Telltale Games are an acquired taste. When LucasArts laid off a large piece of their staff, including most of their team dedicated to adventure games, those same fellows banded together to form a new studio and search for a revival in the adventure game genre. They saw just that with their resurrection of the comical dog detective series, Sam and Max. The team at Telltale are brilliant writers with a unique gameplay formula that helped solidify them as early pioneers in the era of episodic content. While I wouldn’t say the studio caught on like a wildfire, they’ve since seen substantial success that has landed them popular licensing deals with big name franchises such as The Walking Dead, Back to The Future, Game of Thrones, and more for them to add their storytelling spin. They’ve even branched out to other game franchises like Borderlands.
(They’ve been at this for a while now.)
I’ve never been huge on adventure games, but I do respect the category. To me, they mostly feel like “click the screen” simulators with a little bit of story along the way. Telltale’s method shook things up by ditching a lot of the key quests, and moving towards a much more story driven, linear approach. For the most part, you play out the scenes of a story, observing the dialogue, and finding the next conversation piece. When conversations happen, and they are a frequent occurrence, you get to guide the direction of your character by choosing dialogue which affects how the characters and world around you respond. It’s a lot like a choose your own adventure book.
Even though their diverse catalogue and swift release schedule have always interested me, I’ve never given Telltale games much of a chance beyond The Walking Dead. When it released, they were still a young studio. Their storytelling felt predictable and a bit too cliche, even for zombie fluff. I walked away from The Walking Dead feeling like they could have given much more, and never really looked back.
That is, until they announced Batman: The Telltale Series.
I love Batman you guys. Not even kidding here. I know the recent flurry of films and nerd culture have brought superheroes back into the mainstream, but I’m OG. In fact, I spent a majority of my childhood halloweens alternating between Batman and Spiderman. I learned who Bone Thugs-n-Harmony are from the Batman Forever Soundtrack, and I’ve seen every episode of the Animated Adventures more times than I can count. Hell, I stood up for Batman Vs. Superman by saying Batfleck is the best one yet! (Outside of Kevin Conroy, of course.)
(That’s me, the hero Gotham deserves)
It didn’t take long for me to hype right up for this, especially after the abysmal offerings of Suicide Squad and sort of disappointing Batman Vs Superman. Coming in a five episode pack at $5 an episode, it was pretty easy to be all-in for a hopeful Batman experience. Unfortunately, I ended up taking a bit less away from this first episode than I would have hoped, but I’m still glad I gave it a shot. Here’s what I thought, in a form that’s as spoiler-free as I can make it.
Right from the start, you know this is a Batman story. A bank vault is being robbed by thugs, set to a grizzly, night-covered Gotham City. The Batman, still a myth to these nameless goons, mysteriously takes them out one by one before his very theatrical reveal. Batman has an encounter with the nefariously seductive Catwoman; followed by a run in with the noble, albeit flawed with innocence, Commissioner Gordon. All the while, a conversation with the loyal butler pleads for our hero to hang up the cape and start a normal life.
It’s Batman like we’ve always seen him. Almost down to the second. They’ve even crammed in a nice reminder that his parents are dead. We get it. Batman is a sad, brooding orphan. It’s not a terrible way to start, but it’s anything other than unique. For better or worse, the start of the Telltale’s Batman Adventure is a rehash of everything you’ve seen before. I’m still not tired of hearing the stories, but it would have been nice to see something a bit more refreshing.
Luckily, Telltales gets this filler out of the way early and what we get from that point is a (mostly) unique story. I was impressed by how much character they’ve packed into this game. Telltales offers us colorful takes on familiar characters that we haven’t quite seen before. Past villains are presented in a new way. What we end up with is a much more interesting spin on nostalgic characters. That ugly familiar camp still rears its head a bit too often, but there’s enough new story here to make up for it.
Setting aside the human characters for a moment, one of my favorite characters shown off in this the Telltales Series is Gotham City itself. Having always been a deliberate parody of New York City, Gotham here is shown in a way that is closer to its real life account than anything I’ve seen in Batman lore to date. Sure it’s not as dark as the Gotham we’ve grown accustom to, (at least not yet) but it’s a refreshing take on a city modeled after a city.
The man behind the mask.
Of course, when talking about character, we have to talk about the Bat. But surprisingly, Batman isn’t really here. We spend a good majority in the first episode as Bruce Wayne, and I have to say, it was very refreshing. I’m sure future episodes will see the caped crusader dawn his signature leather much more often, but it was very nice to see how Bats hangs up his cape and deals with Gotham’s elite as an insider. You drive conversations with respectable members of Gotham City in crass, often repugnant manners, the whole time knowing that isn’t the true character you’re controlling. In fact, I love how they present even Bruce Wayne as a persona of someone different. You can always feel the conversations are being told by someone trying to act as someone he truly isn’t. It’s poetic, or something like that.
Lame Game Shame.
When your game is a living comic book, you can really only take gameplay so far. That’s always been my major complaint with Telltale Games, and its ever present here. Though a majority of the game is pre-ordained with orchestrated cinematics, the gameplay mechanics are slow and intricate. Their entire purpose is for you to focus on the details of your settings. Your character will trudge sluggishly from place to place, selecting points of interest with which to interact. These points of interest either spark immediate conversation again, or get saved for later. Sure it’s dull at times, but it’s detailed. It’s story telling. When you do finally don the mask of the crusader, it’s a far cry from more action packed entries into Batman. Unlike the action packed Arkham series, combat here is nothing more than quick time events. Well-timed button prompts get you through to the next moment. As the world’s greatest detective, you do little more than look at those all too common points of interest and pretend they are meaningful. It’s rare to fail in Batman: The Telltale Series, but that’s not the point. You’re living a story, not playing a game.
What I assume is a core of other Telltale games, you’re given what I’ve dubbed, “The Illusion of Choice.” Orwellian of me I know, but it’s true. Batman lets you drive the narrative by choosing your dialogue, giving you the feeling that you’re in control of the game. I’ve played through the first episode three times now, and as it turns out, all roads lead to Rome. That is to say, regardless of how you drive your character, the ultimate outcome is the same. Once again, that’s not necessarily bad, you just need to remain of the mindset, “this is a story, not a game.”
On the technical side, everything is pretty solid, aside from a few glaring problems.
First, the voice acting is often lazy. I wasn’t expecting the actors to rival Conroy’s Batman or Mark Hammill’s infamous Joker, but what we got often felt like little more than that actor who’s only in the movie because his dad is an executive. In addition to some lazy story telling at times, when it happens, following the story becomes a chore.
(I hope you have world class Bat-Antivirus)
Second, character movement is often weird and unnatural. It’s not frequent, but the character models often jitter and shake for no real reason. The frame rate suffers as a result., Their movement sometimes feels like a poorly disciplined marionette. In fact, now that I think about it, they looked a lot like the puppets from Thunderbirds. I’m sure this was a victim of trying to make the game compatible on every platform known to man. Remember though, it’s infrequent, but in a game that’s ALL about the storytelling, it’s noticeable. Bummer…
Last, Telltales has implemented a social platform that allows players to pool decisions and observe statistics for a more communal experience. It was completely broken during my every attempt at connecting, so I can’t include anything about that here. Hopefully they fix it soon.
Ultimately, I would call this game a flawed first entry into something that I’m hopeful will turn into more. But at the same time, the price of entry to Batman: The Telltale Series is equal to the cost of a single issue of a Batman comic book. With that in mind, it’s hard not to recommend you give this a shot. The excellent take on Bruce Wayne, fantastic depiction of Gotham City, and the low price tag make this absolutely worth it.