If you were expecting Telltale’s take on the Batman story to deal with the struggle between Bruce Wayne the man and Batman the hero, then you’re going to be really surprised by the first episode, Realm of Shadows. Haha, nah, I’m kidding, of course that’s what it’s about. What else? The harder job for the team at Telltale is giving that well-ploughed setup an original context, and putting it into your hands in a way that makes you feel like Batman. They’ve missed the mark a little.
The game starts in media res (or in media bat, to be more specific) as you foil a heist at City Hall and run into Catwoman. This is the first time Selina and Bats have met, and it quickly becomes apparent that Bruce Wayne is still early in his career as Batman: the Police still kind of hate him; Vicki Vale is only just making a name for herself; Harvey Dent has a regular number of faces and is running for mayor. Oswald Cobblepot is introduced as an old childhood friend of Bruce, whose family used to run in the same circles but fell on hard times. At the moment he’s called ‘Oz’ and is a thin, louche, weirdly attractive dude with a trenchcoat and an undercut, which is a far cry from the rotund Danny DeVito–alike with an umbrella that most people think of as being Penguin. It’s Batman, Jim Gordon, but not quite as you know it, different enough to be distinct, and although some of the changes are undoubtedly going to piss on hardcore fans’ chips I rather enjoyed them.
Setting it early days in his hero career means that Bats is still a bit raw, at bit rough around the edges, and that means you do feel like you’ve got a hand in crafting him. Do you want a measured, lone protector of justice, a chaotic-good vigilante, or a full blown sociopath who hurts people for shits and gigs and definitely needs a better outlet? As Bruce Wayne you must navigate politics. As Batman you can choose to break a man’s arm. The police will notice that.
Unfortunately the drama inherent in Batman’s life is expressed in the form of dialogue so cheesy it would pair excellently with fruit and savoury biscuits, Bruce having studied at the Adam Jensen "I didn’t ask for this!" School of Conversation. At one point he actually growls "Sometimes you need a monster…" at Alfred; Alfred, for his part, responds to Bruce lamenting that he could never forget the night his parents died by saying "That is your gift… it is also your curse." If, at this point, I’d had the power to reach through the screen and slap Alfred’s kindly old man head, Three Stooges style, shouting ‘OH COME THE FUCK ON!’ then I would have, repeatedly.
The other aspects of being the Bat are a mixed bag, in this first episode at least. In fairness to Telltale, season openers are rarely the best instalments, serving mostly to lay the foundations of the rest of the game. Batman has to engage in combat, of course, but it’s Telltale combat, so that means quick time events, and that makes making Batman feel more remote and less badass than really it should. On the other hand, the bits where you put the Detective back into Detective Comics and investigate a crime scene are a nice way of fusing Telltale’s interactive style of storytelling with the Batmany-ness of Batman. Meanwhile the Bruce Wayne half of the game is more conversational, deciding in the moment whether to shake a mobster’s hand, go on the record with a journalist, and how much to trust his friends. How this is all balanced in further episodes remains to be seen, but the first one juggles giving time to all the different mechanics (presumably so you understand them when they pop up again later), which means you don’t really get enough of any of them.
It’s also impossible to predict how the big choices you make will change the rest of your game (although knowing Telltale something you think is an innocent enough conversation will appear again right at the end and sucker punch you right in the gut, like the kebab you chanced three nights ago). The critical decisions at the end of the episode for Batman are all about how much shit you kicked out of someone when you had the chance, but the Bruce Wayne ones are much more potentially interesting. Which, at the end of the day, is the problem.
This is a Batman game where it’s kind of more fun when you’re not Batman. Telltale’s strength is in, you know, telling a tale, and it has planted the seeds for one that could sprout into something really cool. The next episode could be much better, and this series isn’t a write off just yet. But the nature of how Telltale makes games mean one suspects it would have been better if it sacked off the Batman and focused entirely on Bruce Wayne dealing with the aftermath, as if Batman was a mate that turned up every night to trash his house, piss off all his other friends, and kick him in the balls before fucking off again in the morning, and everyone was like ‘Bruce, that guy is the worst, you should just drop him,’ and Bruce was like ‘Guys I can’t, that’s just the way he is, and besides he was there for me when my parents died and he’s now intrinsically and unhealthily linked to my psyche.’ We’ve all been there.
Version tested: PS4