Reviews// BATMAN: The Telltale Series: Realm of Shadows

Posted 15 Aug 2016 12:41 by
'What's it like to be a superhero?' is a question that Rocksteady finally started to answer convincingly in games with Batman: Arkham Asylum and its follow-ups. Rather than have you pile into any given combat situation and start throwing punches it had you approach them methodically, making decisions about how best to tackle a given scenario based on its own merits.

The days of re-skinning a generic beat-'em-up with capes and spandex should have been done, although the competition didn't catch on right away. All the meaningful decision-making in Arkham Asylum was, however, centred on action. Telltale Games, as you would expect, is taking a different tack with its episodic Batman series. It's still got that core question squarely in its sights, though: what's it like to be Batman?

(Spoiler: the answer is 'quite stressful'.)

Batman: The Telltale Series is all about the bigger decisions you have to make when you're an obsessive billionaire with a hard-on for fighting crime, and here more of those choices are made with your mask off than on.

The game features some quicktime-powered action, sure, but the focus is squarely on the decisions you make in conversation and your ability to piece together evidence at a crimescene.

The game drops us somewhere near the start of the Dark Knight's career. Jim Gordon is still a police lieutenant, Catwoman's unknown to Bats, Harvey Dent still only has one face and Oswald Cobblepot is yet to pile on the pounds and start waddling around the underworld. Batman's not green around the gills, but he's not the seasoned crimefighting vet we tend to meet in the comics yet, either.

Dent is running for mayor with the backing of Gotham's first son, Bruce Wayne, and it's around this that the intrigue centres. In an apparent bid to sabotage Harvey's campaign, someone is intent on dragging the Wayne family name through the mud.

The narrative draws heavily on material already mined for Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, Year One and The Long Halloween but, while visiting the early days of Batman's career is hardly a new play for non-comics media, the game benefits from it. While this younger Bruce Wayne feels at times a little too earnest, his relative inexperience leaves some room for the player to make decisions. Interactions with the Gotham characters feel genuinely tense, the decisions (for the most part) feel weighty. There's rarely an obvious right or wrong decision.

While Telltale is keen to throw up on-screen prompts telling you things like 'Lieutenant Gordon will remember that', however, I was often left with a nagging question over how much I was really affecting the narrative. I can't help feeling that if it were clear that I was having a significant impact on events, Telltale wouldn't feel the need to tell me that I am.

It's a feeling that isn't helped by the combat, such as it is. It's largely based around hitting a correct button or moving an analogue stick in the right direction to ensure that Bats lands a blow. Except it doesn't really seem to matter if you get it right or not, with the possible exception of your finishing move. Combat also enables you, in one scenario (and presumably more to follow in future installments), to pre-select the moves Batman will make. While this plays to the tactical thinking Rocksteady went for in its Arkham games, however, here it feels thin, limited and inconsequential. The options are limited, and failure never feels like a very real possibility.

The crimescene investigation scenes, in which Batman pieces together clues using an augmented reality display in his cowl, are a little more satisfying. There's a feeling of inevitability to them, sure, but putting the chain of events together is satisfying nonetheless.

While I've just spent three paragraphs moaning about Batman: The Telltale Series, however, this is the point at which I tell you that despite my grumbling Episode 1 is a very enjoyable game. That's mostly thanks to the quality of the writing, as well as some important design decisions made by Telltale. The game feels tense and engaging throughout. The story carries weight and drags you in right to the tips of your pointy ears. That's largely due to craft on the part of Telltale's writers, but also in part thanks to the decision to keep the game free of continuity baggage. Because it stands alone from both the comics and film universes, there's a real sense that actions can have consequences. It doesn't have to be back to business as usual when the final episode ends, and so the stakes can feel significant.

Telltale also deserves a tip of the hat for the visual design. The clean, thick lines nod to the game's comics roots without ever feeling slavish to them.

This is a polished, well-crafted Batman yarn that packs a solid punch.

Pros:
+ A real sense of tension
+ Strong writing
+ Great visuals

Cons:
- Sometimes the level of impact you can have on the story feels slight
- Action elements feel thin

SPOnG Score: 8/10

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