Batman is perhaps the biggest franchise that Telltale has tackled yet – or at least the most enduring. The caped crusader spans generations and has appeared in every medium imaginable, undergoing multiple iterations over the years while retaining the same core characteristics. The developer, meanwhile, has become synonymous with a particular type of episodic interactive storytelling that is heavy on conversation, player choice, and simplified action-based gameplay. A few new mechanics are introduced here, but Telltale’s Batman doesn’t stray far from the tried and tested formula. For the source material, though, it works quite well, allowing us to explore both Bruce Wayne and Batman while making use of different techniques.
Early in the five-part series, the focus is more on Bruce, the millionaire man behind the mask, though the balance levels out as the story progresses. You occasionally even get to choose which persona you wish to adopt to approach a situation, which is a welcome touch. It’s as Bruce that you get to converse with people the most, mingling with the rich, the mob and the press in your high-profile role as supporter and financial backer of mayoral candidate Harvey Dent. Anyone familiar with Batman stories will know the traditional future for Harvey, which ruins any semblance of surprise when the inevitable happens. While he’s an imposing presence, towering over Bruce, at first he’s a man who genuinely seems to want to do better for the city of Gotham.
Our first interactions with Bruce take place at Wayne Manor, hosting an event for Harvey and hobnobbing with the affluent folks in attendance. One of Harvey’s main platforms is that he’ll be replacing Arkham Asylum, home to the mentally unstable, with a brand new psychiatric health facility. Bruce is clearly a trusted figure and politically influential, though public perception towards his secret alter ego is mixed. Nevertheless, it’s here that you can begin shaping the character. During conversation you’ll get a choice of four dialogue options at particular points; whether you choose to be flirtatious, sarcastic or direct is up to you. Some of these choices are given more weight than others, but each will make you ponder and there’s a good number of them spread throughout the dialogue.
It isn’t long into the campaign party before Carmine Falcone and his cronies enter uninvited. A businessman with a suspect reputation, Falcone is old and short-tempered, eager to flex his figurative muscle and further exert his control. Whether you choose to shake his hand in front of your guests, for instance, is something that will have a ripple effect. A timer quickly runs down, forcing you to be snappy with your decision. There isn’t a "right" choice with such dilemmas, and you never really know what the repercussions are going to be. Though some might only alter the next line of dialogue rather than anything more meaningful, it’s always fun whenever you get to provide input.
There’s no messing around when it comes to introducing the typical cast of franchise characters, including Catwoman and James Gordon (still a Lieutenant here, not yet in his more familiar role as Commissioner). But that’s a good thing because it establishes them quickly, leaving them room to develop in later episodes. The opening instalment had me worried that the series was just going to endlessly tread ground already well covered elsewhere: we learn Bruce’s parents were killed when he was younger and that Gotham’s dirty streets are fuelled by government ties to crime, for example. But the series ends up doing a good job of shaking up the formula, though not always to great success.
For example, Oz Cobblepot (a.k.a The Penguin) is reimagined as Bruce’s childhood friend who returns to Gotham with a string of crimes under his belt, frustrated to see how the park his parents built has turned desolate while his old pal is living the high life. He’s a threatening and unpredictable presence, saying he plans to dismantle the hierarchy, though his dodgy and fake-sounding British accent is off-putting. It’s he who mostly takes prominence as a foe throughout the series, associating himself with a menacing group called the Children of Arkham, though the fact that this guy so quickly turns on Bruce is never made particularly believable.
There’s also the mystery of who the disguised figure leading the Children of Arkham actually is. The company is ominous, and their fights with Batman demonstrate the power they wield even against someone so well-trained and resourceful, but the eventual reveal of the person behind the mask is frankly stupid. It makes little sense given what we’ve been presented beforehand and seems to come out of nowhere for the sake of a twist. Further discoveries you make about this character’s backstory, while seemingly intended to build understanding of their motivations, are clichéd and tired. When the final battle rolled round I found myself disappointingly unengaged. Telltale can write better than this.
Life as Batman, costume and all, is focussed mainly around brawling and detective work. The former is where the action takes place, in a series of button prompts guiding you through every punch, kick and jump. The combat is extremely cinematic, making great use of a quick camera cuts, slow motion and brash sound effects. I really enjoyed watching these, especially because it never gets old having Batman creep up on his enemies and take them out in inventive ways with his gadgets. The moment we first catch sight of Batman, swinging across from another building and smashing through a window, is highly reminiscent of a scene in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight film. The fight scenes are excellently choreographed throughout all five episodes and are a clear standout, especially a bar brawl that at first seems unfairly weighted to the enemy team.
It’s rare that you can actually fail during these action scenes, but there’s a reward for doing well. If you time your button responses properly, you’ll fill up a meter which allows you to deliver a powerful finishing move. Mess up badly and you might get a game-over screen, but you can instantly hop back in and won’t be penalised otherwise. It’s very forgiving, and perhaps too much so – on the one hand this maintains momentum no matter how you perform, but on the other it removes any real challenge and makes you question why you’re actually bothering to press anything in the first place.
You get choices to make as Batman too. The ones you make as Bruce will often affect people’s opinion of you; those you make as Batman will do the same, just with more violence involved. On multiple occasions, you can choose to show someone mercy or hand them over to the police. I chose to play as mercifully as possible, so I was frustrated when Alfred berated me for beating a man “half to death” when I purposely chose to do otherwise. I tried to maintain a pacifist approach (well, as much as is allowed!) throughout, though some conflict is inevitable.Continued on the next page...