This tale premiers with a look at three different sides of Batman.
The first episode of Telltale’s Batman series, entitled Realm of Shadows, quickly introduces an exciting, intricate story of politics, and constantly shifting, unpredictable relationships. It layers on top of that all of the social pressure that comes with making any kind of public appearance as Bruce Wayne – one of the richest and most prominent people in a rapidly deteriorating city. The mixture is a sometimes unevenly paced but always multi-faceted and complex adventure that’s laced in gorgeous, high-action cinematics that truly do Batman, and his brutal, fear-inducing tactics justice.
Anyone who has played a Telltale game will be familiar with the punishing consequences of having to make tough choices under the pressure of a timer, and Bruce’s position as a political influencer make even a public handshake a tense decision. Whether it was choosing to publicly back Harvey Dent’s political campaign or confronting Selina Kyle, I almost always felt like I had made the wrong move, or totally screwed up an interaction with another important member of Gotham’s social hierarchy. The two separate roles you have to play are absolutely to credit for that intensity – how will this choice affect Bruce, and how will it affect Batman? On top of that, you have to consider how it will affect the other five characters who are intertwined into each of the uniquely appealing subplots, and where you hope to end up.
Those choices are often bogged down in overly expositional dialogue sequences, though. You’re frequently reminded that Bruce’s beloved parents died and that Gotham city is in ruins (but used to be great), and that Alfred is worried about you, nearly to the point of exhaustion. Unless this is your first Batman experience, that’s very old ground that didn’t need to be retread. The problem is only compounded by the fact that Troy Baker’s voice acting as Bruce (in all his forms) is only really just okay, particularly when compared to his previous performances, in other games. Together, they make some dialogue-heavy segments of this two-hour episode feel drawn out and repetitive, but some of the more brief exchanges with Gotham’s freakshow gallery of rogues are still an unpredictable delight.
Telltale’s Gotham isn’t a mirror of DC Comics at all.
The villains are unpredictable in role, too – Telltale’s version of Gotham isn’t a mirror of DC Comics at all, with some iconic characters having their stories changed entirely. While having to separate myself from my existing understanding of those characters was a little conflicting, it has already added a great degree of mystery to the overall experience. The changes are deep enough that I have to question whether Telltale’s version of Harvey Dent will ever actually turn into Two-Face, especially if the drastic revision to Penguin’s backstory is anything to go by. Future episodes will tell, but I don’t think our familiarity with any of Batman’s villains will spoil anything, which will hopefully prevent the series from being entirely predictable. You have to think in the moment without the advantage of prior knowledge, just as Bruce Wayne does.
On the other hand, Batman’s segments feel entirely separate from Bruce Wayne’s, in part by virtue of being much less talky. Instead, our choices are about how brutally you’d like to beat someone, challenging you with the ethics – and sanity – of what it is to be Gotham’s vigilante during a time when the city hasn’t quite made up its mind on that subject either. It’s up to you whether you’re a ruthless, bloodthirsty version of Batman or a merciful hero, and each of those choices presents its own challenging moral conflict. Will you beat the man who intentionally obliterated police officers in a chemical explosion, or will you let him walk with nothing but threats? And what does either course of action mean for Batman’s public perception, and Bruce Wayne’s psychology?
You’re directing combat, not participating in it.
The quick-time event-based combat constantly evolves to incorporate different gadgets and make awesome, cinematic use of space. Batman’s comic book look translates beautifully into Telltale’s recognizable art style, with only a few occasionally awkward animations (most notably when characters are walking). Consistently unique actions and reactions make combat a treat to watch – but remember that watching is most of what you do, and for good reason. It feels a lot more like you’re directing a combat experience than actively participating in it, with failed QTEs usually only meaning you won’t activate a dramatic ‘finishing move’ at the end of a sequence rather than failing that encounter. It’s an unusually forgiving and low-stakes approach to combat, but this prevents the fast-paced action from getting frustrating and spares us awkward depictions of The Dark Knight getting his butt kicked. All of the weight and punishment is in dialogue choices and decision making, where the combat is more of a visual treat.
Realm of Shadows’ detective-style sequences are thankfully a little more interactive. You’re presented with a crime scene and made to connect characters with corresponding objects or clues, from fishing a bullet out of somebody’s skull to matching it up with a specific bullet hole. The attention to detail and density of each of the environments makes this a treat visually, and while there are too few options for there to be any major sense of old-school adventure-game challenge, it adds another more cautious, insular layer to a game that’s already surprisingly varied. It does continue a trend of making the “World’s Greatest Detective” seem laughably idiotic in order to make us feel smart as we walk him through it, though – at one point you’re prompted to find out more information about Catwoman, and so you look her up on your fancy Bat-computer only to be presented with Bruce’s own notes on Catwoman saying he doesn’t know much about her. Great detective work, there, Bats: you looked up your own notes.
As a final note, Telltale says that Batman is its first game to support cooperative multiplayer by allowing anyone with a phone or a web browser and the unique code generated in the main menu to join your game and vote on each decision. However, this feature wasn’t ready to test before launch.