Batman: The Telltale Series review - Episode 2: "Hints of an amazing Dark Knight game we’ve never seen before"

Halfway through Episode 2 of Batman: The Telltale Series review session, I finally ran into the sort of choice that made the pairing of this developer and this character so enticing. After one of the game’s myriad, awkwardly paced action sequences, you have to decide whether or not to confront one of Telltale’s apparent villains as Batman or as Bruce Wayne. Both the man and the myth can get results. Batman can intimidate his quarry (who also happens to be a recognizable public figure), and that might turn the people of Gotham against the vigilante right as he’s earning their trust. Bruce Wayne, on the other hand, can navigate the politics of public opinion while saving the face of his alter ego, but he’s risking even more scrutiny into criminal allegations against his sainted dead parents and the mayoral campaign of Harvey Dent he’s currently funding.

 
The decision carries real weight, seemingly changing the color and shape of the whole story, with no clear answer as to which choice is the right one. What’s more, it’s the choice of the cunning detective Batman; no gadgets, no punching, no mugging supervillain talking about how he’s the Dark Knight’s grim reflection. Few choices in Episode 2, called Children of Arkham, are as interesting as this one. And it does come directly after one of those drawn out, very out-of-place fight scenes that pepper Batman: The Telltale Series like an annoying corporate brand manager reminding that you’re playing as Pop Culture Icon Punch Man. But an accomplished experiment toying with the expected tropes of the average Batman story is starting to bubble up. The unpredictable, exciting Telltale behind The Walking Dead and Tales From the Borderlands is emerging from beneath the mountain of Bat cliches laid down in Episode 1.

This is already well-trodden territory. Storied comic book writers like Scott Snyder and Jeph Loeb, not to mention many others, have tarnished the memory of Thomas and Martha Wayne to add some emotional turmoil to the pathology of their son’s quest for justice. But in setting its Batman story in its very own tailor-made continuity, Telltale gets a chance to do what those writers didn’t: risk the lives of its cast. The scenes that follow Bruce’s visit to Crime Alley continue to explore both his interior and exterior life in familiar but capable ways. Without spoiling what happens next, the first half of Episode 2 takes place almost entirely in the form of well-written conversations that add tension and depth to the relationships between Bruce, Jim Gordon, Harvey Dent, Alfred, and the always welcome mob boss Carmine Falcone, and all of their relationships with Batman as well. These characters can be hurt. They even die, suddenly and brutally. Telltale’s story is free of the shackles attendant to episodic narratives that don’t have an ending. They can play for keeps and seem to be willing to do just that.


Then, of course, there needs to be a couple of fight scenes. One of those takes place in an already-used location from the first chapter, further singling it out as padding, and the second takes place in a generic dive bar with some hilariously fashionable Hipster Thugs. Neither of these scenes do much, not advancing the story in meaningful ways nor providing the Tough Guy Psychotic Batman thrills they’re meant to emulate. Telltale’s a deft hand at making action where you don’t really do much but still feel bodily impact and desperation. In Batman, though, these brawls are perfunctory. If someone wants to make Batman kick someone’s teeth out, there are five Arkham games across every game playing device under the sun for them. The bar fight does thicken up the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, but episode one already opened with a tussle that spelled out how much Batman and Catwoman want to sleep together. Plus, everybody already knows they want to sleep together because Batman is one of the most popular characters on earth.

The fights don’t detract from the pleasures of Telltale’s smart plotting, solid writing, and conscience scratching decisions elsewhere. To its credit, there is a spectacular action scene at the end of the episode. When Batman finally comes face to face with the game’s new Sexy Anarchist Penguin and the mysterious Children of Arkham reveal themselves, the fight is brief, brutal, and adds needed stakes to the game’s system allowing Batman to plot out how to take out armed thugs ahead of time. But there’s a lesson in this episode for Telltale going forward into the story: only the smallest amount of action is necessary to spice up the morality play of being Bruce Wayne. Batman: The Telltale Series' second episode hints at being an amazing Dark Knight game we’ve never really seen before. It’s becoming the story of trying to be a socially well-adjusted person who still dresses up like a bat and punches people he doesn't like at the end of the day. The more it sticks to the conversations and investigations that tell that story, the better.

Episode 1 Review

Batman video games always fall into a specific spot of the Batman spectrum. Video game Batman tends to be punchy-broody Batman first, everything else second. Hence why everything from Sunsoft’s Batman: The Video Game for NES to Batman: Arkham Knight on PS4 and Xbox One is centered on connecting a gloved bat fist with a mad thug’s face. Patient detective Batman, the master of social manipulation Bruce Wayne by day and expert crime decoder in a cape by night, doesn’t often get a chance. Batman: The Telltale Series is a rare opportunity then. The studio’s episodic interactive stories are the perfect venue for the slow-paced Batman rarely scene in gaming. He might yet pop up, but the series’ first episode is a strange re-tread of punchy-broody Batman’s greatest hits that’s missing the adventuresome soul of Telltale’s best.

