Telltale's Batman has a bit of an identity crisis
Bats for lashes.
Editor's note: The first episode of Telltale's Batman is out today on PC, PS4, Xbox One, X360, PS3 and mobile. We'll be looking to give you a full review once all episodes have been released, and for now here's our take on the series' opening.
I've witnessed Thomas and Martha Wayne die too many times to count. I've seen them gunned down outside the Monarch Theatre by Joe Chill, sometimes by the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, sometimes because he's a hitman hired to take one or both of them out. I've read stories where Thomas is apparently alive and trying to make contact with his son, stories where there's a second Wayne son, or stories where husband and wife are saved only to be later killed by a business partner. I've learned about their lives in reverse; sometimes they're kind and generous to a fault, sometimes they make noble but ultimately poor decisions regarding city figureheads that inexorably lead to their downfall, sometimes Thomas is a cold, even cruel father who hits his child and later feels guilty about it.
There have even been alternate realities like the one where it was Bruce, not his parents, that had been gunned down - leading Thomas to become Batman and Martha to become the Joker. Even those who have never picked up a Batman comic in their life are intimately familiar with the events in Crime Alley. Many have witnessed Michael Keaton dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight and Val Kilmer having a severely negative reaction to a falling rose in the early films, and many more still have stopped by to press X and pay their respects in the Arkhamverse games. Even if you didn't know their names, you knew the integral role the Waynes played in the birth (both literal and figurative) of Batman.
My point is, if you're going to write a story exploring the Wayne family and how their legacy continues to haunt Bruce, you had better have something interesting, if not new, to say about them. And though in some ways it feels promising still, I'm not sure that Telltale's new episodic Batman series manages this feat, at least in its first instalment - The Realm of Shadows. This episode packs many a QTE-heavy combat sequence, but for the most part it favours Bruce over the Bat, exploring his relationships both past and present as both new and old friends begin popping up in Gotham. On one hand this is smart; there'd be absolutely no point in Telltale's Batman focusing on the caped crusader and his crime-fighting duties when the Arkham series has been there, done that all before and more or less mastered the art of throwing punches like Bats. It's a far more interesting proposition (and one much better suited to the studio's strong points) for Telltale to take a closer look at the man behind the mask, and both how and why he makes Batman the World's Greatest Detective.
The problem is, Bruce Wayne has only ever been as interesting as the people you surround him with, and starting fairly early on in his timeline, Telltale has a limited roster of friends to choose from. There's Alfred, of course, who is called upon again and again in this first episode to voice his disapproval in Bruce's nocturnal activities. Then there's Harvey Dent, Gotham's idealistic DA who is running for mayor with Bruce's financial help and public endorsement. The two are good friends in this telling, and share some of the episode's most natural dialogue, but it's that little bit harder to invest in the character or the friendship when you already know how it'll end. And of course there's Catwoman, an ambiguous and perennially pouting/punning presence that you can, of course, flirt with if you aren't getting your face scratched off. There's also an interesting re-imagining of Oswald Cobblepot that seems to borrow elements from Hush, but the best parts of the episode depict Bruce going up against both the Falcone crime syndicate and Gotham's print media, as there's no way to keep one happy without raising suspicion/contempt from the other.
Perhaps Episode One's biggest issue is that it's trying so hard to set the scene while setting itself apart from all the Batman stories that have come before it that it kind of forgets to get creative along the way. Telltale's retelling seems to thrive most when it's given a little room to express itself without having to cram laboured exposition into every single line that characters exchange with one another. Alfred in particular suffers from this, with everything he says to Bruce coming across as both a reprimand and a slightly creepy and unnecessary variation of "Hey, remember how your parents are dead?" Handing Bruce the old, bloodied tickets for the Monarch Theatre (Master Wayne keeps them in a glass box on his Bat-Desk like any other normal, healthy adult), and spouting lines like "Don't let tombstones be your family legacy" and "Myths can't be killed, you however are flesh and blood!" certainly doesn't warm the player to him, and the stilted voice acting doesn't help matters.
The episode's strongest sequences are those that play up to Batman's deductive capabilities. In one particularly engaging section you have to find and link pieces of evidence together to come up with a plausible explanation for what happened at a crime scene, and in another you have to scope out a secure hostile area from afar and plan every single move in advance to be sure that you take out every armed guard as soon as possible. These give me hope that, if expanded upon, later episodes may well allow us to feel like the tempered, logical and almost infallible Batman of the comics, who is prepared for any eventuality and who doesn't have to resort to breaking bones to solve all his problems. That said, there are several points in this first episode where players can choose brutality over tact, but seeing as I deliberately went down the more pacifist path and got told off for it by Alfred anyway, it remains to be seen how many of your decisions will actually make a difference.
Despite an updated engine and inspiration from some of the character's greatest stories, Telltale's Batman just hasn't come alive for me yet. There are small flourishes; being able to choose the colour for your Bat-tech is an odd yet oddly satisfying touch, and I'll always crack a smile whenever Detective Renee Montoya's name is mentioned, but - and I'm aware it isn't helpful to compare everything in Telltale's Batman to the Arkham games - this rendition of Gotham and its denizens doesn't feel anywhere near as rich, detailed or as layered as ones we've encountered before. It's certainly possible that the writing will hit its stride now that the awkward reintroductions are out of the way, but as of right now it feels like Telltale's Batman is riding on the coattails, cape and cowl of far greater stories.