batman_telltale_series_1Year: 2016
Developer: Telltale Games
Players: Single-player, multiplayer
Genre: Action, Narrative
Rating: Mature
Platform: Reviewed on PS4, also available on Xbox One, PC

When it comes to Batman, we’ve read the comics, seen the films, and Rocksteady’s stellar Arkham games plunged us straight into the colorful world of Gotham. Still, Telltale’s Batman: The Telltale Series takes yet another approach, exploring Bruce Wayne/Batman’s psyche to make us feel the burden of his responsibility. We knew the Bat didn’t have it easy, but the first-person immersion of Telltale’s new game teaches us more about Gotham’s protector than ever, forcing the player to navigate an intricate web of social and villainous intrigue, with both Wayne and the Bat’s secret lives constantly bleeding into one another. The first 2 episodes (out of 5) are bold and anchored in psychological depth, bravely changing canon and counting the cost behind the Dark Knight’s symbol of unyielding justice.

When Episode 1’s Realm of Shadows kicks off mid-heist, tons of things are already in play. Commissioner Gordon sees Batman as an ally, but the Knight has yet to prove himself to the city at large. Catwoman also meets Batman for the first time during a botched robbery, and the two hit it off despite her morally ambiguous motivations. In the public eye, Bruce is lobbying for District Attorney Harvey Dent to replace the corrupt incumbent, Mayor Hill, while mob boss Carmine Falcone makes things difficult for the two and their political plays. To complicate things even further, Bruce’s childhood friend, Oswald Cobblepot (aka The Penguin) has just returned from exile, determined to purge Gotham of it’s complacency. As you can tell, it’s an interesting time in the Batman timeline, early enough so that we can experience what it’s like to build both Batman and Bruce Wayne’s legacy into the one we know.

batman_telltale_series_5Right off the bat, Episode 1 throws out a shocking revelation about Wayne’s parents, and in particular his father, who may not have been the noble man we thought. It’s a massive shift from canon, creating a new villain and making us, as Wayne, question who we are and want to be. With his entire legacy in question, Wayne is thrown off balance, fighting an already ailing reputation alongside entitlement issues and personal convictions. It’s worth noting that about 75 (or more) percent of the episode is played as Wayne, with tough choices including how to set up political relationships while trying to get to the bottom of a family scandal. As Batman, we’re tasked with coming to Catwoman’s aid, searching for a shadowy figure looking to unleash chemical weapons on the city. The installment lives up to its name in the best way, contrasting Wayne and Batman’s ideals and showing how some of the most important choices and heroics are done in secret. Conversely, you can see the seeds of evil at just about every corner, as they claw their way into the limelight. Thanks to Telltale’s narrative confidence, each revelation is addicting, and leaves us wanting more.

Episode 2 digs deeper into the story, showing off the effects of previous decisions, and how they’re changing Batman/Wayne, as well as his friends and foes. It’s a deep character-driven affair, exploring shifty alliances while kicking things off with a fascinating conversation with the loyal, Alfred. After some detective work, things shift into a shocking encounter with Carmine Falcone, and finally on to the chapter’s centerpiece, a political debate between Dent and Mayor Hill. A lot happens in between, including a cool decision which allows us to visit the crooked Mayor Hill with the patience of Bruce Wayne, or the intimidating presence of Batman. It all culminates into a meeting with the mysterious Children of Arkham, ending on another smart cliffhanger. At 2 chapters in, the game has been thrilling, but most noticeable for its restraint, knowing exactly when to let us throw fists, but focusing first and foremost on the relationships that tether everything together.

batman_telltale_series_4As you can tell, Telltale’s gameplay style is perfectly suited for the world of Gotham. In terms of the story’s splintering threads, the multiple narrative choices are weaved seamlessly into the plot, with some consequences coming into play as quickly as the next scene. We’re constantly treading Wayne and Batman’s alternate personas like a tight rope, causing us to truly question which one is more dominant, and the implications of leading such a double life. It all helps to move the plot at a rapid pace, forcing us to keep up. There are also a few different types of combat styles beyond the standard QTE brawls, which are fun, fast and brutal, despite being predictable. A few moments forcing us to carefully study a crowded room from afar, taking into account the surroundings to determine an appropriate way to take down multiple thugs without harming innocents. There’s also a few forensic-type puzzles, where we scour minute details of a crime scene to piece together a specific sequence of events. When coupled with the game’s focus on interpersonal relationships, these breezy moments of release are cathartic and exciting.

So far, Batman: The Telltale Series adds depth to a character we thought we knew everything about. It’s already a headier perspective, illustrating how Batman’s war isn’t won just with fists or fury, but a steady long game fraught with personal sacrifice and difficult choices. On the technical side, the game is beautiful, with the comic-esque animation and hard lines contrasting against the grey morality at play. Voice acting is also top notch, with stars Troy Baker (Batman/Wayne), Laura Bailey (Catwoman), Richard McGonagle (Carmine Falcone) and more, adding color to an already dense experience. At the early stages of its narrative, the game shows us how being a superhero isn’t about glamour, but a responsibility that carries grave consequence, especially in a world where shadows and deceit are the real power. I already can’t wait to see where the next 3 chapters take us…