Telltale is always at their strongest when they’re making up entirely new story elements, even when they’re playing in somebody else’s world. The Walking Dead Season 1, for example, remains the studio’s gold standard thanks to the strength of original characters like Lee and Clementine. From the very opening moments in Batman, when a team of armed mercenaries in masks and riot gear attempt to break into the Gotham mayor’s office, it feels like Telltale is revisiting elements from famous Batman adventures. 

Just the look of the game is recognizable, with the art deco future-meets-past architecture and muted color palette of Batman: The Animated Series crossbred with the neon laced Bat-technology of Rocksteady’s Arkham video games. Batman is on the scene busting up the would-be crooks, crossing paths with the Gotham Police Department, ever-mustachioed Jim Gordon, and even Catwoman with her own pilfering agenda. Butler Alfred advises Batman from afar as you the player select dialogue choices and press buttons on your controller in time with the action. Batman goes to tie a crook to the rafters, you press up on the D-pad when prompted on screen; Catwoman takes a swipe, you press Y to counter. The Batman theatrics are on loan from all Batman media, the interaction and choose-your-own-adventure stylings are vintage Telltale. Perfect set-up to move into a story that’s something different.

Only that never happens. In fact, the familiarity of the scenario becomes overwhelming as the two-hour episode progresses, especially since about half of that time is devoted to establishing who all the characters are. Taking place in Telltale’s own continuity, most of this episode is just getting to know who’s who. In their universe, this is the first time Batman and Catwoman meet, it’s the first time Gordon and the Dark Knight work alongside each other, and Bruce Wayne is still haunted by the murder of his parents (which you have to watch a flashback about.) Wayne’s also in the midst of helping Harvey Dent run for Mayor to replace a corrupt politician. You can even suggest he choose “A new face for Gotham City!” as his campaign slogan. Boy, I sure hope nothing bad happens to Harvey, who happens to be under pressure from mob boss Carmine Falcone.  

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making a new continuity for a new Batman video game. In fact, it would be really exciting to see Telltale build the world from scratch out of familiar faces and character types. Only problem is, there’s really nothing to distinguish any of these characters or their relationships from other renditions, and massively recognizable ones at that. At one point, Batman connects a crime scene covered in psychoactive chemicals to Carmine Falcone, a plot point instantly similar to one in Batman Begins, one of the most popular superhero movies in the past decade. That’s on top of Harvey Dent’s perilous political ambitions backed by Wayne which calls to mind The Dark Knight. Telltale’s one original spin is a younger, anarcho-punk Oswald Cobblepot who hasn’t become the Penguin, but whose intimations of starting a people’s uprising against Gotham’s rich come pretty close to Bane’s plans in The Dark Knight Rises. Even a subplot about Bruce Wayne’s family being connected to organized crime is similar to Scott Snyder’s best-selling run on the flagship Batman comic from the past five years. When you’re dealing with a character who’s nearly a century old, you’re bound to run into plot retreads but Batman: The Telltale Series echoes some of the most popular recent media on the planet.  

Even if it didn’t, though, why spend time recapping who’s who? Is anyone playing Batman: The Telltale Series totally unfamiliar with who Batman is on a basic level? The idea that this might be a kid-focused game, introducing the Batman world to young newcomers is right out. No kid game invites you to investigate “Exploded Human Remains” between scenes of Batman violently intimidating or outright beating a mercenary--it’s your choice in a Telltale game after all--and fighting your way through a mob club until it literally explodes. This also isn’t a primary candidate for adult newcomers. Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment already has five Arkham titles to invite curious players that might not be hardcore Batman fans into the video game world, and their blend of punching and open world exploration is a smoother sell than a cartoon with dialogue options. 

There is more to do than dialogue options, of course. There are two sequences that distinguish Batman from other Telltale games. The aforementioned crime scene covered in chemicals has you connecting parts of the environment to figure out the chain of events. Spot the incendiary round from a gun, check it with a button, then click on the exploded chemical barrel. It feels a little more detective like than most Batman games, but it’s ultimately not functionally different than the crime scene recreations in Batman Arkham City, Origins, and Knight. Later when you raid the mob club, you observe the muscle inside using a drone and select a few different ways to take them out in sequence; click on an armed guard then one of a few highlighted objects in the environment, then play the whole thing out with on-screen prompts. It’s new for Telltale, but frustrating because there are already plenty of Batman action games where you actually get to do what’s happening on screen.

Batman: The Telltale Series has plenty of room to run with a whole season coming up, and nothing here is poorly made. It’s all fine, but it’s also utterly plain. Batman is one of the most recognizable characters on planet Earth. Time spent introducing him is wasted time. Fingers crossed that episode two has more, much more, to say.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

I've been playing games since I turned four in 1986, been writing about them since 1987, and writing about them professionally since 2008. My wife and I live in New York City. Chrono Trigger is my favorite game ever made, Hum's Downward is Heavenward is my favorite album, and I regularly find myself singing "You Won't See Me" by The Beatles in awkward situations.

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