Batman’s enduring appeal means that we’ve been exposed to plenty of the caped crusader in recent years across multiple media fronts. In video games he’s been doing pretty well of late, with the critically acclaimed Batman: Arkham series and the decent Lego: Batman games. Now enter Telltale, the creators of the Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead episodic game series. Following on from their first collaboration with DC Comics, The Wolf Among Us, based on the Fable comics, they now give Batman the episodic gaming treatment in the form of Batman: The Telltale Series.
For this story, DC Comics gave Telltale the go-ahead to rewrite the Batman story from scratch, letting them play around with the established canon. On the surface though, this is the Dark Knight, Gotham and a familiar assortment of allies, villains and Bat-tech that you’ve probably seen countless times before. The story is set during the “infancy” of the Batman tale, with him encountering many of the main characters of the franchise that we know for the first time during this season. Telltale assumes that you already know about the Batman premise. So the season begins with millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, and his double life as alter-ego vigilante Batman already established, complete with Batcave, Batmobile, gadgets, and various allies on his side.
Telltale’s games could be best described as interactive stories – they are linear, but the player makes decisions which alter the story as it progresses. Each of the five episodes in the season is an hour or two long, with a cliffhanger at the end of each episode. Breaking up the interactive dialogue segments and cutscenes are short action sequences and light puzzle solving sections to vary the pace of the game. But the main emphasis is on the story, characters and the choices that you make to change the course of events. Much of Batman: The Telltale Series takes part with you playing as Bruce Wayne rather than his alter-ego Batman. This is a conscious decision by Telltale to differentiate themselves from other action-focussed Batman games. Therefore much of the game is made up of dialogue playing as Wayne, with action switching to Batman from time to time for fight sequences and gadget tomfoolery.
Without spoiling the story too much, it follows a familiar Batman formula. Supervillians pop up in Gotham city with the usual masked goon army appearing from who-knows-where. The caped hero tries to figure out their plans and stop them, whilst Bruce Wayne tackles politics, difficult friends, and some dirty family history. There’s not much change to the tried and tested basic Batman story to get Bat-fans up in arms, and so you have to ask yourself – how many times do we need to be told the same essential story and set-up before it gets a bit old? The season features many of the usual Batman cast, including faithful Alfred the butler, villain Penguin, cagey love interest Catwoman, friend and opponent Harvey Dent and comrade in arms Commissioner Gordon. Plenty of the Batman roster appear in smaller roles or make cameo appearances, with some presumably foreshadowing bigger parts for the next season.
As the game’s focus is on the story, its quality – and the strength of its characters – are extra important. Whilst on the whole it’s a decent popcorn affair, it rarely truly excites or surprises. Although you can make choices throughout (we’ll talk about this later) it doesn’t radically affect the plot overall. Fortunately the characters are fairly well done and help to keep things engaging through the mediocre story. Voice acting is quality for the most part, and this helps to rough it out through some of the occasionally ropey or cheesy dialogue. Unfortunately, although characters are sometimes animated very well, at other times they move very stiffly and robotically, spoiling immersion. Weird lip-sync movement also hurts the dialogue and cutscenes – it just doesn’t look right and jars with their otherwise realistic expressions.
If you can get past this, the main characters are generally fine and follow little arcs through the season. To highlight the main players – Bruce Wayne/Batman is suitably suave and polite as Wayne, and gruff and rough as Batman. He comes across as a bit plain and boring at times and his dialogue varies from the mega-corny to decent, but he ends up being likeable enough. Alfred the loyal butler lives up to his reputation as a firm friend that you care about. Harvey Dent’s is grating at first as Wayne’s friend, vying for election, but grows into a fairly nuanced character, although the plot rapidly forces him into some over-dramatic moments which spoil his arc. Catwoman begins a little lukewarm, but the romantic intrigue with Batman does eventually strike a convincing enough tone. But the star for me was Penguin (Oswald Cobblepot). Charming and unhinged with manic energy, he’s a convincing and engaging villain, and a much younger version who doesn’t succumb to the over-the-top characterisation than we usually see in the Batman universe.
Unfortunately the plot doesn’t give many of these characters much of a chance to shine. It’s too shallow and events move too quickly for much character development to occur. It probably would have been stronger to stick with a smaller cast and develop those more, exploring the nuances of the main characters and villains as we see in series like The Walking Dead. Instead, it feels like the storytellers have tried to cram too much into this season, and force too many cameo roles. By the end, the plot just gets silly (although let’s be fair, this often happens with Batman stories), with gaping plot holes, characters behaving completely irrationally and implausible events coming from nowhere and escalating out of control (even considering the situation).
A few of the characters also struggle to fit into the “realistic” vision of the Batman universe that Telltale portrays. This vision is more akin to the Christopher Nolan movies than the earlier, more fantastical Batman films. Having characters who fit into that “fantasy” zone without explanation or justification in the story for their appearance and abilities is a bit jarring. Batman derives much of his powers from his use of Bat-tech which keeps things grounded from his point of view, and you get to use it a lot as the player. You don’t get to drive the Batmobile, but you do get to use gadgets like vision modes, the grapple gun, Baterangs, drones and other devices at pre-set times in detective and combat sequences, helping to make you feel suitably bad-ass.
