Everything I know about Batman, I learned from video games. Batman: Arkham City, the Armored Edition on Wii U, was the first Batman game I played and it turned me from the average appreciator to a lore-loving fan. Excusing the Lego Batman games, the first season of Batman: The Telltale Series is the latest game of note featuring the Dark Knight to make its way onto a Nintendo console, this time on the Switch. Instead of a sprawling combat-focused open-world game like the Arkham trilogy, Telltale’s Batman feels more like good fanfiction, offering a linear narrative experience with scripted fights. What the game lacks in hyper-realistic graphics and cape physics, it makes up for with a truly memorable story that will surprise even the most dedicated Batman fans.
Read the full review below…
Before They Were Legends
Like all Telltale games, Batman is a story-driven adventure where your selections of text-based prompts can have impacts on the story that range from harmless to monumental. This is a lot of responsibility for the player who must take control of Batman and his alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, two powerful names in Gotham whose actions tend to affect thousands of citizens. While most Batman games keep you in that tight sweaty suit the whole time, the Telltale series establishes that Bruce Wayne’s role in creating a safer Gotham is just as important and heavy a burden as the Bat’s.
Batman: The Telltale Series is an original story that offers reimagined takes on all the classic villains’ rise to power. Harvey Dent, the honest district attorney, is running for mayor against the corrupt Hamilton Hill. He asks Bruce to fund his campaign, who is happy to do so. Watching well-intentioned Harvey’s descent into madness as he becomes Two-Face is chilling even when it’s not fully believable. Similarly, you meet the Arkham Asylum patient John Doe in episode four, who has unmistakable white skin and green hair. Along with a bevy of other baddies before they were infamous, including the Penguin and Catwoman, the game also introduces an original villain whose motivations are thought-provoking, if not heartbreaking. All of these origin stories, of course, beg the question why Batman existed at all in a Gotham void of supervillains. But if you can put aside that discrepancy, you’ll be engrossed in an almost airtight and gripping campaign.
Becoming the Batman
Over the season’s five episodes, you get to know the famed superhero like never before. As Bruce, you must use your influence as the heir of Gotham’s most treasured philanthropists to help enact political changes that will push back against the corruption plaguing the city. As Batman, your goals are largely the same, except you accomplish them in the shadows while wearing spandex and by suplexing thugs through tables. The dance of managing your high-profile public persona with the enigmatic vigilante is a tension that is exhilarating. Some of my favorite moments in the game ask you to choose to handle the same situation as either Bruce or Batman. As one of the few untimed decisions, I deliberated my odds of success for minutes, weighing the pros and cons against the little information I had to go off of. These scenes helped solidify the symbiotic relationship between Batman and Bruce Wayne. They are a team forced to work as relay racers instead of in tandem. This was a dynamic I didn’t know I was dying to explore.
Batman: The Telltale Series does a great job of allowing the player to craft Bruce into the man they want him to be. The genius of the design is that you are constantly testing your relationships as both Bruce and Batman. In a game that remembers your every decision, you could very well find yourself in a Gotham that loves Bruce Wayne but hates Batman.
Do you do the noble thing but risk defaming your name or do you protect your public image, which may help you better serve Gotham in the future? You’re constantly at odds with everyone’s exorbitant expectations, only unmatched by your own. The Telltale Batman features the most relatable version of Batman I’ve ever seen, pained by betrayal and longing to do right by everyone. I often chose to let him lash out like a teenager as I couldn’t bear to watch the lovable Bruce Wayne suffer silently for the actions of others.
Rock, Paper, Batarang
There are three main types of gameplay in Batman: The Telltale Series. The majority of the game you’ll be watching scenes play out like a film, with beautifully-acted dialogue and expertly lit and staged shots. As the scenes play out, you are asked to respond to something someone else says in order to advance the story. Even though you’re sitting idly for the majority of the sequence, you can never let your guard down as never know when you’ll be asked to participate and are only given a few seconds to answer. This helped 20-minute sequences feel engaging despite the minimal interaction required of me.
At times, none of the choices provided were ones I felt were authentic to my character. It irked me when a choice I had to settle on had an undesirable consequence. As much as I wanted to, for instance, I didn’t think it was appropriate to engage in intercourse with Catwoman while Batman was covered in bandages. I told her no, as to not complicate our working relationship as Batman and Catwoman, but only because the truthful option for “I’m literally bleeding all over your couch! Can you ease the hell up?!” wasn’t listed.
Action sequences in the game break up the exposition by throwing a series of on-screen button prompts at you that must be input on the controller as quickly as possible. Each fight has so many actions that missing one or two seem inconsequential. Alternatively, nailing each input and filling up the “Bat meter” didn’t appear to have any effect on the gameplay at all, not even a mention post-credits. This made it all the more baffling the couple of times when I was too slow with a button press and was brutally murdered. Batman: The Telltale Series never finds a middle ground where there were consequences to messing up that felt fair.
The third form of gameplay lets you freely control Batman to find clues in an environment. As the world’s greatest detective, you must walk around a crime scene and link pieces of evidence together to determine what happened prior to your arrival. While fun the first time, the game never changes up the formula in each of the five episodes. These sections are largely unchallenging and slow down an already slow game to a crawl. The real puzzle is figuring out where Batman can and can’t walk and how to make the camera play nice. Watching Batman awkwardly walk into place after you select a point of interest looks just as silly as trying to control him yourself.
Batman: The Telltale Series is a game that wants to look and play like a blockbuster, but misses the mark numerous times. The art style, though often gorgeous, wasn’t as consistent as the marvelous voice acting. Some of the art assets were stunning; Batman’s suit was one of my favorite things to stare at. On the other end, a lot of the textures and effects looked muddy and cheap. I’m not sure if this was a technical limitation of the Switch or a display of Telltale’s competency, but it’s clear that the game did not reach its potential.
Alfred and Bruce donned the most expressive facial rigs allowing convincing performances through subtle face gestures. Most other characters’ faces were mannequin-esque, but ultimately expressed what they needed to. The animation overall was hit and miss. I get it. Animating someone walking up stairs is deceptively tricky, but this game features some unforgivable walk cycles.
Even worse, the Switch version rarely handled scene changes gracefully. The game would often freeze and flash the “saving” icon before stuttering to the next shot. This began to grate on me and by the end, I would audibly groan each time this happened, which was frequently during the finale. These hitches kept snapping me out of the otherwise immersive story and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bring down my overall experience.
This first season of Batman: The Telltale Series is a character study that examines each character’s motivations as a central theme. Season 1 is successful in establishing the city of Gotham and the motivations behind its most eclectic citizens. Telltale has made great use of Batman’s 80-year history to create a unique story that had me on the edge of my seat for most of the ride. After talking and punching my way through the 12-hour story, I’m ready to heroically nosedive off a skyscraper for more. While the technical performance left much to be desired, I’m fully invested in the story and my version of Batman. I’m just hoping season 2 is as polished as the Batmobile.