If I had one nerdish obsession other than my books and Yoko Kanno’s entire discography that I could point to as a defining point for my cultural and entertainment preferences, it would be Batman. From the massive animated universe lorded over by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm that nurtured my boyhood mind, to the graphic novels by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale that made me want to write fiction (still amateurishly admittedly), to the Christopher Nolan trilogy that completely retconned my views of cinema, no one fictional character or franchise has made such a defining impact on me as the Dark Knight has.
So, when Telltale, a company that has done yeoman’s work in bringing narrative gaming to the forefront, announced they were doing a Batman series, I was beyond excited. We have a small mountain of media, including games, that focus on Batman as a combatant: as someone who can kick anyone’s ass no matter what. There is only a handful of media that focuses on Batman as The World’s Greatest Detective, which seemed to be the niche Telltale wanted to fill. Beyond that, the creators seemed determined to focus on Bruce Wayne as a character rather than a narrow focus on the Batman persona. At the time of the announcement, Telltale framed the coming series thusly:
“This iteration of Batman will give fans a first-hand opportunity to dive deeper into the complex life and mind of Bruce Wayne, the duality of his own identity, and the struggle of responsibility in saving a city overcome with corruption and villainy.”
So, it’s been a year since that announcement and the entire Batman series is available to the people! Does it live up to the hype or has the mighty Telltale finally whiffed one? Let’s look at Telltale’s Batman and find out.
Also, spoiler warning beyond this point! Let’s get it started.
- Genre: Adventure, Mystery, Point-and-Click
- Release Date: August 2, 2016
- Developer: Telltale Games
- Language: English
- Platform: PC, Consoles, Mobile
- Website: Telltale Page
- Edited By: Ozzytizer
In the early days of Batman’s fight against crime, the Dark Knight has his hands full taking on the corrupt Gotham elite led by mob boss Carmine Falcone. His allies are still scarce, but with District Attorney Harvey Dent running for mayor, things are finally beginning to look up. Unfortunately for Gotham, a new villainous organization called the Children of Arkham arrive to get revenge on all of those hurt by the ruling class. Mainly those whose lives were ruined at the hands of…the Wayne Family?
So, we might as well start with the big twist of the entire series: Thomas and Martha Wayne weren’t just corrupt, they were supervillains before Gotham had legitimate supervillains. They worked with Falcone and corrupt Mayor Hamilton Hill to ensure their continued power and destroyed anyone who got in their way. This isn’t a brand-new concept as some graphic novels (mostly Batman R.I.P) and a novel, Wayne of Gotham, examines the possibility of the Waynes not being the saints they’re usually presented as. As a fan, I can see how this can work if writers understand why the Waynes’ public image is so vital to the Batman mythos. I believe this dialogue from Batman Begins makes the point (emphasis mine):
Alfred Pennyworth: Are you coming back to Gotham for long, sir?
Bruce Wayne: As long as it takes. I’m gonna show the people of Gotham their city doesn’t belong to the criminals and the corrupt.
Alfred Pennyworth: In the depression, your father nearly bankrupted Wayne Enterprises combating poverty. He believed that his example could inspire the wealthy of Gotham to save their city.
Bruce Wayne: Did it?
Alfred Pennyworth: In a way. Their murder shocked the wealthy and the powerful into action.
I’m not saying that every single Batman writer must stick the exact same plot points. I am saying that the death of the Waynes is a catalyst for all of Gotham: not just Bruce Wayne. So, if that memory is going to get muddied, then the careful writer well keep in mind not just what it means for Batman, but for everyone who altered their lives even a little bit because Thomas and Martha Wayne died. And it is here, just as the series is beginning to warm up, did I realize that Telltale didn’t know what the Hell they were doing.
Yup: I said it.
Continuing with the turn of Thomas and Martha Wayne into supervillains, Episode Two of the series has Bruce Wayne in Crime Alley reminiscing on the night of his parents’ murder. After a brief conversation with Alfred, who confirms that the Waynes were terrible people, the scene switches to a mini-game that let’s Bruce relive that night to confirm to himself that it was actually a mob hit and not just a random mugging gone wrong. This monumental realization is then cut short so that Bruce can confront Falcone for ordering the hit. To the best of my knowledge, the player never has the option to allow Bruce to reflect on his parents. He just keeps doing the Batman thing because ‘Gotham needs him’.
For long-time Batman fans, the Waynes being supervillains will be an admittedly cheap shock. However, outside of that and serving as a catalyst for our main antagonist (more on her in a moment), it has little other tangible purpose. You could remove this turn and the entire game would not be affected by it. Taking off my fanboy hat for a moment, strictly as on a narrative scale this was a bad move since it removes any central plotline it could have occupied. Something now must take its place to keep Bruce Wayne’s hands full if not the psychological ramifications of his parents’ real lives.
