With Batman: The Telltale Series, it’s about damn time Telltale’s engine caught up to their writing.
For the seven games Telltale has made since they became household names with their rendition of The Walking Dead, the common thread between them all is that their in house engine wasn’t quite up to par. This was noticeable all the way back in season one of The Walking Dead, but back then Telltale’s action and visual ambitions were modest. The writing could carry the minor glitches and stodgy animation, make you pass over them.
However, over time and the acquisition of more bombastic properties, that ambition grew and the engine couldn’t keep up. Telltale’s attempts at big action set pieces, highly detailed environments, and dynamic characters, especially in their Tales From The Borderlands and Game Of Thrones series, couldn’t be properly executed. In Tales From The Borderlands, A-grade writing and characters were able to carry the load, just barely. In Game of Thrones, where the writing was merely okay, the story as a whole began to flounder.
I’m spending this much time talking about the Telltale engine because, going into Batman: The Telltale Series, I believed the engine would be the thing that would kill or save Telltale’s third comic book adaptation. Batman, despite his origin in still frames, is a highly dynamic, visually kinetic character. He needs to move in and out of shadows and out of frame, change environments on the fly, utilize all manner of gadgetry, and be a remarkable detective. You have to sell the audience, despite how many times they’ve been sold before, that this is the Batman. You have to make him credible, because if he’s not credible, then Bruce Wayne isn’t credible. Gotham isn’t credible. The story isn’t credible. Doing that inside an adventure game is one thing, but Telltale proved long ago they know how to adapt a property to the genre. Doing it inside the Telltale engine’s limitations is the challenge.
Which is what makes the pre-title sequence of “Realm of Shadows,” Batman: The Telltale Series’ season premier, so remarkable. Not only did they meet the challenge, they go beyond it. By the end of the episode, they’ve presented not only their most interesting series premier since The Wolf Among Us, but the most fascinating and engaging take on the Caped Crusader in recent superhero adaptation history.
The opening sequence quickly establishes, in a cross-cutting, multiple location action/conversation hybrid that wouldn’t have been possible in prior Telltale games, the premise and players of Telltale’s take on Batman. We’re early in Bruce Wayne’s superhero career, in the middle of District Attorney Harvey Dent’s run for Mayor of Gotham City, where Wayne (in civilian form) is the main backer of the Dent campaign. Batman is still making a name for himself in the criminal underworld, and trying to get to the bottom of a growing conspiracy involving Gotham new arrival Catwoman, a heist on City Hall, violent mob boss Carmine Falcone, and the Wayne family itself.
The improvements in visuals are instantly noticeable. Batman’s first fight sequence at Gotham City Hall is a wonderful, fast-moving slugfest where the engine (and Telltale’s tried and true quicktime events) prove themselves capable of handling a proper rollicking Batman fight sequence. The party fundraiser for Harvey Dent held at Wayne Manor, the second half of the opening sequence, highlights the improved animations and character design Telltale is capable of.
What the opening also highlights is the hook for Telltale’s rendition of Batman – this isn’t just a detective story about the man in the Batsuit, this is a story about the man in the normal suit, Bruce Wayne, and his desire to save Gotham beyond just beating up criminals. By wrapping him up in Harvey Dent’s campaign, Telltale gets to dive into the murky politics of Gotham City election season, and the questionable lengths and alliances and decisions he’ll have to make in order to ensure Dent’s election. The Wayne side of the story in Batman: The Telltale Series is the standout so far – the conversations and speeches you are asked to make coupled with the backroom deals you are presented with crackle with real energy, and present the series’ first real decisions and consequences. This is the stuff Telltale is best at, and they really flex their character muscles here, painting a Bruce Wayne who is reluctantly dragging himself into every fight possible in order to help the City of Gotham. Troy Baker nails each version of Wayne you can speak to, from charismatic playboy to sincere loner to thrill seeker, and gives Wayne a core of genuine kindness throughout each one.
The sole flaw in the Wayne side of the episode is that it feels about one major consequence short. This is a season premier, I know; set up for the future is absolutely going to play a role and “Realm of Shadows” does a wonderful job of putting the pieces in play. But outside of one small moment in the opening that continues to impact Wayne throughout the episode, there isn’t quite enough payoff of your decisions in this episode to give you a real sense of how big your impact on Gotham is going to be. So much is teed up in decisions involving positions of power and personal alliances that despite having well sketched arcs and character motivations it feels like at least one more of these things should’ve payed even a partial dividend by episode’s end.
