Telltale’s BATMAN Finds Real Drama Under The Cowl

Bruce Wayne stars in the studio's latest narrative reinvention.

Telltale Games has a knack for adapting other companies' properties into fresh games. Its point-and-click takes on The Walking Dead, Borderlands, and The Wolf Among Us are all-timers, and the studio is constantly adding to its stable of high-profile licenses. Its latest hero: Batman, the costumed crime-fighter with a bad childhood and worse fans. In keeping with tradition, Telltale has created its own version of Batman in an unusual and original way: by not stopping at Batman.

Other Batman games focus on the power fantasy of being the Bat, but Telltale’s narrative-driven offering splits its time evenly between Bruce Wayne’s nocturnal alter ego and Bruce Wayne himself. Looking like nobody more than Sterling Archer, Bruce is smaller and svelter than previous animated and game incarnations of the character, positively tiny next to district attorney, mayoral candidate, and villain-in-waiting Harvey Dent. He’s involved in the story as much as - if not more than - Batman, as the central mystery unearths a conspiracy involving organised crime, City Hall, and even Bruce himself. This initial episode, Realm of Shadows, offers hints of a personal story that delves into Bruce’s past, forcing him to question all the truths he previously took as gospel and all the relationships he held dear. It’s great stuff.

Despite a more intimate and interesting story than most Batmen to date, Telltale’s approach reveals a depressing truth about Bruce Wayne: canonically, there’s little more to him than there is to Batman. He’s rich, smart, and buff; he dresses as a bat; his parents are dead. That’s about it. Thomas and Martha die in a more tasteful way than Zack Snyder’s borderline pornographic take, but Bruce’s character is still motivated by their deaths almost exclusively. And look, I get it - it’s the major facet of the character. But Telltale gives us just enough of a look at Wayne to make me wish for more facets.

For all its focus on its protagonist’s mild-mannered side, Batman doesn’t give the Dark Knight the short shrift. Batman doesn’t say much in his absurdly downpitched voice, but he sure does get physical - physical and violent. Telltale’s version of the Caped Crusader is a total asshole (plus or minus a degree of player choice), brutally torturing and taking out criminals with more painful specificity than in any other Batman game. Curiously, the lengthy, quick-time event heavy action scenes essentially play themselves, with no player input; a score meter appears in the corner of the screen, but it’s unclear what effect it has. 

In addition to being a violent dick, Batman is also the World’s Greatest Detective, and Telltale’s interpretation takes a solid shot at bringing the crimefighter’s smarts into play. Like a lite version of Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes games, you’ll have to scour crime scenes, drawing connections to piece together a picture from gory and mysterious clues. It’s not difficult, but it’s better than similar sequences in most Batman games. Likewise, a late-game sequence renders into gameplay the nerd debate cliche of “Batman with time to prepare,” as you formulate a plan of attack on a heavily-guarded building. Again, it’s not a particularly deep sequence, but it’s a great way to bring Batman to Telltale’s particular style of adventure game.

Other characters get fresh takes too. Telltale’s vision of Oswald Cobblepot is of a skinny Cockney school mate of Bruce’s, turned into an angry, unfocused Occupy type by the loss of his family and fortune. He’s a mirror to Bruce, his grief fueling crime rather than a fight against it. Harvey Dent is idealistic, but not unrealistic, acutely aware of the uncomfortable politics that need to be played in order to win an election. Catwoman, merely referred to as a cat burglar, providing a reliable foil to both Wayne and Batman. Even Vicki Vale has a larger role to play than expected, with one major player choice revolving around whether to expose a villain to the police or to the press. The dialogue, full of double entendres conspiratorial and otherwise, is delightfully comic-booky, and even finds room for a touch of humour - especially for a player like me, who will always pick the dumbest conversation choices. (Kudos to whoever wrote Bruce Wayne's unbelievably stupid, hilarious idea for a Harvey Dent campaign slogan.)

Batman bears a brand-new version of Telltale’s game engine, and the game looks great as a result. With more detailed character models and environments, its widescreen compositions feel like glossy comic book panels. Unfortunately, the higher graphical fidelity only makes the animation - which hasn’t progressed as far - seem all the stiffer. Outside the fight scenes, which play out like appropriately brutal ballet, characters move in awkward jerks, reminiscent of a Disney theme park attraction. A good, off-brand Disney attraction, but with the air of animatronics nonetheless. Performance isn’t smooth, either, with frame rates chugging all too often. Granted, the narrative is more important than the visuals here, but the visuals need to match the writing - and they don't always do that.

Batman’s first episode ends on an exciting and intriguing cliffhanger, promising a story that feels genuinely new for the franchise. Unlike with other Batman games, whose stories take a back seat to action and open-world bullshit, I want see what happens next. Here’s hoping Bruce Wayne and the game surrounding him continue to find themselves.