Batman: The Telltale Series is the first of two tales told by the titular studio starring the caped crusader. It was originally released episodically over the course of 2016 and in late 2017 all five episodes were released as a single title on the Switch eShop (this is the version and format reviewed here) where it is on sale at time of publication (though at this point, who gets the money is a bit confusing given the studio’s subsequent shutdown and rebirth). The series sees you step into the shoes of Telltale’s most high-profile protagonist yet (and now, possibly ever), Bruce Wayne, in what is implied to be early in his career fighting crime as Batman.
The look, feel and story of the series draws influences from several recent interpretations of the Batman mythos: the music calls to mind Hans Zimmer’s work on the Christopher Nolan films, as do some visual elements; like Batman Arkham Knight a new villain and faction are introduced to act as the main threat; much of the story focuses on alleged criminal activity by Bruce’s late father Thomas, which will be familiar territory for anyone who watched Gotham. Similarly, the story gestures vaguely in the direction of a few popular criticisms of Batman that many will have likely heard before, but to go into details would be to spoil the plot.
But while Rocksteady’s Arkham series and other games tend to focus heavily on the masked alter-ego, the key to Telltale’s interpretation is the balance between the two. As Bruce quickly finds himself tangled in multiple intrigues and delicate alliances, the player must decide which side of the character to approach certain situations as. For all that Batman may be able to do out in the streets, there are some doors that more readily open to Bruce Wayne.
I reviewed episode one of this series around the time it came out and described the dialogue as “clunky or badly thought out”, a criticism I wouldn’t make now (but you should still listen to what I’m saying now, because this time, I also think I’m right). However, while I enjoyed following the plot and the character interactions there were a few moments where it felt like perhaps the writing process had been a little rushed. To give one example, at one point, Bruce says that he’s on his way to Wayne Enterprises and we get a nice shot of his car heading towards the company’s skyscraper, very clearly at night time. We then cut to 7:29 AM as Bruce arrives at the office in broad daylight.
The game introduces some new mechanics and ideas to the Telltale formula, to mixed results. It’s now quite clear that the control and influence Telltale games claim to offer the player is only an illusion. As a result, all of these interactive mechanics suffer in their own way from a lack of impact or consequence.
Outside of combat sections, the game suggests that it is encouraging players to make their own judgments on what actions to take. For example, there are the choices described above about whether to handle situations as Bruce or Batman which, as discussed, are the real core Telltale’s vision of the Batman franchise. While these do affect some details, the most important elements of the story are fixed, player choice ultimately amounts to fiddling away in the margins. At certain crime scenes, Batman must link together pieces of evidence to put together a picture of what happened, these generally work well but can feel a bit like busywork at times (most noticeably in one scene in which there are only two possible options to link together). And yet there is no way to do these wrong, the game won’t allow you to completely misunderstand a crime scene (though given the lack of complexity, to do so would be quite a feat).
Even less meaningful are the changes to the combat sequences. During most fights, there will be a bat-shaped meter in the corner which fills up with every quick-time-event (QTE) passed, until you can use your finishing move. However, if you fail key QTEs you’ll get a game over screen, so you aren’t “earning” a finishing move, the combo meter will either be full by the end of the sequence or you’ll already have died. Elsewhere, at certain points, you can scout out the area and, like in the investigation sections above, link goons to parts of the environment that Batman can use to take them down. There’s no wrong way (as far as I know) to link henchmen and targets, all that is happening is Telltale making it clear to you how their choice system — choose which cinematic you want to watch — really works. As a side-note, I had previously pointed out how the QTEs are at times so abstract compared to what’s happening on screen, happily, this and the combo meter mechanic have been improved in the sequel series.
There are some other issues of a technical nature also. The game lags and skips around at times, in particular during cut-scenes, giving them a messy, choppy quality. Using the analogue stick to move the cursor is very frustrating, due to its insensitive movements and the often hard to anticipate hit boxes on the points of interest.
But to be frank, technical hitches like this are expected (or should that be were expected?) from a Telltale game. When I was discussing episode one, I mentioned how Batman: The Telltale Series was at a disadvantage when compared to Tales from the Borderlands (TftB) because the latter was a first glimpse at an entirely new series and cast of characters to me (this is likely the case for most players of the excellent The Wolf Among Us as well), whereas the Batman universe is familiar to practically everyone. Having finished it, while there were some twists and turns that were genuinely surprising, there is still a sense of playing through a story you already know, made up of remixes and rearrangements of familiar elements. For that reason, despite the neat touches, it doesn’t carry the same sense of going on a journey as other titles from the company and can’t really be counted among their best. That’s of course not to say that this isn’t a fun and engaging series, it is, merely that I have my doubts that it will stick in my memory in quite the same way as the others.