After discovering how to set categories in my Steam library I spent one particularly neurotic Sunday afternoon shuffling games about like I was trying to organise a bookshelf. When I was finally done I noticed that one of my settled upon categories, Adventure Games (Modern), was entirely dominated by a single developer or, perhaps more accurately, a single game. Telltale struck upon a winning formula with their adaptation of The Walking Dead and ever since its 2012 release a parade of new story-driven, episodic games have marched by with the design of The Walking Dead at their core.
Telltale’s modus operandi is remarkably consistent. They license a franchise they take a liking to. They write an original story. They release it episodically. For many years the golden buzzword of the gaming industry seemed to be ‘cinematic’, whatever that’s supposed to mean. The style of the modern adventure game pioneered by Telltale is possibly the closest I’ve seen something get to this mystical ‘cinematic’, although rather than film, they evoke the feel of a well-made TV series. So all being said it will likely come as no surprise that, sooner rather than later, Telltale decided they were going to do Batman.
Reviewing ‘Batman: A Telltale Series’ mechanically is something of a fool’s errand as all Telltale games play the same. To torture a simplistic metaphor, Telltale games are like matter. That is to say that they have three states and can transition between them by changing the temperature. If a scene is hot it’s a quick time event action sequence, cool it down a bit and you’re in a timed conversation where if you don’t pick a choice within the allotted time you’ll remain silent and finally make it nice and cold and you’re free to wander around an enclosure and interact with things, maybe pretend it’s the Monkey Island days again for a while.
As with all Telltale games that I’ve played, far and away Batman’s strongest sequences are the conversations. Telltale’s writing is excellent and they aren’t afraid to take some liberties with the established canon for some genuinely surprising twists. As far as I’m concerned, the best way to go into Batman is knowing only that this is an entirely fresh take and that some things that you take for granted may not be what you expect. If this sounds like your thing stop reading now and go play it with as few spoilers as possible.
That being said there are a few certainties that can be relied upon. Batman’s greatest strength is, in many an opinion, his rogue’s gallery and Telltale helps itself to a few well-established members. Without wasting any time the game introduces Selina Kyle, Harvey Dent and Oswald Cobblepot also known as Catwoman, Two-Face and The Penguin respectively. Of the three only Cobblepot is purely antagonistic, and what a wonderfully smug, punchable sort he is. One of my favourite things about the game is that it takes great pains to give Bruce time to flesh out his relationship with Dent and Kyle, giving their arcs a lot more meaning and allowing the player to really invest in their stories. Especially in the case of Harvey Dent, mayoral candidate and Bruce’s best friend, Telltale works hard to give you the chance to get to know him and establish a camaraderie or perhaps even rivalry with him before twisting him into Two-Face.
The real trick to Telltale games, the one that makes them as compelling as they are, is that they tailor themselves to the choices you make. Tailor being the key word. The story doesn’t change, no matter what you do Harvey Dent will become Two-Face, however, the nuance does change. There are several inflection points, usually at the climax of episodes, where a Telltale game will ask you to make a big A or B choice but I find that often as not the little choices you make in every conversation are more important.
Using Dent as an example in two different playthroughs his descent into madness might be because of hatred for Batman or because he idolises Batman. The difference comes from one of those big inflection points but what you choose there will most likely be decided by all the little interactions you’ve had up to that point. Rather than changing the story, they define the Batman you want to play, like one of Bruce’s bespoke suits the story is tailored so that it fits just right even if the story itself doesn’t change. As I said, Harvey will turn into Two-Face but how you as Bruce interacted with him could make this feel like the inevitable conclusion of his ambition or the betrayal of a close friend.
How well does Batman specifically pull off this trick? Very successfully in my opinion. What convinced me to play through Batman was when I was told that the question at its core is “Who is the mask, Batman or Bruce?” That’s a compelling question for a Batman story and one that Telltale is uniquely situated to tell because its tailoring trick means that the player and not the author is in control of the answer. There’s a lot more detail you can define rather than just that broad question but it often comes back to that, especially when playing as Bruce. For me, I often found the time you spend as Bruce rather than Batman was more compelling. It’s whilst playing as Bruce that you really get to dig into the meat of the philosophy as opposed to solving crimes and punching bad guys.
Don’t get me wrong the solving crimes and punching bad guys is satisfying, but those bits are done better elsewhere. Solving crimes and planning fights is done by linking bits of evidence together, or perhaps linking a mafia goon to a chandelier, in a way that felt reminiscent of the Ace Attorney series. And then the fights are all QTEs. This does allow for some excellent choreography but I found them often more distracting or frustrating than immersive, if anything, I’d like to turn the QTEs off and just watch the fights. It might be different if failure meant something other than a game over but often losing a fight means death so I don’t see an easy alternative. If what you really want is to beat up bad guys and feel like a badass doing it Rocksteady’s Arkham games are probably what you’re looking for rather than this.
I think ‘Batman: A Telltale Series’ is an excellent addition to both the Telltale library and the Batman universe. It does an excellent job of capturing the gothic feel that Batman is so well known for without necessarily being crushingly grim and dark about everything, though you can go more that way if you want to. If you’re interested in the Telltale formula this is an excellent place to start and if you’re into Batman then I can’t recommend this one enough.