Batman: Children of Arkham review: Of Heroes of Villains

For me, the premiere of Batman: A Telltale Series last month was a shaky start. It showed potential, especially in its nifty detective sequences and its exploration of Batman’s violence, but the plotline, obsessed with taking every turn to remind players that Bruce Wayne’s parents are dead and he is sad about it, felt contrived and lacked Telltale’s trademark emotional resonance. Luckily, the second episode, Children of Arkham, has come along to remedy the situation, and I’m now convinced that this is just what I was hoping for when Telltale announced that they were making a Batman game.

The first episode ended on a pretty shocking cliffhanger with the accusation that Thomas Wayne had been in bed with the Falcone crime family, and it’s this thread that underpins everything in Children of Arkham. You probably assumed it was a simple frame-up – an effort to destabilise Harvey Dent’s Wayne-funded mayoral bid – and that this episode, if not the rest of the game, would focus on Bruce Wayne’s efforts to clear his family name and get to the bottom of the accusations. But nothing is ever that simple, least of all in a Telltale game, and so that setup serves as a springboard for unexpected developments and the start of a fascinating character study.

Children of Arkham: Bruce Wayne remembering his parents

In fact, Thomas and Martha Wayne are, in a way, the central focus of the episode, which is a refreshing change for characters who have only ever existed to be a catalyst for Batman in their deaths. They’re still catalysts to a large extent, but in a way that lets them be something other than Batman’s dead parents, and I have no doubt they’ll continue to play a significant role throughout the rest of the series – they’ve been established as being far too important to simply be footnotes in the creation of Batman.

Indeed, they upend the whole Batman mythos. At its best, Realm of Shadows put Batman and Bruce Wayne into stark contrast, and had players trying to navigate that tightrope. Children of Arkham muddies the whole pond. Who is Batman, and who is Bruce Wayne? Where does one end and the other begin? Is Batman the hero that Gotham needs? Is Bruce? The best superhero stories are the ones that critically engage with the genre and the character in question, and with this episode, Batman: A Telltale Series is bearing the fruit of an insightful deconstruction of everything that Batman is, and everything that Batman stands for.

Children of Arkham: Batman fighting a bad guy

To that end, there are a couple of scenes in Children of Arkham centered on a mysterious drug that causes people to act on their deepest impulses, unimpeded by reason or morality. To use Freudian parlance, it turns people into pure id, with no ego or superego to keep them in check. Naturally this leads to chaos, and though it mostly functions as a plot point within the episode, it’s also a clever critique of Batman and of superheroes in general.

Batman exists outside the law – regardless of how much he does for the greater good, he’s a vigilante who plays by his own rulebook. He does what he wants to do, and what he feels he needs to do, but he’s very much driven by violent impulses that he’s managed to chain and turn into something productive. The degree of violence and control varies from story to story, and can change drastically within Batman: A Telltale Series by way of your narrative choices, but he’s always a symbol of the contradictions of vigilante justice.

The drug employed by Children of Arkham’s villains turns people into images of what Batman would become if he lost that control, and of what Batman could have become if he’d never been able to focus his impulses in the first place. It pulls the unbridled rage out of people – the same rage that, for all his heroics, underpins Batman. The Joker is one of the greatest Batman villains because he’s both the antithesis to Bats and a mirror image, and this drug has a similar, if less theatrical, effect. It makes a powerful statement in a game where you’re constantly trying to balance the conflicting ideals of Batman and Bruce Wayne.

Children of Arkham: a choice between acting as Batman or Bruce Wayne

Children of Arkham also offers a first real look at the series’ villains. After his brief appearance in Realm of Shadows, Oswald Cobblepot is back, but he’s now fully embraced his identity as the Penguin. This is a very different Penguin, and his new plague doctor-inspired design downright terrifying. He’s not working alone, though, with another foe – a completely original one, as far as I can tell – taking the stage in the episode’s finale. Aside from being creepy in their own right, these villains also play an important role in the ongoing complicating of Batman’s identity.

This really should have been the premiere of Batman: A Telltale Series, because it’s the episode that’s really laid out the groundwork for the whole series. If all of Realm of Shadows’ treading water had been confined to a single act, leading to the events of Children of Arkham, it would have made a phenomenal debut. Still, now that this episode is out, we know where the series is going, and it’s shaping up to be one of the most interesting, thoughtful takes on Batman.

Also, to end on a brief aside, Selina Kyle’s teasing of Bruce Wayne is delightful.

Edit: typos. 

Batman: The Telltale Series is developed and published by Telltale Games. The first two episodes, Realm of Shadows and Children of Arkham, are available now for PlayStation 4 (reviewed), PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, Android, and iOS.

This episode was purchased by Shindig for the purposes of review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.