To state the obvious, Batman has been a phenomenon that has transcended the realm of comics into a multimedia franchise powerhouse. Batman has conquered cartoons (most notably with Batman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond), dominated movies (The Dark Knight breaking away from a simple comic book movie into something significantly greater), and most recently, excelled in video games. Starting with 2009’s Arkham Asylum, a game that elegantly captured the essence of Batman with it’s mixture of stealth, combat, and puzzles, the franchise broke the trend of mediocre to abysmal comic book-based video games and potentially acted as an indicator to publishers the value of quality games based on other media IPs. Now, Telltale games has thrown its hat in the ring with their own take on the Batman franchise with Batman- The Telltale Series.
Before I delve into Telltale’s foray itself, I cannot recommend this game to people on PC platforms unless you have a very good graphics card/powerful PC. While I was provided a review code for PC by Telltale Games, on my normal computer I was completely unable to run the game (with the game freezing at the very first loading screen every single time). The only way I was able to play it was through alternative methods where I had access to a desktop computer built for gaming and since I only had access to that desktop a couple of times, I had to buy the game on PS4 to actually finish the game. While Telltale Games can come up with competent stories, their games often don’t have enough technical performance optimizations. It is an engine that, while supposedly upgraded, is still based on a flawed and dated framework. Given that they work on multiple projects at a time, it is little surprise that they don’t have time to create a new engine (or adapt to a licensed engine such as Unreal). Of course, their success means that they don’t need to. That factor isn’t truly justification for mediocrity however.
In terms of gameplay, there seems to be even less player involvement than previous efforts by Telltale. The puzzles, such as the scene investigations, are incredibly simple. In the first episode, you try to investigate the aftermath of a shady business deal gone wrong. Bodies and debris are strewn about the environment and as Batman, the player walks to inspect the evidence (which is plainly visible), so they only need to walk to the dot and then literally connect the dots to continue with the story. Player interactivity is kept to a near-minimum, and thus doesn’t add anything to the story. More disappointing is the dragged out quicktime events for action scenes. In general, I am not against the use of quicktime events in games, but they need to be used much more sparingly otherwise the simplicity of such gameplay becomes a chore.
While the standard Telltale game formula circa The Walking Dead Season 1 is defined by walking around the environment and performing quicktime events, in Batman’s case the formula simply doesn’t work within the narrative. Looking at The Walking Dead Season 1 for example, the player was the pretty much the leader of a group of characters with their own stories and relational dynamics. The group had a destination in mind, but the means to get to that location was filled with uncertainty. When exploring a scene in the game, the player was motivated to do so because the character interactions were a primary draw, it was compelling to interact with the different members of the group at different times of the story. Interacting with the characters might even lead to changes in the relationships between other characters. Secondly, the quicktime events were used sparingly in times of desperation and added more tension to a particular narrative moment. Batman- The Telltale Series, does not share this quality. Batman is a lone wolf in a familiar city, and thus there are no group dynamics and relationships to add into the scene. You interact with different characters in the story (such as when Bruce Wayne has to “convince” wealthy patrons to support Harvey Dent’s campaign), but very few of them are interesting to talk to. There is no compelling reason to actually walk around an environment beyond talking to only the one or two persons of interest that move the plot forward. Telltale’s “trademark” gameplay has been copy and pasted onto Batman, and the game suffers for it.
The story itself in Batman- The Telltale Series is compelling at least, putting unique spins on familiar characters that makes for a breath of fresh air. This is a more grounded Batman story that adds more intrigue and morally grey story beats (and even puts a nice twist on the murder of Bruce’s parents), and the deviation from the comic books was a smart move for the writers, as the game probably wouldn’t have been able to stand on its own otherwise. While there is more focus on Bruce Wayne as a character and his relationship to Gotham, Batman is still the star of the show, which perhaps is for the best since Bruce Wayne is lacking as a character in this game. He lacks the moral shades of gray that is found in the rest of the characters, making him the least interesting character of the game.
Unfortunately, Telltale’s “trademark” gameplay hinders the story as well. Like all Telltale games, the player has to make a binary choice that will cause the story to give the illusion that it has changed depending on what decision you make. In Batman- The Telltale Series, the illusion of choice is more apparent than ever. The game always leads to the same conclusion, but at least in the previous Telltale games (like again, The Walking Dead Season 1) the player had more reasons to care about the characters to the point where those decisions felt like it actually meant something. For Batman, the ultimate choice could lead to a sequence of events that don’t make sense depending on what you choose. That choice (it revolves around Harvey Dent, and any fan of The Dark Knight or DC comics should know what that means) means the difference between a character descent that comes almost out of nowhere and one that explains the descent much more reasonably and that works with the dialogue. It is very obvious that the writers wanted the latter choice to happen, but had to make an asspull to explain why the former choice leads to the same scenarios.
This is why I simply can’t recommend buying this game. There is nothing to offer to justify Batman-The Telltale Series’ existence as a game. You can get the same amount of enjoyment from just watching a full playthrough of the game on Youtube (without any player narration of course), and the story would be much better as a linearly told affair with the narratively-correct decisions chosen. In fact, if anything, I recommend doing just that as at least the story plays with some classic story elements in a more tragic and compelling fashion. Unlike the Batman Arkham game series that meticulously crafted the gameplay to fit the character, Telltale Games took an uninspired approach. Eventually Telltale will need to either make more mechanically interesting games or simply go with only the IPs that actually fit the developer’s style of storytelling so that they can potentially return to their peak of The Walking Dead Season 1 (and The Wolf Among Us, a game that makes playing as a detective interesting).