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Review: ‘Batman: The Telltale Series (Episode 1: Realm of Shadows)’

Game presents a refreshing and gripping new in-depth take on Bruce Wayne himself.

Developer: Telltale Games

Publisher: Telltale Games

Release Date: August 2nd, 2016

NOTE: This was played on the PlayStation 4 console

Telltale Games is best known for their episodic game structure on established franchises. They hit their stride with The Walking Dead: Season 1 and continue with their march into another season of Game of Thrones, The Wolf Among Us, Borderlands, with Minecraft following suit. Now, The Dark Knight gets his own Telltale series and with the stellar Arkham series – Knight and Origins -- notwithstanding, some wonder how the game developer will outdo Rocksteady’s accomplishments bringing Batman back to video games. Well, they don’t outdo their competitor in the first episode. But, they do lay the groundwork for much for greater things to come.

The first episode starts off with Batman stopping a break-in at the mayor’s office while he runs into Catwoman. It is intercut with Bruce Wayne and Alfred having the typical legend vs. man discussion that happens constantly. Troy Baker is finally able to break out his dramatic Bruce Wayne/Batman after voicing the LEGO Batman for so long now. Baker also dabbled in voiceover roles for the Joker in Batman: Arkham Origins and Batman: Assault on Arkham but he really shines as Bruce Wayne. There is a vulnerability to Bruce Wayne as he tries to deal with situations that unfurl throughout Episode 1.

This is a brand new Batman, his first couple of years in the cape and cowl – we see the seeds of Harvey Dent and Oswald Cobblepot planted in the first episode. Dent is running for Mayor of Gotham and runs into the barriers of organized crime while trying to pursue the greater good. Cobblepot is given less to do in Episode 1 than Dent but Telltale Games has chosen to show the Wayne/Cobblepot family relationship dynamic and go more in-depth on how a character with everything meets with one down on his luck.

Telltale Games’ signature cell-shaded aesthetic returns for Batman and it harkens back to the comic book roots of the now 77-year old character. It serves the source material better than in the Game of Thrones or Jurassic Park games. With such a less saturated and demanding graphical presentation, its curious why the framerate still has a problem keeping up with the action in certain frenetic sequences. It’s not frequent enough to affect the experience but it’s worth mentioning.

One of the more promising aspects of the game is that the story and narrative are expertly woven. In Episode 1 alone, there is equal time spent playing both as Batman and Bruce Wayne, whereas in every other Batman game, you play solely as the caped crusader. Playing as Bruce Wayne allows you to see and experience how the playboy side lives -- press conferences, decadent parties and tense conversations where two characters know secrets about the other. It’s an elegant dance and it serves the game well in delivering a unique Batman experience that doesn’t come in the form of driving the Batmobile or throwing a thug into an electrical fence.

When Batman does become the focus, the gameplay becomes much more varied, even taking into consideration how gameplay is handled in other games from the developer. Batman investigates a warehouse that is host to a massacre and it’s the player’s job to figure out what happened. Batman walks around the crime scene and examines the necessary clues. The way this differs from the Arkham series is that Batman can get something wrong -- he will correct himself or shake his head in disbelief. The Arkham games always felt like it was handholding the player to stand around a crime scene and hold a button. They were hardly interactive until the later games. Telltale takes advantage of the fact that Batman is the world’s greatest detective.

Another Batman sequence allows the player to plan out their method of taking out every thug in a particular space. It’s thrilling to see a fight strategy you’ve crafted come to fruition moments later in spectacular fashion. But when Batman does whip out the fisticuffs, the action becomes very automatic. What I mean is that Telltale Games relies on Quick Time Events (QTEs) where a specific button press is required or the player fails the sequence. Because Batman is known for his quick mastery of combat, Telltale has opted not to allow failure for the QTEs. Instead, they have a finishing meter that fills up when you’ve completed a QTE successfully and that builds up into a meter that lets you do a finishing attack. The sequence plays out the exact same whether or not you complete the QTEs. In essence, the game plays itself.

So don’t jump into this series thinking that it will be challenging. Play it for the narrative, the characters and the dynamic choices that carry over from Episode 1 into Episode 5.

Some choices – as innocent as a handshake – can lead to drastic consequences in the same episode, while choosing one character over another may have repercussions in later episodes. It’s all in service to the narrative, which has already proven to be gripping.

With the disappointment of Batman: Arkham Knight and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, it’s refreshing to play a Batman game that understands it’s not always about Batman. Bruce Wayne is at the very core of these stories but it often feels like he’s omitted in exchange for the fast cars and fancy gadgets. If you’re ready for a more in-depth look into Bruce Wayne and the Wayne family, I cannot recommend Telltale Games’ Batman series highly enough.