I'm Batman... and Bruce Wayne.
Batman: The Telltale Series couldn’t have come at a better time. Four years after the groundbreaking Dark Knight trilogy ended, fans of The Bat have been getting a mixed bag. The last Arkham was just okay, and the recently released animated movie, The Killing Joke, is more about The Joker. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. has had a hard time getting audiences to accept Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne with this summer’s notoriously polarizing Batman v Superman.
Even this week’s Suicide Squad, a hackneyed mess, gives us more Affleck when no one was really asking. Thank Telltale Games that their version of Gotham’s favorite antihero is superior in nearly every way. (Okay, not to the Nolan films.) Crisp in production, meaty with just the right amount of familiar faces, this is a Batman series that feels right on the verge of being great.
Right off the, um, bat, things are promising as the iconic Bat Signal gives way to comic panels from the Bob Kane era and up to Frank Miller. Then, as the game brings about its menu, everything is bold but subtle. This is next-level Telltale. I don’t know if it’s that developer of acclaimed The Walking Dead just had more money at their disposal than their previous efforts (since this is Batman dollars not The Wolf Among Us ones), but for the first time since Tales from the Borderlands there’s real effort made to give this classic dialogue heavy, QTE experience a brand new coat of paint.
The menu screen gives the familiar options of playing the episodes, accessing a Telltale account, and seeing your choices, but there’s also a codex, which fills in as you play à la Rocksteady’s Arkham titles. There are developer videos too. And (finally) Crowd Play. You can even choose the color, choosing amoung four, of Batman gadgets like some sort of simplified Pip-Boy. (I went with pink.) To be fair, none of these perks would matter if the game was buggy or the story was forgettable, but since all of that is quite good, the stellar presentation makes replaying the first episode, “Realm of Shadows,” all the more appealing.
More on Crowd Play: This mode allows you and your friends to choose the story choices by voting via the controller and mobile devices. It's a simple bonus, but for a Telltale adventure this is a great idea, especially for streamers.
Since the game was first announced last December, I had wondered just how much of the series would be played as Batman versus Mr. Wayne. I’m happy to report that episode one feels right down the middle. This makes sense given Telltale’s knack for creating tension from dialogue (which would utliize Wayne more), but I wasn’t sure. I had seen the 30-minute demo at E3, which did put my mind at ease a bit, but having played the nearly two-hour first episode, I am pleased at how much time I got to be Bruce Wayne.
What begins with Batman taking down a bunch of masked goons at a bank (a nod to The Dark Knight) by using the now standard Telltale timed left stick/buttons-style motions, it quickly became a stand off against Catwoman. Once back at the Batcave, I was able to look at my codex only to realize that Bruce doesn’t know too much about this “cat burglar” yet. Later, at a fundraiser for wannabe mayor Harvey Dent, Wayne has what appears to be his first meeting with known Gotham crime boss, Carmine Falcone.
Forty minutes in, I was captivated by how fresh this all felt, as I’m used to Batman already having extensive knowledge of his Rogue’s Gallery by the time I show up. It seems like Telltale is rewinding the clock, focusing on a youngish (maybe 30 years old) crime fighter, one that knows Gordon, but they aren't exactly BFFs yet. Best of all, the one aspect of Batman's origins we don’t need for the umpteenth time, the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, is mercifully done in a passing conversation.
Still, these kinds of “new” moments are put to effective use with Telltale’s dialogue trees. Deciding to shake hands with Falcone in a room full of Gotham’s elite or using banter as a way as cultivating the myth of Billionaire Bruce Wayne is engaging as the writers rarely give you easy choices. The stakes might be small so far (like choosing Dent’s political slogan), but I can already tell I’ll be regretting most of the ones I’ve already made.
Without spoiling too much of the story, Batman will need to investigate a crime scene, figure out a strategy to take down multiple enemies at bad guy’s lair, visit a seedy cemetary, and balance out his professional dealing with ace Gazette reporter Vickie Vale while leaving open the possibilty of a romanic one.
Episode 1 is a packed two hours that, thankfully, also has time to breathe. Sure, Alfred might be a tad needy (isn’t he always?), but there’s a real sense of Bruce and, by extension the player, figuring what’s going on. Another plus: At this point there’s no Killer Croc or any absurdist antics of the Clown Prince to contend with which is great, as Falcone and a mysterious explosive toxin feel more grounded as a plot point.
That explosive toxin is one of the scenes where Batman gets to be the World's Greatest Detective. The case is somewhat interesting, but the detective work still just amounts to merely looking over everything and then linking two bits of evidence together. Players can fail at this, which, I suppose is something, but it's still a tad too linear.
Troy Baker, who’s probably best known as the hardened-by-life Joel in The Last of Us, is the Dark Knight. For many fans of the Arkham game and The Animated Series from the '90s, Kevin Conroy is the only Cowl for them, but Baker uses Batman's sense of cunning to turn him into a man who wants to do the best for Gotham, even if his past is something that never lets him go. In a fun turn, Richard McGonagle who’s been the lovable Sully in Uncharted is Carmine Falcone. Big props to McGonagle for getting to call both Nathan Drake and Bruce Wayne “kid.”
I would be remiss not to mention just how gorgeous this all looks. Tales from the Borderlands was a colorful delight, but the challenge here, to use mostly blues and greys, seems doubly impressive. A simple setting like a PR event in the park can feel lovely hosted by Harvey Dent and is both serene and ominous. This is the best first episode since Borderlands for Telltale Games. I can’t wait to see where Batman: The Telltale Series goes next.