Telltale’s Batman filled me with a fair amount of skepticism upon its announcement. While I’m a fan of Telltale’s games—particularly the first season of Walking Dead—I wondered how Batman would fill the enormous shoes of the Batman: Arkham tetralogy. It seemed like a strange move to me. Could a Batman game exist as an adventure title? Particularly a Telltale one?
The answer (as far as Episode 1 goes) is…kind of. Mostly (but not completely) yes.
Batman kicks off in the middle of a classic Caped Crusader moment—foiling a high-stakes robbery and taking out goons. You’re quite harshly thrust into things, having to quickly master quick-time-events that are considerably faster and more challenging than Telltale’s previous efforts. It can be jarring if you’re A)used to Telltale’s slower QTE pace, and/or B) thrown off by Batman’s intro sequence itself. The intro splits between Batman’s fight with thugs (and Catwoman—more later) and Bruce Wayne preparing for a Harvey Dent fundraiser after the fight. It’s very cool stylistically, but on the other hand, it can leave you unprepared for the QTE, with button presses happening quite suddenly and leaving you little time to hit them. All the while, successful button strikes fill a meter that allows you to land a finishing move at the end of a fight, in what seems like a way to bring the game closer to the Arkham series, at least a little. It didn’t seem to matter whether I filled it or not—I didn’t use the finisher during a play of the first battle—but they look cool, and they’re a little reward for finishing the (again, somewhat frustrating) QTE’s.
This particular Batman game, being an adventure title, twists things a bit by smartly featuring Bruce Wayne, rather than his Dark Knight alter ego, throughout the majority of Episode 1. It’s a cool choice, considering how little time we spend with Wayne in previous titles (around zero percent). A game like this would burn out fairly quick if we played as Batman throughout, so the bulk of the adventure game elements play out while you’re out of costume. Once here, Batman treads familiar Telltale ground: talk to people, choose from a variety of responses (or keep silent), and, well, look at stuff. Gameplay-wise, Batman doesn’t exactly break the mold, but it’s mostly functional.
I say “mostly” because, unusually for a Telltale title, it can, on occasion, be difficult to determine what exactly you should be clicking on. Towards the end of the first episode, Batman introduces an Investigation mechanic. Simply put, you search out objects in a room and link them to other objects—”This explosion happened over here,” and so on. It’s a great idea in theory, as it has Batman flexing his detective muscles rather than beating dudes to a pulp. However, what it results in for you, the player, is simply moving the cursor around and clicking on everything that’s highlighted. There’s a level of thought required in linking the evidence found, but you need to look carefully because things can be incredibly easy to miss. And Bats needs to physically walk to each point of evidence, so the sequence can get tedious, albeit brief. A later segment fares considerably better, having you investigate a building full of goons with a drone, tagging them, and deciding how to take out each one.
I enjoyed doing the Bruce Wayne thing throughout the game, but this moment here was when I truly felt like Batman; I analyzed the situation using a Bat-drone before going in with a plan and cleaning house. It’s still a point-and-click followed by a QTE, but it was an outstanding action sequence. I look forward to seeing more of them from this season…
…but I’m also interested in how the story plays out from here. Spoiling as little as possible, Telltale doesn’t stray too far away from the Batman wheelhouse, but the episode takes some interesting turns, including a biggie at the end that hasn’t really been done before (I mean, possibly—I haven’t read every comic). Suffice to say, it’s a very cool twist that makes the minor problems with the game worth it. Catwoman steals the show in the intro, her portrayal on point, possibly even more so later on. It’s made clear from the start that she’s going to be a (welcome) presence in the episodes to come. Characters are true to the usual Batman mythos, but a particular villain is repackaged as an old friend of Bruce Wayne, which is a unique spin on the character.
On the other hand, while a lot of the story feels new, it still feels like old hat; we may be covering new ground, but for most of the episode, we’re hitting the same emotional beats Batman fans have been bounding off for years. That’s kind of a necessity for a character like Batman, but the fact remains that we’ve seen all this before. And we’ve seen it. And seen it. Your mileage may vary, depending on how much of a Batman fan you are—hardcore fans would probably eat all this up, while a more casual fan might yawn. I’m a fan, and while I liked the story, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen all this before. Maybe I’d seen it from a different angle, maybe I’d seen a different interpretation, but I’d still seen it.
It’s tough to really criticize that aspect; we’re talking about Batman, a property that’s far, far older than The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones or any other property Telltale has taken on. When a property is, as of this writing, 77 years old, certain things end up set in stone, more or less, and radical changes would not only upset the fanbase, but they would be untrue to the spirit of the franchise as well. In most cases, that’s a fair complaint, yet we’ve seen multiple, radical reinventions of Batman throughout the years. Telltale’s game takes some chances with the story, and they work out, but I would’ve liked to see them take a few more. Bruce’s portrayal is what you’d expect; he’s broody while alone, but does the usual friendly/political rich guy act in public. Harvey Dent is running for mayor and is as arrogant and pompous as he usually is. Catwoman, Alfred, and so on…all are handled well, yet typically. It’s an exercise in contradictions; it’s nowhere near “wrong” like, *ahem* recent films, but it just doesn’t feel new either. I love it, but I want something more. More risks, more opportunities to portray Bruce differently—you can choose his responses, but none of them come off as un-Wayne like.
Then again, this is the first episode. Although it falls prey to the usual pitfalls of an introductory episode to a game like this (most notably, your choices have yet to have any discernible impact), it lays a solid foundation for what’s hopefully to come. If Telltale can keep the momentum up, we’ll have an incredibly well-written and voiced adventure title. It’s a shame, then, that Telltale’s engine seems to be straining to keep up from a technical standpoint. Characters look great and the lip-syncing is much improved over past Telltale efforts, yet the framerate in wildly inconsistent, at least on the PS4 version I played. While it never hit unplayable levels, it’s highly distracting, especially in a story-driven title like this, and I missed one input because of it. Like I said, it looks great—perfectly like a comic in motion—but it’s nothing that should cause framerate dips. QTE button inputs can also be hard to spot quickly due to the color scheme and the game’s habit of putting them at all places on the screen.
Batman doesn’t disappoint in the audio department. Always one of Telltale’s strong points, the voice acting is outstanding. There’s never a dull or ill-fitting voice in the crowd; Troy Baker as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Laura Bailey as Catwoman/Selina Kyle are highlights. Baker’s Batman voice is, on occasion, a little overblown, but it mostly works; he stays silent much of the time. It’s as Bruce Wayne where he delivers the performance we’re all accustomed to. Sound effects are on point; Batman’s attacks landing with brutal impact. There’s more action in Batman than most Telltale games, and so the game can be considerably louder than past efforts. As such, it’s great that it sounds so good. Musically, it’s what you would expect from a Batman title, especially in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, with score by Hans Zimmer, and the Arkham series. Much like the story, the musical score doesn’t really break new ground, but it’s fitting and doesn’t intrude.
I really enjoyed Batman, but the story’s (so far) lack of real innovation and the technical problems bothered me. Again, as this is the first episode, this is an intro, and there’s plenty of time over the four upcoming episodes to improve. Minor caveats aside, it’s an outstanding introduction, with a great twist at the end, and I’m excited to see where it goes. Keep an eye on this one.
What I played: A review copy of Episode 1 that I finished in roughly 2 hours. Played on Playstation 4.
Brian White writes gaming stuff here on TAY and around. He’s starting a gaming site of his own at some point; follow him on Twitter to talk about games or whatever.