Batman: The Telltale Series review - Episode 1

Posted on 08/02 09:03 in | 0

Batman video games always fall into a specific spot of the Batman spectrum. Video game Batman tends to be punchy-broody Batman first, everything else second. Hence why everything from Sunsoft’s Batman: The Video Game for NES to Batman: Arkham Knight on PS4 and Xbox One is centered on connecting a gloved bat fist with a mad thug’s face. Patient detective Batman, the master of social manipulation Bruce Wayne by day and expert crime decoder in a cape by night, doesn’t often get a chance. Batman: The Telltale Series is a rare opportunity then. The studio’s episodic interactive stories are the perfect venue for the slow-paced Batman rarely scene in gaming. He might yet pop up, but the series’ first episode is a strange re-tread of punchy-broody Batman’s greatest hits that’s missing the adventuresome soul of Telltale’s best.

Telltale is always at their strongest when they’re making up entirely new story elements, even when they’re playing in somebody else’s world. The Walking Dead Season 1, for example, remains the studio’s gold standard thanks to the strength of original characters like Lee and Clementine. From the very opening moments in Batman, when a team of armed mercenaries in masks and riot gear attempt to break into the Gotham mayor’s office, it feels like Telltale is revisiting elements from famous Batman adventures. 

Just the look of the game is recognizable, with the art deco future-meets-past architecture and muted color palette of Batman: The Animated Series crossbred with the neon laced Bat-technology of Rocksteady’s Arkham video games. Batman is on the scene busting up the would-be crooks, crossing paths with the Gotham Police Department, ever-mustachioed Jim Gordon, and even Catwoman with her own pilfering agenda. Butler Alfred advises Batman from afar as you the player select dialogue choices and press buttons on your controller in time with the action. Batman goes to tie a crook to the rafters, you press up on the D-pad when prompted on screen; Catwoman takes a swipe, you press Y to counter. The Batman theatrics are on loan from all Batman media, the interaction and choose-your-own-adventure stylings are vintage Telltale. Perfect set-up to move into a story that’s something different.

Only that never happens. In fact, the familiarity of the scenario becomes overwhelming as the two-hour episode progresses, especially since about half of that time is devoted to establishing who all the characters are. Taking place in Telltale’s own continuity, most of this episode is just getting to know who’s who. In their universe, this is the first time Batman and Catwoman meet, it’s the first time Gordon and the Dark Knight work alongside each other, and Bruce Wayne is still haunted by the murder of his parents (which you have to watch a flashback about.) Wayne’s also in the midst of helping Harvey Dent run for Mayor to replace a corrupt politician. You can even suggest he choose “A new face for Gotham City!” as his campaign slogan. Boy, I sure hope nothing bad happens to Harvey, who happens to be under pressure from mob boss Carmine Falcone.  

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making a new continuity for a new Batman video game. In fact, it would be really exciting to see Telltale build the world from scratch out of familiar faces and character types. Only problem is, there’s really nothing to distinguish any of these characters or their relationships from other renditions, and massively recognizable ones at that. At one point, Batman connects a crime scene covered in psychoactive chemicals to Carmine Falcone, a plot point instantly similar to one in Batman Begins, one of the most popular superhero movies in the past decade. That’s on top of Harvey Dent’s perilous political ambitions backed by Wayne which calls to mind The Dark Knight. Telltale’s one original spin is a younger, anarcho-punk Oswald Cobblepot who hasn’t become the Penguin, but whose intimations of starting a people’s uprising against Gotham’s rich come pretty close to Bane’s plans in The Dark Knight Rises. Even a subplot about Bruce Wayne’s family being connected to organized crime is similar to Scott Snyder’s best-selling run on the flagship Batman comic from the past five years. When you’re dealing with a character who’s nearly a century old, you’re bound to run into plot retreads but Batman: The Telltale Series echoes some of the most popular recent media on the planet.  

Even if it didn’t, though, why spend time recapping who’s who? Is anyone playing Batman: The Telltale Series totally unfamiliar with who Batman is on a basic level? The idea that this might be a kid-focused game, introducing the Batman world to young newcomers is right out. No kid game invites you to investigate “Exploded Human Remains” between scenes of Batman violently intimidating or outright beating a mercenary--it’s your choice in a Telltale game after all--and fighting your way through a mob club until it literally explodes. This also isn’t a primary candidate for adult newcomers. Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment already has five Arkham titles to invite curious players that might not be hardcore Batman fans into the video game world, and their blend of punching and open world exploration is a smoother sell than a cartoon with dialogue options. 

There is more to do than dialogue options, of course. There are two sequences that distinguish Batman from other Telltale games. The aforementioned crime scene covered in chemicals has you connecting parts of the environment to figure out the chain of events. Spot the incendiary round from a gun, check it with a button, then click on the exploded chemical barrel. It feels a little more detective like than most Batman games, but it’s ultimately not functionally different than the crime scene recreations in Batman Arkham City, Origins, and Knight. Later when you raid the mob club, you observe the muscle inside using a drone and select a few different ways to take them out in sequence; click on an armed guard then one of a few highlighted objects in the environment, then play the whole thing out with on-screen prompts. It’s new for Telltale, but frustrating because there are already plenty of Batman action games where you actually get to do what’s happening on screen.

Batman: The Telltale Series has plenty of room to run with a whole season coming up, and nothing here is poorly made. It’s all fine, but it’s also utterly plain. Batman is one of the most recognizable characters on planet Earth. Time spent introducing him is wasted time. Fingers crossed that episode two has more, much more, to say.

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