Platforms: PC (reviewed), Android, iOS, OS X, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
After the releases of Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead: Michonne, and Minecraft Story Mode, Telltale’s games have started to feel a little…shall we say, stale. We already know what to expect. You’ll control a character in a difficult situation that makes branching dialogue choices in between quick time events. It’s not a bad formula. In fact, it revolutionized the way we now look at videogame storytelling. It just hasn’t evolved much over the years.
Telltale’s Batman, on the other hand, is something different. It’s not only the biggest IP Telltale has ever worked with, it’s also their most experimental game yet. While the core remains the same, branching dialogue choices and all, there’s far more actual gameplay than we have seen in any prior Telltale game. The plot itself explores the Batman mythos in a very different way than comics, movies, or TV shows have in the past. It’s not what you would expect from a Telltale game, and it’s not what you would expect from a Batman game. While that might sit uncomfortably with purists, the sheer amount of risks that Telltale was willing to take is commendable. They were willing to do something truly unique with an IP that has been adapted and re-adapted a million different ways.
The Main Character Is Bruce, Not Batman
You control Bruce Wayne in another alternate universe retelling of the Batman story. The origin is skipped, thankfully, but you get the sense that Batman is still early on in his crime-fighting career. For example, Harvey Dent hasn’t become Two-Face yet, Catwoman is a new arrival in town, and Batman isn’t trusted by anyone in Gotham, not even police commissioner Gordon.
The plot is somewhat of a mystery with many different threads to follow. Harvey Dent is trying to get elected Mayor to oust the current corrupt Mayor Hill. Catwoman has been contracted to steal high-profile information about a local crime boss who, simultaneously, is trying to forge an alliance with Bruce Wayne. An anonymous informant has given the media flimsy evidence pointing toward a connection between Bruce’s parents and organized crime, smearing the Wayne name. Meanwhile, mercenaries seem to have been contracted by an unknown buyer to transport massive quantities of a drug that makes you go psychotic through the city.
The plot is generally enjoyable, though rough around the edges. It’s kind of hard to believe that Gotham, the city of crime, would jump down Bruce Wayne’s throat after a single anonymous tip. But then again the tip proves to more substantial than the game originally let’s on, so the rushed plot-hook feels forgivable. At times the plot tries to be a commentary on current-day politics, which can feel clumsy at times, but at least it’s not heavy handed. Some of the characters are portrayed quite oddly. It’s unclear whether or not Harvey Dent is a righteous crime-hunting DA or a goofy politician that sometimes gets in with the bad crowd. Also, Batman’s secret identity is revealed to another character within the first episode. We get it, that’s the joke – Batman is really irresponsible with his secret identity – but it still feels sudden and a little forced.
If anything can be said about the plot, it’s that it’s truly unique. It explores a side of Batman we usually don’t get to see – the human side. You spend far more time as Bruce Wayne than you do Batman, coming to grips with his family’s past, trying to remain moral while embroiled in corrupt politics, and generally trying to do the right thing when it seems as if there are no decent options. This Batman isn’t perfect. He makes mistakes. He gets emotional. He’s someone you can empathize with, which isn’t normally how Batman is portrayed. Frankly, it’s refreshing. It’s one of the most interesting and well-written portrayals of the Caped Crusader we have seen in recent times.
What Sort Of Batman Do You Want To Be?
Many dialogue choices seem to be asking the question, “What sort of Batman do you want to be?” There’s always one choice that lets you take the role of the snarky golden/silver age Batman, quipping at criminals about how crime doesn’t pay. Another choice always seems to represent the serious detective side of Batman, perhaps best represented in Batman: The Animated Series. Finally, you are given the option to be the ultraviolent 80s/90s Batman, wiling to break bones and brutalize criminals to get the information he needs.
That being said, non-choice dialogue tends to lean toward the snarky, because it’s the style of writing that Telltale is most familiar with. It was a bit jarring to hear Bruce Wayne say, “Ah, that’s the stuff” when we first hear the Batmobile’s engine rev. It feels out of character if you are playing the stoic, brooding loner.
Violence is a huge part of the story and gameplay. You are frequently asked to either resolve a situation stealthily/diplomatically or just beat the heck out of every criminal in your path until you get your way. Interrogation sections can end with a police arrest or with breaking a local criminal’s arms and legs. Alfred routinely worries that Bruce is slowly losing his sense of morality. He’s afraid that if Bruce pushes himself too hard he will slip up and kill someone, or worse, get himself killed. It feels like the game takes advantage of your position as an all-powerful player to get this point across. It wants you to act badass and violent, only to show you the consequences of your actions. It loves it when you let the power of Batman go to your head.
Telltale also tries to integrate some new styles of decision-making. For example, some decisions are about behavior. There’s a point in the game where Bruce Wayne holds a press conference and receives a text in the middle of it. Checking your phone makes the message pop up over the screen in a neat little U.I., but lowers the public’s opinion of you. Not checking the phone saves face but deprives you of information. It’s rare for Telltale to create decisions based on what we do and not what we say, but it feels good. It feels like you can’t map the game out in a dialogue tree anymore
Putting the “Game” in Telltale Games
Combat is really where new gameplay elements start to show up. It’s more gamified than the old “miss a prompt and die” model that Telltale used to use. Succeeding at prompts now fills up a bat meter. When the meter is full, you can use a “finishing move” to end the confrontation. Your basic goal is to fill the meter before the quick time sequence plays all the way through, resulting in failure. However, you can delay your finishing move in order to cause confrontations to have different outcomes.