As a consequence, a couple of critical characters in Batman: The Telltale Series that will clearly matter later on are left feeling slightly undercooked. Jim Gordon, despite being involved in the series’ first major storyline altering decision, only has one real conversation with Bruce Wayne or Batman. And despite playing heavily into the plot and being the best depiction of the character in an adaptation in a very long time, Selina Kyle/Catwoman really needs one more scene to properly catapult her character arc forward. This only really hurts because the rest of the side characters – Harvey Dent, journalist/crusader Vicky Vale, and loyal butler Alfred – are not only also nailed to a T but fully fleshed out with their own arcs.
This is not to sell short the Batman side of events, which do a great job of selling you on their version of the Caped Crusader. The action sequences that bookend the episode rely on the same tricks as previous Telltale series; swipes of the thumbstick and mouse according to on screen directions coupled with occasional button mashing and reticle aiming form the basis for Batman’s moveset. What changes here from the past is the swiftness and dynamism they’re imbued with – in terms of motion and visuals, this is much more along the lines of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham games, with Batman diving from the shadows and switching between gadgets and throwing slow motion punches and kicks in short order. If it has a flaw, it’s that the action doesn’t quite feel inventive enough – the first sequence is well-trod territory, and the second one is made interesting not through the action itself but through, strangely, the detective mechanic that gets you there.
This is the highlight of the Batman side of things, and the biggest change Telltale has made to its core gameplay. The standard point and click gameplay of Telltale’s standard walkabout sequences gets an enhancement when Batman is viewing a crime scene – the ability to visualize events and tie various clues together in the environment by literally linking two or more objects together in the room. This does a far better job of dealing with the detective part of the World’s Greatest Detective than Rocksteady’s Batman. It’s no Her Story, but it actually feels like you are piecing together the events at the scene rather than following a linear line. What is also seen in the crime scene segment is the first glimpse at Telltale’s strong handle on tone thus far. You witness some grim, brutal things after the fact at a crime scene, and have the option to do some grim, brutal things to people as Batman, but the series stays away from feeling overbearingly grim or brutal on the whole. It feels seriously minded, which is a far thing from those, and doesn’t preclude some fine jokes and witty banter between characters that feel genuine, rather than forced.
If there is any trap that Batman: The Telltale Series has fallen into thus far in regard to tone, its the problem of obligation. Telltale are, clearly, highly loyal to the aesthetics and charms of Batman in the comics, but it feels as though they felt beholden by their own fandom to ensure that all the well trod cliches Bruce Wayne and Batman stories are here and in place, almost like they felt the need to reassure you that yes, they love this character too. Bruce and Alfred do talk about how Bruce can’t keep pushing himself, and how he must not lose himself in violent actions. The game’s depiction of Carmine Falcone is every single mobster cliche ever written in the history of man, overwrought metaphors and all. And yes, there is a brief depiction of the killing of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Because of course there is. This isn’t to say these aren’t well executed cliches – there are some all time great Alfred lines here, and Richard McGonagle (Uncharted’s Sully) is so good as Falcone I want to buy the casting directors a steak – but they feel like events Telltale’s writers felt like they had to include, even if they enjoyed writing them.
What feels the opposite of obligation is the thematic backdrop that Telltale begins to paint for the city of Gotham by the end of the episode. As Bruce Wayne’s attempts to save Gotham City as both Wayne and Batman begin to bear repercussions and unearth dangerous new details about the city, his friends, his past, and his family, Batman: The Telltale Series reveals its curious thematic heart – what happens when a city fighting to return to its Golden Age learns that its Golden Age was just as broken as the present day? When people base their desire to do good off of the ideas and beliefs taught to them by people they thought were proper representatives of the Golden Age, what does that say about their desire to do good? What becomes their reason for doing so, and where is the reason people have to believe in the city? Will it be Batman? The cops, or Harvey Dent? Or will there be no reason to believe at all?
At the heart of Batman as a character is the question of what makes him a hero, rather than just another madman. By giving dual focus to Bruce Wayne, to the politics of saving Gotham as much as the crime fighting, Telltale offers up the most vital, engaging way to deliver an answer to that question in recent adaptation history.
From each episode on, the main thing to review for Batman: The Telltale Series will be the story it tells, its characters, and its questions. We know the gameplay will be the same, and now we know the engine is can handle it. Though the citizens of Gotham may be questioning their reason to believe, Telltale has given us a good reason to believe in them.