Telltale’s remedy to this is multiple villains all running their own agendas, but helped by the ongoing threat of the Children of Arkham. In one corner is the Penguin: slimmed down and made into a corporate rival of Bruce Wayne’s along with being a sycophant for the CoA. In the other corner is Harvey Dent: well-meaning District Attorney who takes his responsibilities a bit too far as he is drug into a…siiiiiiiiiiiiigh…love triangle with Bruce Wayne over Selina Kyle AKA Catwoman. The Children of Arkham’s leader, Lady Arkham, plays more of a background role until the final episode of the series. This means that these two storylines make up the bulk of the series proper and do I even have to say that of the two, Penguin wins?
The Penguin’s storyline was the only one that had decent menace and provided an actual threat to Bruce Wayne. This keeps the original concept of the series alive and allows for you to feel like you are not in control of whatever situation Penguin shows up in. If Penguin’s schemes concerning Wayne Enterprises had been the main storyline of the game, most of my problems would be addressed because the storyline naturally leans more towards the detective thriller direction. This direction would also set up some interesting narrative stakes for Batman as he would have to decide whether or not to fight for a family legacy built on corruption.
It really is a shame that the storyline is stunted to a minimal effort to make space for Harvey Dent and Lady Arkham. It becomes even worse when you realize the other two villains of the game have little to offer, and that is shocking to say with anything involving Two-Face.
As one of the few characters in the Batman canon that unabashedly loved Gotham and was as protective of the city as Batman himself, Two-Face’s story usually has the strongest pathos for Batman personally. Most canons have his scarring and eventual turn to villainy come at the cost of fighting for a better Gotham. Not only does his turn to darkness serves as a continued symbol of Batman’s failures in his mission, but also the possibility that Batman could suffer the same fate as Harvey Dent if he continues to fight crime.
This is probably why the decision to write Two-Face’s turn to darkness the way Telltale did completely baffles me both as a fan of the character and as a student of fiction. The complex pathos and symbolism of Two-Face is replaced by a jilted lover. He doesn’t really go insane until he finds Selina and Bruce in a compromising position. So, his actions after he realizes he’s lost Selina to his friend, despite winning the mayoral election, can be interpreted as him asserting his own broken masculinity. There’s no real tragedy or even a narrative hook to Dent through the game. He’s just a typical politician who couldn’t handle losing his girlfriend.
Because of current political debates, I can see the appeal of a male supervillain being formed through the combination of a bruised ego and insecurities. However, if that was the plan Telltale, then it’s probably not a good idea to give the player the option to have sex with the dude’s girlfriend behind his back. In fact, at the time of this review, over 80% of players chose to start Dent on his road to darkness by having fade transition sex with Selina Kyle. So, whatever emotional investment we could possibly have to Two-Face is DOA because they tied Two-Face’s entire arc and storyline to their own raging libido.
I’m sure the defense for this turn is that Christopher Nolan did something similar in The Dark Knight; to which I say you’re wrong and stop being wrong. Yes, Bruce Wayne still had feelings for Rachel Dawes even though she was dating Harvey Dent. However, Rachel made it clear repeatedly that she was serious about Harvey and wouldn’t always be available for Bruce. Harvey’s turn to Two-Face in the film happens not just because Rachel is murdered, but because he repeatedly told Gordon about corruption in his department and Gordon didn’t do anything about it. This fits into the usual canon for his character and has him go into a blinding rage because the system he has given so much for ultimately failed him.
So, Two-Face is pretty much a wash and the Penguin’s storyline is alright, but unfulfilling. That leaves Lady Arkham and this…this is where the game hits its lowest point. I know I put a spoiler warning at the beginning of this review, but this is last call. If, for any reason, you’re considering playing this game walk away from the review right now. The biggest twist of the entire thing is about the get spoiled and I don’t want anyone blaming me for ruining it after two warnings. Okay?
At the conclusion of Episode Three, we find out Vicki Vale is Lady Arkham. For those who do not know, Vicki Vale’s history in the Batman comics go back as far as the beginning of Detective Comics in the 1940s. She is usually portrayed as a reporter and romantic interest for Bruce Wayne, so yeah, she’s Batman’s version of Lois Lane. The reason the relationship doesn’t always stick is because of the different personalities between Bats and Supes, as well as the wider range of love interests for Bats. However, even if you’re unaware of the history, if you watched the Tim Burton Batman film, you know who this character is. And this is the person Telltale decided should be the main antagonist of this game.
This would be like Telltale doing a Superman game and finding out Lois Lane is the one behind LexCorp and shows up to fight Superman in Lex’s power armor.
