Release Date: August 2, 2016Platform: PC (reviewed), XBO, PS4Developer: Telltale GamesPublisher: Telltale GamesGenre: Point-and-click adventure
I’ve been asked to make some pretty complicated choices in Telltale games before (many of which involved life and death), but I would have never guessed that the one that made me hesitate the most would be whether or not Bruce Wayne should shake a hand extended to him at a fundraising party. Then again, I never imagined that the Bruce Wayne portions of a Batman game would be so complicated.
Developer Telltale Games may have named their most recent title Batman, but if the focus of that game’s first episode is any indication, it could have just as easily been named Bruce Wayne. It’s difficult to explain exactly why that is without getting into nasty spoiler territory, but it can be safely said that the first episode of Batman involves a variety of colorful characters that all claim to want to save Gotham via their own means. Unfortunately for Bruce Wayne, he finds himself drawn into the center of nearly all these interests and slowly begins to understand that he can no longer get by with presenting himself as an innocent socialite.
While it might sound like a detriment that episode one of Batman devotes so much attention to Bruce Wayne, this game actually does benefit greatly from that approach. Chalk that up to its embrace of the classic style of Telltale gameplay, which so often asks you to make difficult, split-second decisions that carry unknown consequences. Telltale wisely realized that such decisions are hard to implement as it concerns Batman (who enjoys a measure of control over a great many situations he finds himself in), but that with a few simple plot tweaks, they could wreck havoc on the character of Bruce Wayne, whose struggles to maintain a public persona often force him to deal with great amounts of uncertainty.
The actual choices that Bruce Wayne must face are certainly brilliant enough in their own right, but what makes them particularly fascinating in the context of this universe is that even the most adamant of Batman fans have rarely been forced to consider what they would do as Bruce Wayne. Do you present yourself as a buffoonish playboy as Christian Bale did in Batman Begins, or do you attempt to carry on your vigilante persona’s mission as a mere man? It’s a conflict that runs through the very heart of Batman and grants life to much of the game.
That isn’t to say that Bruce Wayne’s famous alter-ego is absent from the proceedings, however. There are three, distinct segments of the game that ask you to become the Batman, and each of them display a slightly different approach to the character. It’s a shame that the game begins on the weakest of these approaches, as your first time as Batman sees you dully battle thugs via classic QTE action sequences. They’re fairly well-constructed for a Telltale game, but do suffer from an inability to really capture the feeling of being Batman in action in the same way that the Arkham games did.
That may sound like an apple to oranges comparison, but even taken as their own experience, the action-heavy segments in this first episode suffer from a distinct lack of consequences and a dull feeling of invincibility. The game tries to mix this up a bit by implementing a meter that fills as you complete certain actions and, when full, allows you to pull-off special moves, but it’s highly doubtful most players will miss enough actions to worry about this not being filled.
The other two sections both revolve around a “link” concept that allows you to use Batman’s intelligence before resorting to his fists. Both sequences put a bit of a twist on this gameplay tool, but the basic idea behind it is that you will encounter certain areas that require Batman to link together potential pieces of evidence, or plans of action, in order to solve puzzles and advance. This link mechanic does a tremendous job of allowing you to really enjoy the detective elements of Batman’s character and also represents a tremendous step forward for developer Telltale, who have traditionally eschewed more involved puzzles in their previous titles. Granted, Batman is a long, long way from matching the brilliant puzzles of classic LucasArts adventure games, but so far as the “fake it until you make it” approach goes, this link tool does greatly improve the investigative sections of the game and represents a marked improvement over similar sections found in The Wolf Among Us.
Of course, if you’re familiar with Telltale’s previous games, you’ll know that the joy of playing them has more to do with the thrill of watching a story dictated by your choices unfold. While it’s way too early to vouch for Batman as Telltale’s best story (an honor that currently resides with Tales from the Borderlands), what plot does unfold in this first episode seems to suggest that the game has the potential to rank among the developer’s best. It does spend a bit too much time retreading old Batman story ground (do we really need to cover the murder of Wayne’s parents yet again?), but this is still a surprisingly eventful first installment that does a great job of setting up an overall original story for the character.
As for the game’s production values, Batman’s graphics and sound design are about what you’d expect from a Telltale title. It retains the developer’s trademark cel-shaded visual style and, for the most part, only makes minor improvements to the technique. The voice work is similarly admirable, if not exactly mind-blowing. Troy Baker, as you might expect, does an incredible job with Batman/Bruce Wayne, but some actors do chew the scenery a bit more than is strictly necessary.
The popular line about Telltale games has long been “Well, if you like/don’t like Telltale games, then you’ll like/won’t like this one.” While there’s a piece of truth in that statement, the developer’s clear affection for the Batman universe, as well as the story they slowly begin to tell in it, may potentially expand the appeal of this particular series. It’s going to be very interesting to see if the developer finds a way to combat their reputation for superficial choices in the long run (it must be said that many of the choices in this game do not necessarily suggest long-term consequences), but Batman‘s ability to, thus far, confidently present a different kind of video game adventure than we typically get from the character suggests that it does have the potential to provide the kind of high-quality interactive graphic novel experience that fans have only dared dream of.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer.