Telltale Games have a long and impressive track record when it comes to using violence and gore to foster an emotional response. The Walking Dead did this repeatedly—putting down Lee’s brother, for example, or having to manually control Clementine as she stitches up a wound without anaesthetic. Choosing (or being forced into) solving problems with violence in The Wolf Among Us came with grim consequences. And Tales from the Borderlands? Well, gore was mostly there for hilarity and shock factor (face pizzas, anyone?), but even then, this helped sell the bizarre tone so well, setting the stage for the poignant drama that develops in the later episodes.
It’s this adeptness at using violence as a narrative tool, rather than simply as a source of spectacle, that made me really excited about the prospect of a Telltale Batman game. He has a weird relationship to violence in that he refuses to kill, but has no qualms breaking bones and crippling people for life. It’s something that hasn’t exactly gone uncriticised, but hasn’t really been given its due attention, either. We just accept it as part of Batman, but it’s something worth exploring and a Telltale game would be a perfect framework for that.
Having played through the first episode, Realm of Shadows, it looks like that’s the plan—at least for now. The running time is pretty evenly split between Batman and Bruce Wayne, and while the latter is focused on navigating the labyrinth of politics and the social elite, the Batman scenes are all about fighting bad guys. Much of that is the kind of heavily-choreographed spectacle you’d expect, as Bats takes on multiple henchmen at a time with acrobatic flair, but there are also a few times where you have to choose how far to actually go.
You’ve strung up the lone surviving mercenary from a deadly fight between gangsters and police, and you need information. Do you swing a metal pipe at the nearby canisters to scare him, or do you break his ribs—or even hit him in the face with said pipe? When he’s claiming to have told you all he knows, do you leave it at that, or do you break his arm to try and get more out of him? These are the kind of dilemmas that Realm of Shadows poses.
Admittedly, they’re all very “easy”—or at least, I found them so. I know who Batman is to me, I know what kind of Batman I want to play, so a choice between scare tactics and downright brutality is simple. None of the choices presented gave me the sort of panicked indecision that The Walking Dead did, for example, especially not on the Batman side of things. But this is just the first episode, and I think and hope that this is something that will continue to be a focus throughout the series as the stakes get higher.
The Bruce Wayne side of things is a bit more murky, though perhaps not as emotive as I’d have liked. As a public figure sponsoring Harvey Dent’s mayoral bid, there’s a lot of attention on him, and decisions potentially make useful allies or dangerous enemies. When the head of a major crime organisation tries to blackmail you into his pocket, do you play nice for the sake of Dent’s campaign, or be rude and risk putting a mob target on your back? When you discover groundbreaking evidence of political corruption, do you give it to the police or the media?
Again, none of these choices are particularly difficult, not because I had clear “right” answers but because there was very little emotion involved—all the decision-making seems to be pragmatic. That, I think, is my biggest concern with Realm of Shadows: despite great performances from a talented cast, there’s little to create emotional investment over and above any residual attachment you may have to these characters from other media. Much of this will be down to it being a first episode and therefore having to the heavy lifting in terms of setup, but it would have been nice to have a script with a bit more emotional heft.
When it does try to take that direction, Realm of Shadows falls a bit flat because it’s all revisiting ground that as already very well-trodden—Bruce is sad about his parents and Alfred is worried about him. I can appreciate Telltale’s efforts to make this game accessible to people with no knowledge of the character, but I felt like I was being told repeatedly about Batman’s history instead of being given a reason to care about it.
The last act sets up a plotline that will hopefully allow for much more dramatic development, and I really hope the rest of the series delivers. However, this episode just didn’t pull me in in quite the same way as the premieres of The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and Tales from the Borderlands did. Those all had me desperately hanging out for the next chapter; with Batman, I’m simply looking forward to it.
One thing I will say, though, is that this might be the best take on Batman’s detective side. In one instance, you’re tasked with piecing together a crime scene by searching for clues and literally linking them together, piece by piece, to figure out what happened—complete with hologram-like stills for each event in the sequence as Batsy visualises what happened. In another section, you get to plan an infiltration of building full of armed thugs by using a Bat-drone to scope out the situation and decide how to neutralize each target. The Arkham games did wonders for making me “feel” like Batman in their combat; Telltale’s Batman has done the same with being the world’s greatest detective. I can’t wait to do more of this in future episodes.
Realm of Shadows a bit of an uneven first chapter, but Batman can be a great game. With the setup out of the way, Telltale can now focus on telling a really good Batman story—one that smartly critiques the violence inherent in Batman, that shows a more complex and conflicted Bruce Wayne, and one that makes us care about these characters in a way that only a Telltale game can.
Alternatively, it could just be the game that canonises Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy as a couple. I’d be down with that.
Batman: The Telltale Series is developed and published by Telltale Games. The first episode, Realm of Shadows, is available now for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, Android, and iOS.
This episode was purchased by Shindig for the purposes of review.