Batman: The Telltale Series Episode 1 Review
Spoiler free review
“If Clark wanted to, he could use his super speed and squash me into the cement. But I know how he thinks. Even more than the Kryptonite , he’s got one big weakness. Deep down, Clark’s essentially a good person…and deep down, I’m not.” – Batman #612
Batman has been saving Gotham City in video games since the mid 80’s, utilising various tactics to emerge victorious from simply punching everything until it stops moving to using astute detective work to uncover deep-rooted and powerful super-villain conspiracies. Then punching them until they stop moving. Essentially most if not all Batman games have found different ways to spin the same gameplay mechanic…if it’s a bad guy, you’re probably going to have to punch it directly in the face.
But the other side to Batman, the multimillionaire Bruce Wayne, usually gets short shrift. Demoted to cutscenes or small exploratory sections, we as gamers haven’t really had the chance to experience the fascinating character behind the mask as comic readers have. Until now that is. With both halves of the same man in the public eye, is Batman a violent, reckless vigilante that does whatever it takes to rid Gotham of evil? Or is he the watchful protector, using his intellect and gadgets just as much as his fists? Must Bruce Wayne pretend to be a childish playboy with no understanding of the importance of the Wayne name, simply to distance himself from being connected to Batman? Or is he the responsible philanthropist, doing publicly the good deeds he can’t do as Batman? These are the kinds of questions you’ll be asking yourself during the course of Telltale’s excellent 2-3 hour first episode.
Telltale’s crack at an original Batman story puts you in the shoes of both Bruce Wayne and Batman, attempting to work alongside a fully-faced Harvey Dent as he vies for the Mayoral position against current seat-holder Hamilton Hill. Spinning around all this you’ll have to juggle the criminal kingpin Carmine Faclone, Catwoman’s thieving antics and a friend from the past whose name may ring a few bells for Bat fans. Telltale are working on very well trodden ground when it comes to the Batman canon, most of us know where these characters end up or what side of the law they’re really on, and the tragic backstory behind Bruce’s transformation into Batman is so well ingrained into pop culture that any regurgitation at this point brings about eye rolls. However none of this negatively affects the story being told, and it’s a testament to Telltale that they have managed to find a new angle of the Batman mythos that will leave you guessing where their plot will lead next.
Dialogue, on the other hand, stands out at times as poorly written, which is especially disappointing when you consider how incredible previous Telltale games have been at balancing story and character development. Entire stretches are spent simply standing around listening to other characters give backstory, with you interjecting at infrequent moments to express how sad/happy/uninterested that made Bruce feel. It’s especially jarring when the writers absolutely nail action and dialogue scenes in the very same episode. Part of this may be down to the delivery of Troy Baker, who voices Bruce and Batman. At times capturing Bruce Wayne’s heartbreak and despair, there are also times when slight sarcastic inflections completely betray the character you’re trying to play as. Still, for the most part Troy and the rest of the voice cast do a good job of putting their own marks on characters we’ve seen acted out numerous times before.
Whilst Telltale’s previous titles have been criticised by some for seemingly taking a franchise and simply copy-pasting it into their rigid game design , ‘Batman’ shows a somewhat upgraded version of their usual repertoire. For one, the standard Quick Time Events have become full-blown fight sequences, lasting minutes rather than seconds and edited as skillfully as any Hollywood blockbuster. The more correct input sequences you score, the higher a bat-meter in the corner of the screen fills…fill it up all the way and you can cut the fight short with a bone crunching finishing move. It’s a neat little twist, and one that genuinely ramps up the tension as your reflexes are actually put to the test. Likewise the graphics have been given a tweak to match the kind of artistic styles of Batman comic artists Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Whilst it isn’t a complete overhaul, it’s definitely a noticeable improvement on Telltale’s previous titles.
Unfortunately something else Telltale Games have been criticised for is the performance issues that plague most if not all previous titles. I’m sad to report ‘Batman’ is no different. Whilst I encountered no game-breaking bugs or glitches, the frame rate dropped considerably during crowd scenes, and even during some basic conversations. On top of that I had the game freeze during an intense action scene. Whilst it was fun to see Batman grimacing like he was holding in an iffy Chinese from last night, restarting the game ended up deflating any excitement I had for that moment. At this stage, considering how many of these episodic games Telltale has released, there isn’t really any excuse for this kind of poor performance, and if their track record is anything to go by, the frame rate issues will only get worse as subsequent episodes are released.
Looking back over the 2-3 hours I spent with Telltale’s ‘Batman’, I was surprised by just how little I was desperately waiting to get back to being the Caped Crusader. In fact the standout parts of episode one are those spent playing as Bruce Wayne. The version of Bruce you choose to be and the decisions you make in those moments really do feel like they funnel down and actively affect your version of Batman, as well as the world he inhabits. Whilst frame rate issues and the occasional scenes of boring dialogue stick out like a sore thumb, the overall tweaks to game design, the simple yet personal story and the genuine feeling that you ARE Bruce Wayne/Batman show the possibility that Telltale might have one hell of a powerful tale on their hands. Whether episodes 2-5 live up to the heights this first episode has teased we’ll just have to wait and see, but for now Telltale’s ‘Batman’ series is off to a strong start.