The announcementof a Batman game by Telltale was, to say the least, a bit of a surprise. After Rocksteady’s defining Arkham trilogy, you might have questioned whether there’s space for more Batman games, but the thing about Telltale is that they can focus much more on the story than the action.
Batman: A Telltale Series does admittedly start with an action sequence, as Batman foils an armed robbery at City Hall, but it’s quite clear through the episode that the Bruce Wayne side to the character is the real focal point of the story. That opening action sequence borrows a classic film technique, cutting between scenes with Batman taking on the criminals and Wayne talking to Alfred in the aftermath. Some of the pacing for the cuts felt just a shade off, but it does a great job of readjusting expectations for those coming from the Arkham games, thinking that this might be chock full of quick time events.
No, this is a story with a surprising degree of intrigue and twists and turns that don’t always hinge on Wayne’s night-time escapades. Some of the best scenes are dripping with tension and paranoia as you engage in a battle of words and not fists.
This is a Bruce Wayne seemingly quite early in his vigilante career, as Alfred is still particularly reluctant to assist in Wayne’s endeavours, complaining and trying to reason while still tending to his master’s needs. There’s joy to be found in seeing how classic villains make their initial appearances in Gotham, prior to staking a claim to a spot in Batman’s Rogues Gallery, and it’s Carmine Falcone, one of the more grounded and down to earth Batman villains, that serves as the episode’s main antagonist. The foundations for future episodes are laid throughout, with the appearance of Catwoman, Wayne’s backing of Harvey Dent for Mayor, and so on.
Not all of these will be quite as you’d expect them, and that, I feel, is a real strength of the story that Telltale are creating here. There are familiar faces and names, but it’s not overly beholden to any previous adaptation, and can subvert certain thoughts you might have when going in. The legacy of the Wayne family and how the game addresses the tragedy of Bruce’s parents being murdered before his very eyes both crop up in new and interesting ways that are somewhat atypical. Certainly, it’s refreshing not to have to blatantly deal with a superhero’s origin story for the umpteenth time.
That said, the mystery that starts to unfold here does have a rather personal touch, refusing to let Wayne simply hide behind the persona of a billionaire playboy while meting out justice at night. The tough choices that you have to make, the ones that affect opinions and alter the flow of the game’s story, tend to hinge on the interpersonal relationships that you might or might not have with others, while those made in costume are all about how Batman goes about dishing out justice, how far he’ll go to get information during an interrogation. Will it just be intimidation, or will you physically harm someone to get what you need to know?
Batman is the world’s greatest detective and an exceptional planner, and that’s something that’s difficult to get across in action focussed videogames, but the slower pace and Telltale’s roots in point & click adventures allow for some light detective work that could grow into something more. Presented with a handful of clues, you have to pair them up in such a way as to figure out what happened, exploring the environment in the process. It’s still very simplistic, but something that I hope to see Telltale evolve as the mystery and the cases unfold.
Yet there are still action sequences, and these do centre around quick time events. A nice touch is that, while most are linear, you are at one point given the ability to plan out Batman’s necessarily head on attack. First you have to scout an area, before then going back through and deciding the best way to take out the various guards.
If there’s one thing that rankled with me through the course of the episode, it’s with the relationship between Batman and the police. Still quite some time from becoming Police Commissioner, Lieutenant Gordon is often there on the front lines as Batman goes about his business, and Gordon seems to be well aware that, while he’s a vigilante operating outside the law, he’s still a good guy. Yet every other copper seems to have a shoot on sight policy, and it just doesn’t quite hang together that Gordon could accept Batman’s help so openly and actively in that kind of atmosphere.
The game runs in an upgraded version of Telltale’s engine, but leans once more on a comic book, cel shaded art style that has served the company so well in the past, with the likes of The Walking Dead and Tales from the Borderlands. Still, it feels like there’s better lip syncing and more nuance to facial animations – even if you can still see some of the shift from one moment to the next – and they seem able to have more people on screen at any one time than in previous Telltale games.
One thing we didn’t get to explore prior to launch was the Crowd Play. This lets you share a web address and login with others, who can then vote on decisions as the game is played, either showing the main player the percentage split of how people want the story to proceed or letting those spectators rule by majority. Though time given for decision points are lenient, latency means it’s not designed for streaming via Twitch or YouTube, but it’s an interesting new feature to have, nonetheless.
This game is as much about the man behind the mask and the problems that Bruce Wayne faces, as it is taking on crime bosses, meeting familiar faces in new and interesting ways, and unravelling mysteries. Telltale’s Batman series is off to a great start, giving us a fresh view into the character that goes well beyond beating up criminals in alleyways.
Version tested: PC