The tradeoff for more game-like combat is increased difficulty. Quick time events are harder than usual. You have very little time to react to most prompts and some are randomized. There’s a real chance of failure or, at the very least, getting an undesirable outcome by filling your bat-meter too slowly. But at least it’s better than the easy-to-pass road-block QTE’s that Telltale put in their other games. I should note that QTEs are also way easier on a controller than on keyboard and mouse. Being asked to quickly press shift and "E" simultaneously while also aiming the mouse at a moving target is a level of finger gymnastics I did not sign up for.
Outside of combat, there are new “investigation” sections, which evolve on the adventure sections of other Telltale games. Like usual, you have to walk around a map, gathering items, and examining your surroundings. The difference here is you now have to connect the evidence you find together, kind of like the investigation sections in Phoenix Wright, but also quite literally. You literally draw lines between different pieces of evidence, creating a web of linked facts. It’s actually a very interesting style of puzzle, as some pieces of evidence can be red herrings and getting one link wrong makes it impossible to progress, but you won’t know if your link is wrong until you’ve connected all the dots and suddenly find out that things don’t add up. Once again, it makes these sections feel more active than the road-block style adventure sections of Telltale games past.
There’s also a fusion between investigation and combat called “takedown” mode. Here, Batman observes a crime scene with several criminals still present. The player gets to plan the way that Batman takes out each of the criminals before the action starts. Does he drop down from the rafters? Burst in with a smoke bomb? Or flip over a table and take cover from the incoming hail of bullets? You decide. Then, after your route is planned, you actually get to play out the combat you planned in a quick time event. It’s a really cool and interactive way to fuse the two styles of gameplay together.
Even the menus have been slightly overhauled. Your central hub is actually the Batcave. There you can look over news feeds, evidence, your gadgets, and the “codex”, which stores notes on everyone you meet. Unlike most Telltale games, which use features like this as an optional way to dive deeper into the narrative, Batman’s codex is required to solve puzzles and progress within the story.
In general, the new styles of gameplay are very enjoyable, but innovation always invites a few flaws along. In this case, a few pieces of evidence and quick time prompts are drawn slightly off screen. They are easy enough to miss, but doing so doesn’t interrupt gameplay in any significant way.
Give Us Your Best Growly Voice
The game’s presentation is competent but not noteworthy. The graphics are fine; on par with every other Tellale game. The soundtrack is good, filled with the symphonic scores you would expect from a Batman title.
The voice acting is serviceable but a bit jarring. The characters are played by the same group of actors that seem to star in every Telltale game and they are, admittedly, talented, but it’s hard not to expect Kevin Conroy’s voice to come out of Bruce Wayne. The voice actors really shine when Telltale gets innovative with their character writing. The portrayal of Oswald Cobblepot as a weedy, punk British revolutionary, as opposed to a portly man in a tuxedo, was particularly compelling.
Everyone Can Be Batman!
The final innovation that Telltale has to offer is their new multiplayer “group play” system. It basically turns the game into a multiplayer movie. Players join the game via browser on their phone, tablet, or computer, much like the Jackbox games. They then get to vote on the choices Bruce makes in dialogue. If the votes are tied, the choice is chosen randomly, which makes the game fun to play even if you are playing with only two players. After a vote, players can choose to thumbs up or thumbs down the direction the story goes as a result of that decision.
Unfortunately, the system has a few kinks to work out. It operates just fine, but it feels like only half the experience. There’s no effective way for players to participate in combat or investigation sequences, for example, and that’s a good half of the game.
The system also doesn’t work over any streaming system because video latency is too high and Telltale’s time limits on choices are too short. We understand that the time limits are there to create a tense atmosphere, but the atmosphere is already somewhat compromised when a group is playing since you personally aren’t in control of every choice. It makes it more like a multiplayer movie than a game, which is also fine and enjoyable. It just makes no sense why Telltale couldn’t have extended choice time-limits for streaming when group play is on. The Jackbox games do it. It would be so perfect in a streaming environment, and without streaming capability it just feels like something is missing.
It’s hard to complain about Telltale’s Batman because it’s an improvement on the Telltale formula no matter how you look at it. Its best parts are fantastic evolutions of the cinematic game genre and creative new takes on the Batman IP. Its worst parts are just the same Telltale game formula we have been playing for the last five years, and that’s still quality. Despite its minor flaws, it’s a good game, an interesting story, and a fresh new take on the Dark Knight. It’s not a killer app. There’s no need to rush and get it now. Feel free to wait until all five episodes have been released. But if a year passes and you still haven’t tried Telltale’s Batman, then you will have missed out on a truly incredible game.
See, Ben Affleck? This is how you do it.