Okay, putting aside my geekdom, there is a larger point here and it’s tied to how they try and turn Vicki Vale into a plausible antagonist for Batman. First, they set up that her parents were screwed up by the Wayne Family to justify her hatred for Bruce Wayne. However, she was also then transferred to a foster family that proceeded to lock her in a literal torture chamber and was physically and emotionally abused for the remainder of her formative years. Despite that, when she came of age her abusive foster family allowed her to enter the real world where she somehow got her hands on financial resources, military technology and training, and took over a protest group to transform them into the terroristic Children of Arkham to…do…something.
I expect a lot of this to be hand-waved away if Telltale decides to continue the series. As most of this plot fits something out of Ra’s al Ghul’s playbook anyway, finding out that Lady Arkham was in the League of Assassins explains a great deal. It would still be cheap as Hell, but for the purposes of this conversation it would work. Where things will always fall apart with Vicki Vale as Lady Arkham is that she has no actual plan.
The first episode teases the possibility of a bioweapon attack using a chemical Vale doses Wayne and Dent with throughout the game. This plot is defused by Episode Three to build up both The Penguin and Two-Face. Once both have been dealt with, Vale decides to cause a riot at Arkham Asylum: an event that would have been stopped by the GCPD with or without Batman’s interference. Finally, Vale kidnaps Alfred Pennyworth to get one more dig in at Bruce Wayne before their final confrontation.
These plots are introduced and dealt with almost as quickly as I summarized them and there is little room in the game for them to accumulate any sense of threat to Gotham. Likewise, Vale herself isn’t really treated like an actual threat to either Bruce Wayne or Batman. Her character is portrayed as more tragic than anything, but because of how ham-fisted her backstory is, said backstory doesn’t get an opportunity to resonate. I will give their final confrontation some points in tone and atmosphere, but that’s just a good eye for presentation. Story-wise, like so many other plot elements in this game, this turn wasn’t necessary. The overwrought childhood abuse backstory forced onto Vicki Vale is, like the toxic masculine turn for Harvey Dent, ultimately pointless.
And while I rarely talked about the man himself in this review, that’s because Bruce Wayne actually has very little to do. Without any real points of introspection, he bounces from scene to scene and fulfills the role you’d expect Batman to fill. It isn’t bad and I’d argue that had it been an original IP and not Batman, the game would’ve been worse off with this setup. But watching the Dark Knight do his thing with increasingly shrinking odds, confined to a narrative box the folks at Telltale couldn’t write their way out of, is a tragedy to play through as a fan of the character.
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
One thing Telltale is fantastic at is making the most of their cel-shaded style. For the most part, that also applies to this game. There is some use of repeated character models for thugs and civilians that stands out hard in certain fight segments. Also, the design for the CoA, and Lady Arkham is just too bland to stand out. Her Lady Arkham design looks ripped from another Batman villain, The Scarecrow, and her use of chemicals to drive people out of their minds doesn’t help the comparison. Considering the issues facing the character already, something much more distinctive was needed.
For the rest of the main cast everyone feels like their inspirations. Even the Penguin, who looks NOTHING like his comic counterpart, carries himself the exact same way as the original: endearing him to long-time fans on the fence with his remodel. One interesting deviation is with Harvey Dent. Because of some dialogue options, Dent may not get the physical scarring denoting his change into Two-Face. This feels like a shout out to Frank Miller’s work in The Dark Knight Returns, where fixing the facial scars doesn’t put the Two-Face personality to rest. It’s one of the few interesting moves with Dent that I enjoyed, so I figured I’d note it.
A frustration I am having more and more with Telltale with is their music cues and sound effects. This is compounded by the fact that Telltale Games need several loading spikes in their games to keep track with the choices you make. This causes several musical cues to run over into other soundtracks and some fight scenes to not have any sound effects at all: lessening the impact of the scene entirely. It is something that will, most likely, continue to plague Telltale until they change their overall business model, which is a shame because sound direction is just as important as visual direction when it comes to presentation.
On a technical level, the game is flawed. For whatever reason, the development team decided to make this one action heavy with several prominent fight scenes in every episode. This fight scenes have two major elements: you first plan your tactics before heading into battle and then execute those tactics via Quick-Time Events. I liked the idea behind it, but there are simply too many loading spikes built into the game for that type of seamless experience. One-on-one fights work out, especially the final fight between Batman and Vale that makes solid uses of the tone of the fight to pace itself. Most other battles, especially those in Episode 1, just have too much going on to take full advantage of the system.
