Batman. Pretty much one word tells a whole story there, and in a world where everyone knows who the Batman is, it’s no surprise to see him finally taking over video games, just like he did with movies all the way back in the late 1980s. Rocksteady redefined superhero games: in that they made them good for the first time (excluding a certain Spider-man game based on the movie). So yeah, Batman lends himself to an episodic format, just like the comics he comes from. Telltale has adapted comic book stories to their five-part games in the past, so why not do it with Batman? The result is something far more interesting than what I could have even hoped.
From the beginning, this story is about Batman, the man himself. My favorite Batman stories incorporate the half-character that is Bruce Wayne, but this goes beyond that: the flawed human is the mask, and the symbol, the Batman, that’s the real Bruce Wayne. Much of this first episode sets up Bruce as a symbol to the wider audience of Gotham City, and an ally to would-be mayoral candidate Harvey Dent. It feels like a much more grounded, back-to-its roots Batman. There aren’t quite supervillains yet, and the greatest looming threat is corruption and the mobster Falcone. These were the issues that caused the Batman to exist, and Batman accordingly caused the existence of supervillains himself. I can’t know for sure, but it’s that thruline that Telltale is setting up here, and it’s super exciting.
The plot feels very reminiscent of Scott Snyder’s Batman (2011), and the initial run of that circulated strongly around the Wayne family, their less-than-spotless past, and a mysterious organization called The Court of Owls. Though the villain of Telltale’s Batman has yet to be revealed, I get similar vibes to a larger conspiracy at play, and with characters like Harvey Dent and Oswald Cobblepot in motion, it’s clear that supervillains will manifest themselves before the five episode run is through.
Can I also just say: Oswald Cobblepot, also known as “The Penguin” gets introduced in a massively exciting way here. He is unlike you’ve ever seen him before, reminding me a lot of DC TV show Gotham’s interpretation of him, only better, more focused. For any Batman fan, the portrayal of his character, as well as many other known Batman names (Vicki Vale, Jim Gordon, Selina Kyle) are all super well done, and allude to some great evolution in the future.
But the focus here is Bruce. Wayne is still coming into his own, both as Gotham City royalty and vigilante. It’s great getting to play both sides, from making announcements at press conferences, to doing detective work in the Batcave. It really feels like you have to balance things for appearances, and it evokes the more noir and detective side of Batman that works for narrative experiences like Telltale tends to create. The writing is in top form and as with The Wolf Among Us before it, the artstyle in Telltale’s games just makes it feel like a comic book brought to life.
But this is still a Telltale game, meaning that combat focuses heavily around quick time events and swiping the controller sticks left or right. And there is a whole lot of that. This is probably the hardest Telltale game I’ve played, just going off the first episode, with a lot more QTEs than before, and in quick succession. This time around, you need to build a finish meter up through set piece scenes in order to hit your victory state, so you’re allowed to miss a certain amount of hits, but still have to execute a minimum. It works, and there are more action-y events here, but they’re still quick time events, and they’re still pretty boring.
On the other end of the spectrum, the “is Telltale’s engine still a mess” update: I have good news and bad news. The game looks great, and there have been obvious refreshes to character models, textures, and just the overall fidelity of the image. Gotham looks great, and at its best, the game looks like something pulled off a comic panel or Batman The Animated Series. At its worst, the game is terribly stuttery and framey. I played on Playstation 4 and both the major Batman set pieces in this first episode were muddled by quick starts and stops, long freezes between transitions, and frame rate issues. We’ve seen these problems before, and I would love to say it doesn’t effect the experience, but it does. The game quickly goes from cinematic to janky frustratingly often.
There is clear inspiration from another certain Batman series of video games that were absolutely a huge success. Much of the investigation as Batman feels like a Telltale evolution of what Rocksteady’s Arkham games did. This isn’t a bad thing. Telltale adapts that very same framework to great success, and it actually makes me more confident in the story that they’ve taken clear inspiration from Rocksteady. The focus is on Batman as intimidating, illusive, and intelligent. Telltale’s choice-system make it all the more interesting, with your choices affecting what Gotham thinks of both Bruce Wayne, and the Dark Knight.
Telltale lays out an awesome setup to a Batman story in the vein of let’s say “Batman: Year Two”. Batman has hit his stride, plays are being made, with allusions to villains and conspiracies around every corner, a focus on Bruce Wayne, and it’s all only deterred by the same problems Telltale has had with their games for the past few years.