It seems as though every Batman review has to start with the reviewer presenting a resume, of sorts, of what qualifies them as a Batman fan. Let’s just pretend that’s in here, OK? Blah, blah, Killing Joke, something, something, Tim Burton, yaddi yaddah, The Animated Series, Frank Miller, <inarticulate noises> Arkham Asylum, Death of the Family, and a joke about Christian Bale’s Batman voice. Good talk.
It feels safe to say that we, as pop culture consumers, are a little sick of Batman origin stories. It seems nigh impossible to not provide a unique spin on the death of Martha and Thomas Wayne and how that affected Bruce. Telltale Games is no exception, however they’ve taken a note from Tim Burton and choose to begin this Batman story in the early stages of his career. The Batman is already established as an urban legend, of sorts, but he’s clearly picking up steam.
We’re treated to the familiar character beats about Bruce’s guilt from the shooting, how his parents affected his desire to clean up Gotham, and how deep the scars run. Telltale’s spin is adding a darker side to the traditionally benevolent Waynes. How deep, and dark this vein will run remains to be seen.
This thread may end up being the most vital of all in Telltale’s story, as it will be very Bruce-centric. We’re shown Bruce — voiced by Troy Baker — in the midst of a very political time in his life. On one hand, he’s balancing his rise as Batman, while on the other, he is attempting to help his good friend and Gotham’s DA, Harvey Dent, run for mayor.
Dent is presented as very cocky and, while he claims to want to clean up Gotham, he also seems to have a casual morality on how that is accomplished. Case in point: Carmine Falcone. A lot of Episode 1’s story is placed on the mobster’s shoulders. He appears early to establish himself as the king pin of Gotham, and either Harvey’s Golden Ticket, or worst enemy in his bid for mayor. It’s the same politics and dynamics Batman fans are accustomed to, but so much of Episode 1 depends on Bruce Wayne’s dealings with Falcone, as opposed to Batman’s.
Being a Telltale game, decision and choice of dialog is very key to gameplay. This can make for an odd take on Bruce, depending on your decisions. Typically, we’re treated to Batman as the serious one, and Bruce as a painstakingly crafted playboy. In this, he can either be a very earnestly nice guy, a direct asshole, or a more mealy-mouthed in-between. It’s very much how you want to play Bruce, but this control actually makes his character feel more distant than ever before.
It can also lead to some strange interactions. Despite Batman unearthing evidence on Falcone’s dealings, it’s Bruce Wayne who presents them to Lt. Gordon (not yet Commissioner). This seems like an odd risk to take, especially when Gordon even implies these could not have been obtained by legal manners. Coupled with Bruce already being investigated for potential mob ties…
The arguable star of the episode is Selina Kyle/Catwoman. She is the ever shrewd, neutral character we know and love, and Telltale has managed to make her a little smarter, by having her and Bruce suss out the other’s identity in very short order. She will have a larger part to play, but whether or not she will be an ally of Bruce’s or a liability remains to be seen.
The final spinning plate is Oswald Cobblepot, not yet the Penguin, and former childhood BFF of Bruce Wayne. He has returned to town, rebellion clearly expressed to Bruce, and he already appears to be making his move. His part feels very much telegraphed, and I’ll be shocked if it’s revealed in future episodes that he wasn’t behind a particularly grisly scene.
Gameplay wise, it’s the standard TTG formula, with dialog options presented in various timely manners. Combat is presented in ye olde QTE, but because of Batman’s penchant for hand-to-hand encounters, it feels more robust than previous offerings. Most of the fights reminded me of the end fight in Tales from the Borderlands, with more interaction required from the player.
Batman’s gadgets and detective abilities are in play, and while not as robust as, say, Arkham Asylum or City, they feel nicely at home within the game. Investigating a crime scene, for instance, mostly involves moving and pressing X, but linking together elements of the crime scene feels more rewarding. It’s a fun mechanic and I hope it makes a more prominent appearance in future episodes.
I mentioned Oswald, aka “Oz” as the final spinning plate, and that is because, thus far, Batman The Telltale Series feels very much like a series of spinning plates. They’ve thrown a lot into the air, and it’ll be interesting to see if they can keep them all spinning. The darker side of the Waynes — while unabashedly bordering on irreverence — could play out to great dramatic effect, or it could go horribly wrong and undermine the entire thing.
My only hope — and this is applicable to all Batman stories, not just this one — is that we can explore the Waynes’ death without having to continually harp on the night they died. It would be delightful to explore Bruce Wayne in a manner that is both reverent to his parents, while also implying it’s not the sole defining feature in his life.