|Platforms||PC (reviewed), PS4, XBO, PS3, 360, Android, iOS|
|Release Date||August – December 2016|
Review code provided
Telltale Games are back with another episodic adventure game, this time with their take on Batman. As a wee nipper I never thought I’d be able to write the following sentence: Batman is mainstream. Yes, past me, the geeks inherited the Earth. In terms of pop culture anyway. It’s impossible to ignore the giant hulking monstrosity that the Dark Knight and all associated productions has become; one has to ask just how many adaptations we need? Thankfully, Telltale’s input feels quite fresh for the most part, although there are some hefty ups and downs that come with it. I’m going to try avoid spoilers, but this is a story-based game, so be warned.
Now, we all know the Batman’s story. We all know about Bruce Wayne and the tragic origins of his campaign for justice. What Telltale do fairly quickly is take a lot of generally accepted canon and set about brutally dismembering it. Without ruining too much, they play fast and loose with a lot of characters here. You wouldn’t recognise the Penguin, here portrayed as a lean, fit, street-boxing childhood friend of Bruce’s. Thomas Wayne has been drastically altered from the image we usually have of him. The main antagonist is so far apart from the [redacted] we know so well. This will not sit well with a lot of fans; it didn’t with me at first, in all honesty, and some aspects of the characterisation I still can’t quite condone. The entire plot is built around these changes, however, and a fairly good plot it is.
Chronologically speaking, Telltale’s Batman puts you very early on in the Caped Crusader’s career, most likely within the first year of Batman’s appearance in Gotham. Bruce Wayne has become close friends with fresh-faced D.A. Harvey Dent, and is funding his campaign to become the next Mayor of Gotham and root out the corruption in the system. This is standard early-days Batman here, and all the usual cast make appearances. Our main focus is on the relationships between Bruce and the others, including Jim Gordon (still a Lieutenant), Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Carmine Falcone, the aforementioned Penguin and, of course, Alfred Pennyworth, everyone’s favourite confidante.
In fact, the way Telltale’s Batman explores the relationship between Alfred and Bruce is one of the more poignant and emotionally testing facets of the game. The Wayne name is dragged through the mud, and Alfred’s guilt over previous inaction is pulled into conflict with both Wayne and Alfred’s sense of honour and integrity. The irony of Alfred’s keeping secrets from Bruce is not lost, and the scenes are voiced and scored beautifully, even if Bruce is a touch on the whiny side here and there.
Obviously, the focus on interpersonal dynamics is a major selling point of TG’s games, and they do not disappoint. One thing they know how to do is tug on those heartstrings like Quasimodo announcing lunchtime. The second major selling point is the choice-based plots. As is usually the case, you’re given several ways to navigate the story. Mostly, games don’t quite hit the mark here, generally allowing multiple ways to reach the same conclusion but not managing to get the variety or consequences required to really say “this choice matters”. With Batman, Telltale have actually accomplished a fair bit here. Be warned – spoilers incoming.
Aside from the minor dialogue choices and the less-minor (but still mostly flavour) character interactions (from how you’re going to treat everyone else to just how brutal your Dark Knight is going to be), you can affect the narrative in some very surprising ways. For one, there’s a certain choice you can make which will determine whether Dent received the famous disfigurement – his violent mental disorder will still surface, but Two-Face can remain Pretty-Face throughout. Another will determine whether Wayne Manor is torched in a jealous fury. Compared to most other choice-matters games, this is pretty heavy stuff, and there’s more where that came from. I personally enjoyed the varying feel of each path, and this certainly gives Telltale’s Batman some replay value.
You spend your time as both Bruce Wayne and Batman here, not often something on offer with Batman video games. As Bruce, you negotiate your way through the politics of Gotham and the billionaire’s personal life. As Batman, you’re Batman. From the game’s opening scenes, it’s evident here that Telltale have tried to make the combat as authentic as possible. Combat in a Batman game is paramount; if you don’t feel like Batman, you’re doing it wrong. Warner has the best example of this with their Arkham series, and while Telltale were never going to implement something so intricate in a modern point-and-click game, they’ve certainly brought something new to the table for their fans.
Telltale’s productions generally give you a fairly forgiving combat system based on QTE’s; here the method of delivery is the same, but the pace is much, much faster. The fight scenes feel dynamic, urgent and dangerous. The way Batman takes apart his foes, from parrying and blocking to bone-crunching jabs and batarangs that actually behave like they’re supposed to, playing through the action sequences is a lot of fun. There’s a bar fight scene in episode 2 which is one of my favourite sequences I’ve played in a long time. There’s a real challenge here with each battle, culminating in an extremely satisfying finishing move from the Bat, both allowing a sense of actual victory and maintaining the cinematic quality present in the rest of the game.
There’s two other gameplay segments which are worth mentioning; the detective scenes in which our hero will link evidence at a crime scene to determine the outcome, and pre-brawl planning. The evidence linking is nice but stalls your momentum somewhat if you’re trying to find which signposted bit of the scene to click on next; thankfully these are never overly long, and the batcomputer-aided play out of the scenarios are always pretty cool. The planning stages are brilliant, however. These serve to show Batman’s genius and expertise while also allowing you the choice of how your fights will pan out. You can choose between methods of dispatching those in your path, with a quick preview before the main event, in which you put your methods into practice. It’s always fun, always challenging and particularly entertaining to watch.
Unfortunately, also present is the ever-irritating list of Telltale bugs. As we’ve mentioned time and time again here at Words About Games HQ, Telltale’s engine and development model is sorely lacking in terms of QA. It’s all the same complaints, much like you’re always going to have too much clutter in an Ubisoft world-map, you’re also going to get these. The dropped audio, the apparent ventriloquism skills, the frame rate drops, the jumpy cut-scenes… I could go on but it’s not a surprise and it’s just expected now. Still rather irritating though. There was one particular scene between Bruce and Gordon which made me laugh though – their continued conversation whilst Bruce had an evident broken neck. Seriously, look at this:
Let’s just look at that again:
It’s like the game decided that for this scene, Bruce’s spine was set at a ninety degree angle and that was just fine. It was hilarious, but for the love of all that is holy, Telltale, please, please spend a bit of time on squashing out these bugs.
Problems aside, there are some genuinely great moments here. Looking at each individual episode, I can’t knock the pacing of the storytelling. There’s a bit of a slump in episode 3 in particular, with some inconsequential choices and a portion of the game that I’m not entirely sure was necessary in its length except to say “LOOK! We have this character here too!”, but for the most part they’re great fun beginning to end. Looking at it as a whole, bugs aside, I’m not entirely sold on some aspects.
There’s a flimsy connection between each plot thread which might not have been necessary but once in place wasn’t explored in nearly enough detail. Continuity seems a little off also, with Wayne Manor going from an inferno to being a bit fire damaged in about an hour. Inconsistency is abound in general, but it may be less jarring for others than it was for me. There’s some inexplicable characterisation too; I’m still not over the main antagonist, but YMMV. Altogether too much time is spent on already played-out parts of the Batman story. That being said, it’s still a lot of fun. When Telltale’s Batman gets it right, it really gets it right. When it gets it wrong, it’s all about whether you can ignore it as opposed to whether it’s actually bad.
Broadly speaking, this is a textbook example of Telltale’s formula. You’ve got your choice-based plot, the usual voice actors, the mega-popular brand and the absolute murder of accepted canon. Oh, also their engine still needs some serious work. This is one of the better TG offerings since 2013’s excellent The Wolf Among Us, however, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If you’re a fan of Telltale and can get past what they’ve changed with the well known, much loved Batman property, you’ll most likely have a great time.
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