These sequences help to pace the story and give a break from dialogue but are pretty disappointing. They offer a twist on the usual Telltale exploration segments by introducing very basic puzzle elements and gadget use, but there isn’t anything taxing here or particularly engaging. Planning out how to take down goons in “future vision” sounds good, but in practice feels like it makes no difference to the outcome. In crime scenes, your investigation is as simple as linking related objects to one another, the simple events being retold at the end in a patronising fashion. The bloody knife was used to stab the only body in the room? I never would have guessed!
Combat is scattered throughout the episodes and in Telltale tradition uses quick time events (QTEs – hit a displayed button quickly enough to act). These fights have great choreography and cinematography, but would be better were it not for being constantly interrupted by slow motion, allowing you time to perform a QTE. This makes fights into stuttering affairs with little fluidity, although they look cool. Half the time it doesn’t seem to matter if you succeed or fail the QTEs. Sometimes you get Game Over when you fail (often in situations where Batman would clearly have been fine), but at other times the combat move happens regardless whether you hit the button or not. This makes you feel like you might as well have grabbed the popcorn and watched the fight played out as a movie. If you had a choice of QTEs that you could perform, maybe the combat would feel more engaging. As it is, it feels like you have little control and fights lack a feeling of consequence that other Telltale action sequences have.
Indeed consequence and choice, although at the heart of the Telltale game formula, struggle to make themselves felt in this game. In much of The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and The Wolf Among Us, your choices really feel important to the development of the story and the welfare of the characters. Even though this is mostly a facade, you usually feel gravitas when making significant choices, and those series excel at giving you difficult or impossible choices with no right answer – with lots of short time limits to make hard decisions. Characters can die and the story arc can change.
Initially Batman: The Telltale Series doesn’t give you many choices that feel difficult or have much of an impact to the story afterwards. However, as the series progress you do get some big choices to make which do feel more significant. A bit of hunting online for alternate choices show that there’s a couple of plot points that do have some wider reaching effects, but only by Telltale’s standards. But most choices that you make aren’t too agonising or under much time pressure, and a look through the end of chapter choice summaries is revealing. If you’re online, this shows how your choices tally with other players of the game. About 90% of my choices were the same as the majority of players by quite a margin. This means that most players chose the same options, which reinforces that the big choices in the game are not that difficult. Crucially, I didn’t feel any pressing need to know the results of the other choices, or wonder about their consequences, unlike with other Telltale games. There’s little evidence that your choices make a difference even when they do – and they’re sometimes never referred to again, which seems an oversight.
But having choice in a Batman story does give you a little control over the Wayne/Batman persona. It’s nice that you get to somewhat shape how Wayne responds to the situations he finds himself in, as both businessman and the Dark Knight. In a few places you can choose to visit other characters as either Wayne or Batman to elicit a different response from them. Your choices affect how the police, public and your enemies view both personas, to an extent. And you get to decide how Wayne treats Batman – as a self-indulgent, dark and violent side of his personality – or a justice enforcer who uses non-violent means when possible (or somewhere in between). It’s choices like this that sets Batman: The Telltale Series apart from other Batman games. Hopefully in future seasons this aspect will be explored more deeply than the rather clear cut “good Batman/bad Batman” options available in this outing.
Overall season 1 of Batman: The Telltale Series is an entertaining popcorn experience but doesn’t grab you in the same way as series like The Walking Dead. It falls short in a number of areas, doesn’t do much to advance the Telltale formula and its story is not strong enough to make up for its other shortcomings. It’s also important to note that on PS4 and Xbox One there are technical issues. I experienced plenty of framerate drops and delays on PS4 during gameplay and cutscenes, which were jarring and spoiled the flow of the game. I even experienced a number of outright crashes, which should be unheard of on these systems. Another mistake on the part of the publisher was to release a disc version of the game which only acts as a season pass – you have to download four of the episodes even with the disc. That’s pretty ridiculous.
However, if you can ignore these issues, this is far from a terrible start and there’s definitely potential here to turn the series into something greater, especially given its strong characters who now have solid foundations. Making improvements like more difficult and consequential choices, better interactivity, less-stiff animations and better lip synching would definitely help. Focussing the story on longer character arcs and playing more with the Batman/Wayne persona conflict would aid the plot, and perhaps concentrating on the “real-world” vision of the Batman universe. Hopefully the dev team can learn from their counterparts who are working on the latest season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead which has started to great reviews (I’ll probably review the season once it’s concluded). Batman: The Telltale Series is by no means bad, but it is disappointing, by not only the standards of recent Batman games but also Telltale’s own output. Let’s hope they learn some lessons for the next season.
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