He is vengeance. He is the night. He really should be more careful about getting blood on his good tuxedo. Since his creation by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939, Batman has enthralled readers all over the world in a way that few other comic book characters have. The concept of a masked vigilante with a secret identity was, by no means, a novelty, even when Batman was first published, and Bruce Wayne’s masked alter ego is inherently more fascinating and compelling than the handsome, orphaned billionaire. Is Bruce Wayne the secret identity of Batman or is Batman the secret identity of Bruce Wayne? This is the central question at the core of Batman: The Telltale Series. The first episode in Telltale Games‘ five-part adventure game, entitled “Realm of Shadows,” released on August 2 and gave players a level of control over Gotham City’s Dark Knight and his billionaire playboy alter ego in ways that were usually only the purview of comic book writers.
From the get-go, Telltale wastes no time in immersing you in the world of Gotham City as DC Comics’ biggest badass. The game opens on a group of masked, armed robbers who murder a City Hall security guard and begin attempting to break into a massive vault. Unfortunately for them, the Dark Knight comes crashing through the window and uses a combination of gizmos, gadgets, and good old-fashioned ass-kicking to leave them incapacitated and strung up from the ceiling. Once the vault door finally opens, though, Batman (voiced by Troy Baker) finds someone has beaten the robbers to the punch: Catwoman (voiced by Laura Bailey), who has “liberated” a highly classified hard drive from the mayor’s office. A game of bat-and-mouse ensues, with the iconic characters launching a flurry of blows, both verbal and physical, on a rooftop as Gotham P.D. and the local news helicopter watch in awe. Naturally, the encounter ends with Batman retrieving the hard drive, and Catwoman escaping to burgle another day. Somewhat unexpectedly, it also ends with Bats fleeing from a police force that both needs him and fears him. All of this, I should mention, is intercut with Bruce Wayne licking his wounds by the fireplace and trying to quickly get ready for a gala event for Harvey Dent (voiced by Travis Willingham) at Wayne Manor.
Seamlessly interwoven, it makes for an incredibly dynamic introduction to the game and a showcase for the duality that Telltale is committed to. As Bruce Wayne, you’ll navigating the world of business and politics by dealing with reporters, mafiosi like Carmine Falcone, and winning over potential campaign donors to support Harvey Dent’s mayoral bid. As Batman, you’ll decrypt hard drives, investigate crime scenes, interrogate mob enforcers, and use your superior tactical genius to plan assaults on criminal strongholds. But just like Batman cannot exist without Bruce Wayne, nothing in this game happens in a vacuum. The actions you take as Bruce Wayne will have a tangible effect on what you do as Batman, and vice versa.
For example, though the effect it has is seemingly small, you are presented with the option of whether or not to shake Carmine Falcone’s hand at the gala event. Falcone is known to have strong ties to the mob and Gotham City’s organized crime world, and shaking his hand could be seen as a tacit endorsement of that behavior by the Wayne family. Yet refusing to shake his hand could cause Falcone to set his sights on Bruce, which would come with a whole other set of complications. The result of this encounter can be seen later in the episode in a newspaper headline, and will likely have larger ramifications as the events of the past snowball and pick up momentum in future episodes. It all serves to give each decision a palpable sense of gravity, even when it’s as innocuous as a handshake.
Graphically, the game is on par with previous Telltale offerings, and feels like a comic book come to life in the best way possible. If you’re expecting Arkham Knight-style gameplay, then you’re in for a bit of a surprise. Much like Telltale’s previous episodic entries, this is a point-and-click adventure game through and through. That means that combat takes the form of quick time events (QTEs), in which the player has to rapidly input button combinations that appear on the screen. Unlike the Dark Knight himself, you need not have lightning-quick reflexes as the game is very forgiving; after all, it’s all about the narrative rather than punishing you for not having an APM on par with pro Starcraft II players. One fascinating wrinkle with the combat is there is now a meter shaped like the infamous Batman logo that fills up with each successful QTE button input. When it is full, you are prompted to press another combination of buttons to execute a “finishing move” of sorts, which leads to some truly spectacular, cinematic moments of Batman laying the smackdown on unsuspecting goons.
Perhaps the greatest gameplay innovation in Batman: The Telltale Series though is one that we helped to create: Crowd Play. Although Telltale’s games are distinctly a single-player experience, we conducted a unique experiment with them around the launch of Tales from the Borderlands by playing the first episode live at the Alamo Drafthouse in Dallas, Texas with an audience full of people shouting out which dialogue option they wanted. It was a crude, unwieldy system of tallying audience votes, but it was shockingly fun to share the experience of playing the game with so many people simultaneously. Now, Telltale has refined that idea into a gameplay feature called Crowd Play, which allows players to log in to a game session via their smartphones, tablets, and PCs, and cast votes for dialogue options and actions in real time. According to Telltale’s site, the feature technically can support thousands of players, but is recommended for 6 to 12 players that are all in the same room. We tried it out on the Nerdist Twitch stream with 4 people playing locally, and it was an absolute blast, so I look forward to trying it with increasingly large groups of people. (Note: currently there is no Twitch integration, but smart money is on that coming in the future after the hurdle of latency issues are addressed.)
“Realm of Shadows” is an auspicious start for Batman: The Telltale Series, and offers a compelling narrative full of standout set pieces, unexpected twists, and genuine suspense to make players feel like they’re both Batman and Bruce Wayne. Considering the amount of scrutiny around this IP, Telltale had a formidable task ahead of them, but they stuck the landing. A few wonky graphical hiccups and occasional framerate issues aside, “Realm of Shadows” is one of my favorite Telltale episodes in recent years, and I cannot wait to see how these mysteries unfold — especially because, at long last, I feel like the world’s greatest detective.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 burritos
Batman: The Telltale series is available now on PC, Mac, PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, Android, and iOS.
Batman: The Telltale Series was reviewed on PC using a code provided by Telltale Games
Images: Telltale Games/DC Comics
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