Batman: The Telltale Series
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, mobile
Release Date: December 13th, 2016
MSRP: $24.99 for season pass, $4.99 per episode
After redefining the adventure genre with 2013’s The Walking Dead, Telltale Games could have taken it easy. I mean, sure, all of their games since then have more or less followed the same blueprint, and the franchises that they’ve licensed has afforded them a pretty big commercial safety net.
But there’s a reason that many of the biggest names in entertainment have come knocking, and I suspect that their willingness to take narrative chances has something to do with it. Playing as a preteen girl and a PTSD-riddled mother in consecutive parts of The Walking Dead. Exploring the history of a little-known house in Game of Thrones. Offering any kind of story whatsoever for Minecraft. Your mileage may vary, but licencors are clearly impressed enough by the results to come to Telltale with their megaton franchises in tow.
In Batman: The Telltale Series, we see core parts of his widely-known origin turned inside out before the first episode even comes to an end. Yes, a young Bruce Wayne and his parents still take an ill-advised shortcut through Crime Alley, only for Thomas and Martha to be gunned down in front of the boy, and yes, this is still what drives Bruce to don the cape and cowl later on. But where decades of comics, film, and video games have established the elder Waynes as Batman’s moral center — Gotham’s moral center, even — Telltale instead offers a much different version in which that trust turns out to be terribly misplaced.
In Batman, it comes to light that Thomas Wayne was in deep with mobster Carmine Falcone and Gotham’s corrupt mayor, Hamilton Hill, and used their influence to build his fortune. Oswald Cobblepot’s family probably saw the worst of it — not only did Thomas rob the Penguin’s father of the land upon which Wayne Tower was built, but he then forcibly committed his mother into Arkham Asylum and drove her insane. Indeed, many of Thomas Wayne’s enemies had suffered a similar fate, and within a few days the damage to Bruce and his family’s reputation is irreparable. Others may have stopped short of making Thomas such a monster and offered him some moral grey areas, but Telltale goes and takes some turns — Telltale’s version of the Wayne patriarch was an evil man, no two ways about it.
Obviously, Bruce doesn’t know who he can trust anymore — even old Alfred stood by and watched while Thomas Wayne ran roughshod building his empire, conflicted as he was to do so. Of course, there isn’t much time to dwell on any of this, as these terrible revelations empower the children of Thomas’ victims — calling themselves the Children of Arkham, natch — to take revenge on the Wayne name by terrorizing the whole city.
As an adventure game, Batman: The Telltale Series has to find ways to mix things up mechanically as well. One of the great ways that it does is by giving the player equal time as both Batman and Bruce Wayne — while Bats gets to throw down with armed thugs and piece together crime scenes, Bruce is trying to put out the very public tire fire that has suddenly engulfed his family’s good name. In some instances, you’ll even be presented with the choice of confronting a situation as either Batman or Bruce Wayne, and each approach will of course alter how those situations unfold.
While playing as Bruce isn’t always great for Batman‘s pacing — there are a couple of instances where it feels like it’s just a little too long between Batman sequences — it’s a welcome break from what’s become the norm in other Batman games. Chatting up reporters and Wayne Enterprise board members, speaking to Jim Gordon as a regular citizen, and hell, just speaking to Alfred face-to-face are things that have eluded game players. Exploring Bruce Wayne and Batman as two sides of a coin has served the character well across all other mediums, so it’s nice to see a video game finally get in on the action.
Yet it wouldn’t be a Batman game if you weren’t asked to split a wig or two, and this is where the action — sadly yet predictably — is subject to falling apart. There are a few great instances where Batman can recon an area filled with goons and plan out exactly how he’ll take out each and every one of them. Once you decide which guys will eat which pieces of furniture, though, you’ll initiate the QTE-heavy combat that has become a staple of Telltale’s work, for better or worse…by which I mean worse at this point. It’s not like I expected the combat from Rocksteady’s Arkham games to appear, but fighting as the goddamned Batman shouldn’t be relegated to lightning rounds of Simon either, you know? Someday, someone at Telltale will realize that their combat sequences are a drag, and when they do it’s going to be awesome. I hope that it’s sooner rather than later, because right now it is definitely and unabashedly not awesome.
It’s unsurprising that Batman: The Telltale Series is the latest in a growing lineage of compelling stories hampered only the studio’s fixation on applying the same combat mechanics across each of their titles, never mind how ill-fitting they are both mechanically and thematically. We shouldn’t be surprised that those we see out of Batman’s famed rogues gallery are well written and (mostly) well acted by industry heavyweights such as Troy Baker and Laura Bailey. We definitely shouldn’t be surprised that the game chugs, sputters, and occasionally even crashes when loading between scenes and chapters, even for something as seemingly low-impact as a title splash.
Hopefully we can soon be surprised by a Telltale game whose very engine doesn’t undermine the story it’s trying to tell us.