve done with the gameplay. In the first episode of Batman, we experience a nice mix of the investigatory work seen in Wolf Among Us and the tech work Rhys performs in Tales from the Borderlands.
Batman has his gadgets — we even get to pick what color we want them to be! — and we use them to learn more about clues scattered around a crime scene. We link clues in ways that make the most sense to us. For example, a bullet hole in a canister and a bullet wound in a cop across the garage may be connected. As we link them, the game tells us whether we’re right or not, with the ultimate goal of recreating the scene more vividly with Batman’s tech. Though my own investigation techniques were simple here, I enjoyed Batman’s insights into the crime as I waded through the (sometimes gruesome) clues.
The action scenes are equally exciting to watch, though the mechanics are just your standard quick-time event (QTE) button-pressing. I noticed that even when I purposely missed a button, Bruce/Batman still knocked a solid punch. The only time I saw a GAME OVER screen was when I ran out of time making a key decision and when I missed an aim-and-shoot prompt in an explosive finale to a fight. I’m not going to complain about Telltale lightening up with the QTEs. (There’s nothing more frustrating — and silly — than hitting the wrong button and having to start a combat scene over for it, when it makes no difference to the story anyway! That has happened to me many times in Telltale games of the past.)
One gameplay innovation that works well in Batman is focusing on the planning of an action scene, rather than the enacting of it. I’ll skip past spoilers here, but one key scene involves Batman taking out a series of mobsters, and we get to select exactly how we want to take out each mobster as we plan our attack. After that, it’s just hitting “A” or “Y” as Batman executes what we already set up. Telltale is right in thinking that when it comes to their games, our interest lies more in choice than performance. It also makes this action scene as much of a puzzle as it is a combat sequence.
The Storytelling Experience
More time in this episode is spent as Bruce Wayne than Batman, which is what allows us to create harmony or dissonance between Bruce’s personality with the public and his exploits as Batman. When Bruce waltzes into a party late, will he be charming, sarcastic, or quiet? What about when mobster Carmine Falcone shows up uninvited? We can make Bruce calculating as he charms people and makes deals behind closed doors — or we can keep him wide-eyed and earnest as we kick Falcone out of the house and show humility in our answers to pesky reporters.
This is taken to a new level when we don the Batsuit. Now it’s about whether Batman should break an arm or just leave someone hanging (literally). His actions will feed into whether he is admired or reviled as the Batman, with Alfred providing a moral compass for him when he returns to the Batcave.
An underlying emotional plot is how Bruce feels about his family. He holds onto a set of tickets to the show he and his parents were seeing the night his parents were murdered. He also has several opportunities to comment on his parents’ legacy or express emotion over losing them. As secrets come out, it becomes clear that Bruce’s past is as important to this narrative as Batman’s present.
It’s also a story about trust. Bruce may need to win some from people like new-on-the-scene Catwoman, cop Jim Gordon — maybe even Carmine Falcone. Meanwhile, politician Harvey Dent and an old childhood friend who’s lost everything may end up friends or foes in the long run.
Art and Voice
The art style in Batman looks very “Telltale Games” to me now, but I noticed the comic book touches. At first glance, the quality looks less detailed than what I’m used to on current gen consoles (playing this on Xbox One), but I realize that is an artistic choice rather than a technical one as thick, dark lines create noses and chins, akin to what you might see in a comic.
One thing that stood out to me in “Realm of Shadows” is the lighting. Whether a subtle glow from a fireplace or the frequent neon cast from Batman’s gadgets (in my case, they are purple, but you can select from four colors at the start of the episode to personalize this), the lighting creates a distinct mood in each scene. Seeing the holographic recreation of a crime scene is especially eye-catching, and after spend precious minutes linking clues, it even feels like a reward for hard work. Later, the warmth of the sky over the river as Bruce meets with a potential new friend seems to bring out an optimism that this new alliance could make things better.
Voice actor Troy Baker takes a confidence turn as Batman. A rumbling voice is what Batman seems known for in voiced characterizations now. Though none will be quite as iconic as Christian Bale’s turn in Nolan North’s films, Baker’s approach is, for me, more realistic and likable. In one scene as Bruce, Baker’s voice lowers in register, as if Bruce’s anger is turning him into his tougher altar ego.
Another stand-out is Laura Bailey as Selina Kyle/Catwoman. While Batman and Catwoman show their claws right away, their chemistry is much more evident when they’re Bruce and Selina. Bailey does a great job of playing coy without ever resorting to being “cute” in her flirtations, which is a refreshing change from some other iterations of the character. Another thing I loved — both from the voice acting and writing — are the hints at Selina’s background. She admits trust issues and that her Catwoman stint is about making money because she needs it. Rather than being sweet or sour in some attempt to manipulate Bruce/Batman, Bailey as Selina presents this information with a shrugging candor that I really like.
If the series continues to explore the contrast between Bruce and Batman, I’m all in. We’ve seen Batman in many conflicts before, usually fighting crime — but this story feels like a fresh take as it focuses on how much of a criminal to make the Bat himself. Combine that with the innovations to the gameplay, and this series could prove that Telltale Games is still at the top of its game.