One thing I was hoping from this title is that we would actually get more detective work out of Batman than we did in other games, considering its point-and-click style. It’s certainly there but like many ideas with this title it isn’t necessary to the plot. It’s mostly used to deliver backstory or as a cool-down between the various action scenes. This system can and should be built on if a second installment of this series is planned, because it will give us something that no other Batman game to date has: an actual mystery featuring the World’s Greatest Detective.
Outside of these issues, this game has dealt with more reports of bugs and glitches than I remember other Telltale games dealing with. It was declared outright broken on launch day back in August 2016 and has suffered the humiliation of several laughable bugs since then: including this one that repeat in several different character models in different episodes. It is a black mark on the reputation of Telltale that they push out games outside of their Walking Dead series without ensuring their quality and it is something that they need to correct now. They have long burned out their passes on this one and visible steps need to be taken to make sure what they put out is viable for players.
Each episode of the Batman series can take anywhere between one and two hours to complete. With five episodes, that gives you a maximum of ten hours for one playthrough. However, what I haven’t talked about at all yet is the game’s choice structure. Most of the choices the game gives you will lead to the exact same conclusion. For example, the love triangle. You can choose not to sleep with Selina Kyle, but even if you don’t Harvey will find you and come to that conclusion. So, sleep with her, don’t sleep with her; the very thought of not having her will drive him down the deep end.
With the lack of differing choices and my issues with the plot, it’s hard to say this one has any real replay value. However, if you’re curious about it, the entire series has been on sale since the final episode released a few months ago. You will be able to get a good deal for it and it’ll feel like your money’s worth regardless of if you have my admittedly strict expectations or not.
I know this is going to sound absurd, but even with all my issues, I cannot bring myself to hate the game. It can be very entertaining when it manages to get its focus and it is helped by a very talented vocal cast doing their best with what they’ve got. The best news for Telltale in this regard is that it ended on a strong enough note to build a future sequel on; with the truth of the Wayne Family unresolved and The Joker thrown into the mix. But these elements only work in spite of the overall game, not because of it. And if I’m not going to show any mercy to any EVN developer that made similar mistakes, I will not excuse Telltale for fumbling out of the gate.
The first season of Telltale’s Batman is a prime example of the axiom, ‘If it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it’. And throughout all the retcons of classic Batman characters and lore, the development team never seemed to fully grasp what makes Batman work. It isn’t his tech. It isn’t his family. It isn’t even really him as an individual. It’s the idea that people, no matter how beaten down by cynicism or corruption, can still be moved by dramatic examples. It’s the reality that symbols still mean something and that symbolism, when acted on correctly, can transcend mortal failings and become something more in the process. It is the one thing Telltale explicitly promised to explore this season and they didn’t: comforting themselves instead with a meandering, at best, Batman story.
As a piece of fiction by itself, not tied to a legacy character like Batman, this game is still meh at best. The character writing is formulaic and cliché. The plot is convoluted and directionless most of the time, pausing just long enough to switch to a different antagonist now and then. And, to the best of my knowledge, only one character experiences any sort of closure: Selina Kyle. And that closure only comes because she skips town at the end of the season: completing her arc as a love interest for Bruce Wayne.
With all of that plus the continued technical issues, the first season of Telltale’s Batman has the unfortunate distinction of being the weakest title in their library. Hopefully this isn’t the only chapter in this series and they one day give us a solid Dark Knight experience, because this isn’t it.
So, that was Telltale’s Batman. I certainly wished it was a better experience, but that’s just how these things measure out. However, as a fan of the character I certainly want you guys to enjoy Batman media so in my Alternate Recommendations for this review, I’ll be pointing out a few good Batman stories that you can enjoy over this particularly anemic romp:
- I mentioned it in the review and I’ll mention it again here: Wayne of Gotham written by Tracy Hickman. It explores similar themes and focuses on the psychological impact Bruce Wayne would have if he found out his parents weren’t as upstanding as their public image made them look. You can get the book for very cheap now and I highly recommend it for those who like the idea Telltale attempted here, but want to see it better executed.
- There are a ton of excellent Two-Face stories out there and, after this turn, I needed to soak in those stories for a while to remind myself why this was an excellent character. For me, there is no finer example than the Batman: The Animated Series two-parter simply titled Two-Face. If you have never seen Batman: The Animated Series for some reason, track these two episodes down and give them a look. It’s some of the finest storytelling Western animation has ever produced.
- And finally, if you just need a gaming experience on the list, the best option I can think of it’s actually in the Telltale catalog: The Wolf Among Us. It is probably their most underestimated IP and it delivers a solid detective story. It also helps that Bigby Wolf has a few strong parallels to the Batman in the game. Check that game out if you haven’t done so.
At best an entertaining diversion, Telltale fumbles at its first attempt to fill the iconic cape and cowl. Maybe next time guys.