Telltale Games has long since established themselves as some of the most savvy storytellers in video games, turning their simple point and click "choose your own licensed property adventure" format into a fount for memorable moments and iconic characters all their own. It's a strength that came from taking familiar popular properties and putting effort into genuinely expanding them with their own signature, entering into franchises like The Walking Dead and Borderlands and creating installments that not only could stand as tall as their source material, but in some cases stand even taller. Having been handed the keys to the Batmobile by DC however, Telltale struck a tricky bargain, both getting to profit from one of the easiest to sell heroes in comics, but also tackling their oldest franchise to date, standing up to over 75 years of preexisting history and storytelling. Telling new stories in the vast unexplored decaying landscape of Robert Kirkman's zombie apocalypse is somewhat easier than in the confines of the well walked/glided/grappled streets of Gotham City. What could Telltale bring fresh to the Dark Knight's table that decades of films, television, and comics hadn't already? To be honest, not a whole hell of a lot, but that doesn't keep the opening chapter of their latest series from being a likable and engaging bit of interactive fiction.
The first and biggest problem, one that serves as both as an assistant and a hobbler, is once again we're getting a Batman Universe prequel. Batman is already Batman, but like Arkham: Origins, Zero Year, The Long Halloween, and more than one Batman animated series, we're being treated to yet another take of how the relationships that form the world of the Dark Knight took form. That means pre-acid Harvey Dent, flirtatious first brushes with Catwoman, and trust issues with this Gordon fellow. In one way, it serves an obvious storytelling purpose, making the story widely accessible to casual Batman readers as well as having built in arcs for characters as they wind their inevitable way down established hero or villiandom. In another breath however, there's the problem of this being exceedingly well tread ground, making a lot of the storytelling feel rote and laid out, like sucking in a bit of stale air while in an old attic. I'll return to this subject later.
The game exists in its own universe, made up of bits and takes from other Batman media. Telltale's Batman is younger, and in some cases lighter depending on choices, Troy Baker letting Bruce Wayne joke, sulk, and confide with uncharacteristic, but not unwelcome, freedom. Alfred's appearance seems to take inspiration from Micheal Gough's portrayal of the character from the Uslan produced films, one of the more tiresome portrayals in the game so far, less familiar fatherly wit and more a source of unending faux-poetic trailer bait monologue lectures. Carmine Falcone makes a plot-centric appearance, more the blunt arrogant Brooklyn thug Tom Wilkinson portrayed in Nolan's Batman Begins than the refined Italian-immigrant patriarch of Jeph Loeb. Even a brief Oswald Cobblepot appearance has a taller, lankier, younger design that suggests the Gotham portrayal of the character, though the comparisons end at superficial dimensions. Overall, it's a familiar feeling universe, if one that doesn't feel like it truly has its own personal identity.
The story is simple enough, with Bruce Wayne getting involved in politics to help his friend Harvey Dent in his bid for mayor, putting his public identity in the crosshairs of the incumbent mayor and invested crime families. While some might complain that the burden of the story is largely on the shoulders of Wayne and the politics rather than Batman, I actually found this a welcome change, as the action sequences here are serviceable but obviously an inferior experience to already available roleplaying in Rocksteady's Arkham line. Playacting as Batman in Bruce Wayne situations provided more interest to me, trying to play that fine line between intelligent strategist and immovable bastion of justice in Telltale's morally complex choice system providing my favorite moments.
There is a rub, obviously and it connects to both some of their recent, less successful, brushes with licensed properties as well as the prequel setting. Lately, Telltale has found themselves in some critical missteps with their Game of Thrones and Walking Dead: Michonne spin-off, less well received than their established critical darlings. In both cases, the games changed focus from original characters set in large, unexplored licensed universes to representing characters that already existed and whose stories continued past the setting of the game. With The Walking Dead and Tales from the Borderlands, the player was given responsibility for new characters, ones whose stories might cross paths with established figures from the franchises, but whose fates were undecided and permeable to change. When I play Borderlands, I play with the knowledge that characters I like, like Sasha, aren't bound by any outside narrative, and my choices might result in their early death if I'm not careful. It's a new story and I'm engaged by not knowing what comes next.
Batman, by setting itself as a prequel to a familiar world, albeit its own version, sets a lot of these stories up to have endings I already know by heart. To quote another critic, characters like Harvey Dent have "future reputations that precede them." Why should I worry about coddling this character's feelings when I know he's inexorably headed for archvilliany? What motivation do I have to pretending that Oswald Cobblepot might be a good bloke when his path is set by his very name? Not to mention the practical immortality these characters are likely to enjoy through whatever dramatic tussle comes in the future, nobody I recognize the name of is likely to bite a bullet anytime soon. It leaves you feeling less like you have real agency in the story and more like you are just finishing Bruce Wayne's sentences, waiting for those big iconic moments of transformation to simply arrive.
Setting this story in an already established Batman universe could have remedied this, creating original antagonists for Batman and Fam to confront. Or perhaps even more creatively, Telltale could have really established their pocket universe as one with consequences and unique direction by proving their story wasn't going to run precisely by the rules. What if they had killed Harvey Dent in the first episode? Or Jim Gordon? Saying that this is a prequel to Batman's legend, but one that these new creators will determine the shape of, not established history. There are no great surprises in the first installment of Telltale's Batman, serving more as a decently polished, well acted, Batman story that caters to fans but doesn't offer them something new.
Despite these criticisms, I very rarely found myself bored, appreciating the decent writing and traditionally strong voice acting. As per usual with the more recent games, the elements outside of quick time events and dialogue trees are conceptually imaginative but ultimately feel more like padding, not really providing many options or challenges. New features of gameplay options have been added, allowing online audiences to vote on choices the player should choose in real time, primarily for the benefit of streamers and Let's Players, but not providing much of an added value for the individual consumer.
If you've enjoyed Telltale's output in the past, Batman is a likable play, if not one of the stronger installment's I've played of theirs. There's no immediate and addicting hook like the end of the first The Wolf Among Us episode had, or the thrilling and hilarious burgeoning adventure of Tales from the Borderlands initial entry. I may actually have a hard time remembering off the top of my head what exactly happened in this premier episode by the time the next installment is released. But even as a decently well-read Batman fan, I could enjoy this game despite the familiarity. It may play it safe, but they are still good storytellers and do the best with the limitations they impose (or had imposed). It may be well worn, but I'm still looking forward to the rest of this story, familiar as it may be.
[su_box title="Score: 3/5" style="glass" box_color="#8955ab" radius="6"]
Batman: The Telltale Series - E.01 "Realm of Shadows"
Developer: Telltale Games
Platforms: Steam, X-Box 360, X-Box One, PS3, PS4