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It’s August. The sun is shining. The birds are singing. Children are playing catch in the park. The outdoors is wide and beautiful… So, I’m going to go play some Batman. Who wants to go outside anyway?
The first episode of the Batman Telltale Series is out today. It’s subtitled Realm of Shadows. The title brings on shades of the League of Shadows and Ra’s Al-Ghul, but it didn’t go there. And that’s fine. Considering the plot and history of Batman, the title is a bit misleading. I felt that the game was a solid play, with some cool mechanics and style high points, a mythos thing I didn’t enjoy, a mythos thing I did enjoy, and it’s topped off with the only thing we needed: a good mystery to build this series around. It’s a mostly satisfying slice Batmanness. So let’s get into it.
This is a Telltale game. You know what their deal is. You take on the mantle of a character, you make their choices, and if there is action it’s in quick-time events. If you like story driven stuff, the action scenes can be beaten easily. However, with that in mind Telltale took the choice and interactivity of their design style to a new level.
From the first screen before you go any further you are asked to choose what color you want the Bat Tech to be and you can choose from Blue, Red, Yellow, or Purple. I went with blue. Clearly, only monsters would choose to have yellow Bat Tech, but you do you. Monster.
The level of choice in the gameplay comes to its peak with the ability to “link.” Linking is the ability to draw a line in game between two points of evidence and link them to build a narrative about them. It gets you right into the head of Batman and makes you think like a detective. It drives the story and it’s a cool twist on the detective narrative.
Furthermore, the linking doesn’t stop at investigations. A later sequence allows you to build your own plan of attack against a set of mobsters. You are given a series of choices and options for taking out a room of bad guys before you charge in. Yes, what follows is a quick-time event, but by allowing you to decide how you want to attack it feels more self-directed.
Otherwise the action gameplay was just so-so. The opening fight, which looked cool, was a little bit of a downer for me. I know why it’s there. You can’t have a Batman anything without a shadowy takedown onslaught. However, the fun of watching the Batman do stealth comes from being in the bad guy’s perspective and experiencing their fear and horror as all of their friends are eliminated from the shadows. When you see button commands telling you where the surprise is coming from it undercuts that feeling. This sort of action works better cinematically, or in the Arkham games, than it does here. However, after this opening the game, wisely, moves away from trying to a straight action game.
For a second, if you will indulge me, would you please write a one-sentence bio of Bruce “Batman” Wayne? Did you write down his parents were killed in front of him as a child? That’s what I had, too! I’m not saying that you shouldn’t mention it. You can’t get around it sometimes, but poor Brucie was reminded of that day way too much in the two hours of the game. He had a cool flashback moment. He had multiple people remind him of it. And he had to give a speech about it. Now I don’t think that Telltale is doing this because they think we don’t know about Bruce Wayne’s parents. It’s clearly going to be worked into the overall mystery, which could be really cool, but you know, it’s a lot of dead parents all at once. I’m not wild about it.
What I am wild about was the introduction of Oswald Cobblepot or, as my fellow Batfriends will recognize, The Penguin. Here, as in several other bat-things Oswald is introduced as the scion of a family that used to rival the Waynes’ in stature and wealth and then fell. It was a way to build a conflict between Penguin and Bruce rather than Penguin and Bat. However, that backstory has Penguin being older and hardly ever having interacted with young Bruce. Not so here. Bruce and Penguin are explicitly childhood pals, and when the Cobblepots fell on hard times they lost touch. Oswald comes back, badass, with a sexy accent, and a chip on his shoulder about the way the system works. I like this take on the classic character.
And there is this scene between Bruce and Selina Kyle that I just loved. To. Death.
I like the choices that Telltale is making in this game. It would have been easy to trot out Two-Face and Penguin in their ultimate forms and have a real showdown of epic battles. But Telltale isn’t trying to show us a fight, it’s trying to provide a mystery for us to solve. It’s asking questions of Bruce’s parents and how they fit into Gotham. It is challenging us to shape the Gotham ahead of us.
You know what else? I am seeing the uncorrupted versions of two of the most iconic Batman villains, and I’m given so many choices. Of course this series is going to cover how they fall into villainy, but Batman above all is a hopeful character. That’s why he doesn’t kill. He thinks everyone can be saved. So I wonder if it is at all possible that this game will give us the chance to avoid the inevitable with Oswald and Dent.
It probably won’t. They’re doomed to villainy. And yet… the game let me choose the color of my tech. It let me choose how to take down a room full of gangsters. Maybe it will let me choose to save my friends as well.