When the surprise announcement came last year at the Game Awards that Telltale was teaming up with DC to do a series starring Batman, I didn’t know exactly how to feel. Of course I’m always excited to see any comic book character come to life in a video game, but after the excellent Arkham trilogy having come to its conclusion last summer, I’m not sure exactly how much more Batman I needed. There was also the matter of how exactly would Telltale fit a character like Batman into their framework of action defined by simple quick-time events and situations that hinge on dialogue choices. Batman, after all, is a hero who gets across a lot with very few words. Having played through the entirety of the debut episode, titled Realm of Shadows, all my worries over a Telltale ran Batman series are gone. Though it is a slow burn at start, the first episode already has its hooks into me and I absolutely cannot wait to see where things take off from here.
Batman: The Telltale Series succeeds by not only playing to Telltale’s strengths, but also giving us something that we haven’t really experienced in a Batman game: the duality of Batman and his secret identity, Bruce Wayne, and Batman’s title as the “World’s Greatest Detective”. Batman is used sparingly throughout the series premiere, but is used to great effect, with most of the playtime focused on the daily life of Bruce Wayne. After a strong start showing featuring Batman thwarting a robbery at City Hall that also gives us the first appearance of Catwoman, the focus shifts to Bruce Wayne who is also trying to fix Gotham City during the day by supporting D.A Harvey Dent’s mayoral campaign.
After such a strong opening, the pace does slow down considerably and while it does feel like you may spend too much time as Bruce Wayne when you want to be in the cape and cowl, it’s never boring, and actually quite thrilling. I’ve played through The Wolf Among Us and every episode of The Walking Dead from Telltale where I’ve been put in life and death situations, but I haven’t felt the weight of my dialogue decisions as much as I did in Batman, and that’s because what this game does so well is show that the struggle of managing Bruce Wayne’s public persona is just as dangerous as fighting armed thugs as Batman.
When hosting a fundraiser for Harvey Dent at Wayne manor for example, your party is crashed by known organized crime boss, Carmine Falcone. The struggle then comes in deciding exactly how you want to play things. Do you want to risk being seen shaking hands with a known criminal to not make an enemy of Falcone even though the public will catch wind of this, or do you purposefully make an enemy, knowing full well it would undo everything Harvey Dent is trying to do for the city? It’s situations like these spread across the two-hour or so episode that make you really think about how you want each scenario to play out and also gets you excited for the next four episodes.
Similarly these choices also apply to when you eventually become Batman. Batman: The Telltale Series isn’t a direct translation of one specific Batman story, but instead takes place at an undetermined time in the early days of Batman’s career where the police force and public have yet to determine exactly if Batman is a hero or menace. Your time as Batman is mostly spent solo, but your actions still have just as many consequences as your daily life as Bruce Wayne. How you go about extracting information from criminals and interacting with the GCPD will define how the public views your actions. In Realm of Shadows you can choose to be seen as a brutal, no-nonsense force of nature that will make the police fear you, or conversely you can decide to be cooperative and show that you are an asset to Gordon and his officers.
As Batman there’s more than just making dialogue decisions though, and the new additions added to the established Telltale formula are great fits to the Batman license. When not engaged in conversations, you normally spend your time wandering around a small area examining areas of interest in most Telltale games, but here you spend your time canvassing an active crime scene. Rocksteady’s Arkham series dabbled in the detective aspect of Batman’s persona, but you mostly just followed an established trail or scrubbed through footage looking for just the right spot to continue. You do a lot of that here as well, but it’s up to you to link the scattered pieces of evidence together to determine exactly what happened, making you feel like a detective more than any other Batman game to date. Moving forward I hope this is greatly expanded in other episodes and eagerly await what mysteries I will unfold. There’s another great use of this mechanic toward the end of the episode that I won’t spoil it here, but will say it’s a great way to end Realm of Shadows.
Purest may feel disappointed that the likes of Kevin Conroy don’t return from Batman: The Animated Series, but given Bruce Wayne’s age, it would seem very out-of-place and the assembled cast is terrific. Troy Baker, who previously took over the role of The Joker in Batman: Arkham Origins, does a great job differentiating the dual role of Bruce Wanye and Batman, making you all but forget that he also voiced a more family friendly Batman in several Lego outings. Another stand out performance is Richard McGonagle, who played Victor “Sully” Sullivan in the Uncharted series, and is a perfect fit for the role of Carmine Falcone. The performances are backed by strong writing, especially in the interactions between Bruce and Alfred. At times it ventures into the now somewhat cliche conversation about how long Bruce can keep doing this, but is saved by really showing the concern the concern that Alfred has for Bruce, even admitting that Batman is a good thing for the city at times despite the toll it puts on Bruce both mentally and physically.
The highest praise I can give to the first episode of Batman: The Telltale Series is that I’ve replayed other Telltale games in the past, but never once felt the need to change my decisions on my second run through. In the case of Batman, I really want to replay this episode again just to see how different things are if I choose to side with different parties, or play things differently. Realm of Shadows doesn’t quite end on the “WHAT?!!” moment that will have you counting down the days to episode two, but nevertheless I’m very excited to see how both the plot and characters will develop as the series continues. Between this and The Walking Dead: Michonne, Telltale is having a phenomenal year.