By Marty Mulrooney
Batman: The Telltale Series is a new five-episode adventure game from Telltale Games (Tales from the Borderlands, The Wolf Among Us) based on the Batman comic book series created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Rendered to look like a living, breathing comic book, Episode 1: Realm of Shadows sees Batman/Bruce Wayne taking on the mob (and Catwoman/Selina Kyle) as Harvey Dent runs for mayor of Gotham City.
Episode 1: Realm of Shadows opens with an armed bank heist that finds Batman disarming and incapacitating numerous gun wielding thugs via a series of quick time events, before heading up to the rooftops for a brawl with the mysterious Catwoman. The action comes thick and fast, yet the most exciting development for fans of Telltale Games will be just how good it all looks and plays.
The Telltale Engine has powered some superb games over the past few years, but the underlying tech was starting to get creaky with age. Scene transitions in particular often took a second longer than they should, at odds with the cinematic nature of the stories being told. Add quick time events into the mix, where a series of buttons must be pressed quickly to avoid failure… and things could certainly get a bit frustrating. With Batman: The Telltale Series, it looks and perhaps even more importantly feels like the engine has received a much-needed upgrade.
Scene transitions (think of these as when the camera changes to a different angle in a movie) are much smoother now and button inputs are responsive. It’s great to play a Telltale adventure game where you can enjoy the story without being distracted by small technical niggles. Quick time events will always split gamers right down the middle, but at least they’re well implemented here. Now, even gamers of limited skill can kick ass as the Dark Knight. Surely that’s something to be applauded and embraced?
However, it’s during the moments where players take control of Bruce Wayne that Realm of Shadows really comes into its own and offers something truly unique. Telltale is known for telling strong stories with an emphasis on difficult decision-making. It would have been incredibly easy for them to make a Batman game with no Bruce Wayne at all. Instead, they embrace the man behind the mask and in the process allow players to experience the difficulties of fighting crime without gadgets and fists.
When he isn’t dealing out vigilante justice as Batman, Bruce Wayne is a millionaire orphan who tries to use his influence, power and money for the greater good. He’s currently supporting Harvey Dent in his bid for mayor by attending fundraising parties and using his own tragic past experience with Gotham City crime to swing voters. There are even plans to scrap Arkham Asylum and build a brand new state-of-the-art facility named after his parents.
The Rocksteady Batman games barely touched on Bruce Wayne, but here he’s under the spotlight. It makes the decision-making much more engaging and enjoyable. If a notorious mobster walks into your fundraiser and offers to shake your hand, do you take it? His power could help gain more votes, but is there any point Harvey Dent being in power if he’s backed by the very criminal element Bruce wishes to eradicate?
The decision-making moments are perfectly handled and seldom boil down to a simple choice of right or wrong. Even Batman must face them from time to time, for example when interrogating a criminal who won’t talk. Can you scare him enough without using violence? Does he even deserve Batman going easy on him? How refreshing it is to wear the trademark bat cowl in a videogame and not answer every question with a broken bone. Of course, you can always play aggressively if you wish… Sadly (and somewhat unfairly), Alfred will condemn your behavior either way.
Another nice moment comes when Batman must investigate a crime scene and link clues to discover what happened. It may only amount to clicking hotspots and joining them together, but it feels like you’re actually using your brain to reveal the truth. Here’s hoping these moments reappear in later episodes with a bit more depth added and skill required. Batman is supposed to be ‘The World’s Greatest Detective’ after all.
Telltale’s take on Batman and Gotham City looks gorgeous, taking the comic book-esque graphics of The Wolf Among Us and pushing them even further. The characters are all well designed – familiar yet fresh – and the city itself feels like a real location. There is beauty to be found even in the grime. The character animation can admittedly look a little bit stiff at times, but you’ll be so enveloped in Gotham you’ll barely even notice.
The award-winning cast of voice actors raise the production values even higher. Troy Baker (who has previously voiced a variety of Batman characters in video games, including The Joker, Robin, and even Batman himself… in Lego form), is terrific as Bruce Wayne/Batman. He’s one of the most talented voice actors working today and it’s a pleasure to hear his confident take on such an iconic character. He’s supported by a strong cast of talented actors including Travis Willingham as Harvey Dent, AMO favourite Erin Yvette as Vicki Vale, Enn Reitel as Alfred Pennyworth, Murphy Guyer as Lieutenant James Gordon, Richard McGonagle (Sully from Uncharted 4!) as Carmine Falcone and Laura Bailey as Selina Kyle.
In the end, there are only a few downsides to playing Batman: The Telltale Series – Episode 1: Realm of Shadows. First of all, it’s short: you’ll finish it in 2 hours or less. With five episodes planned for release, this isn’t the end of the world but you’ll undoubtedly be hungry for more once the credits roll. Episode 2 can’t come soon enough. Second of all, there isn’t a villain worthy of Batman… yet. There are some hints towards one well-known villain eventually making an appearance, but during Episode 1 at least you’ll simply be facing nameless goons and mob boss Falcone. Finally, there are a few minor annoyances – for example, the game needing to be set to display full screen each time it’s launched – but these will hopefully be ironed out for the final release.
Batman: The Telltale Series – Episode 1: Realm of Shadows is a promising start to a brand new episodic adventure from Telltale Games. Not only have they taken the Batman property and made a video game totally different to what has come before, they’ve done so with a true sense of style and fun. It isn’t the most challenging experience, but like all of their recent games the enjoyment comes from making difficult decisions under pressure and experiencing the repercussions. Batman: The Telltale Series’ biggest achievement? Bruce Wayne is as much a character – and in his own way, is just as much fun to play – as Batman himself. Who saw that coming?
8 OUT OF 10
Special thanks to Job Stauffer from Telltale Games for providing Alternative Magazine Online with a pre-release review copy.