Telltale kicked off their Batman: The Telltale Series epic in style a few months back, establishing an intriguing mystery that toyed with a number of classic characters in the Bat-mythos and subverted a few expectations. It was a little overly bogged down in exposition of course, but such things are to be expected in the first chapter of a serialized story. With the second episode Children Of Arkham, Telltale can stand on the groundwork they laid down and expand on a Bat yarn that is bursting with potential. Aside from some nagging technical glitches, the episode is a hell of a lot of fun, likely even topping the premiere that I already enjoyed quite a bit.
Things start a little slowly, with Bruce Wayne remembering his parents’ death yet again, which isn’t always the most exciting chapter in any Batman tale. Thankfully, the Telltale folks have gotten so good at their particular brand of cinematic storytelling that the sequence plays out with surprising emotional and visceral impact, even adding a little twist that plays into the current mystery at hand. Exactly what happened that night remains unclear, but it’s yet another problem this Bruce has to deal with on top of a mass press smearing of his family name that might speak to actual criminal ties in the Wayne past, a hot n’ cold relationship with his buddy Harvey Dent (hmmmm…), a bitter old Carmine Falcone pulling strings, a twisted young Oz Cobblepot ranting about revolution, and that Cat Burglar named Selina Kyle who has gotten the attention of both sides of Batty’s personality.
Good old Catwoman gets quite a bit of screen time again here, setting up a secret meeting with Bruce that devolves into one of those flirtatious fights that has defined their relationship for so long. The writing in their relationship was strong in the last episode and only gets better here. It’s been clear from the beginning that the folks at Telltale really get these characters and their appeal. Time will tell how strong their grand Bat narrative actually is, but as the writers lay down the pieces it’s clear that they know what they are doing. They drag up old themes, yet always with a slight twist to keep things interesting. It’s not merely another trip through the Bat motions. There are some genuinely strong ideas in play.
Once again time is split between Bruce Wayne and Batman, and surprisingly, it’s the Wayne sections that are proving to be the most entertaining. By diving into Wayne’s past in a way that challenges the legacy of Bruce’s parents, Batman: The Telltale Series ensures that the character is off kilter and on the defensive. The choices made as Bruce are always compelling and justify whether you’d like the character to be hotheaded or calculatingly aloof. Though the Wayne material lacks action, the writing team piles on big shocking twists and allows detective work to stand front and center (though always cleverly employed in a way that allows Bruce to conceal his true intentions).
The Batman sequences are again essentially a series of quicktime events, but they are undeniably fun. Telltale have a knack for designing their stories to play out with maximum visceral impact. They use their camera setups and editing dynamically and it always feels like a rush of excitement even if players are essentially just pressing the occasional button in time with onscreen action. The designers also allow you to plot out your attacks as Batman to take out multiple foes efficiently and/or silently in ways that feel very much like the caped crusader at his most masterfully threatening. It’s amazing how the team have managed to turn a point-and-click adventure into a thrilling comic book action movie and, as a big story-altering choice at the end of the chapter suggests, this thing is only getting started.
Sadly, there are some flaws in this episode of Batman: The Telltale Series, and they are almost entirely technical. Character performances and camera fluidity feels more ambitious in this episode in an effective way; however, those decisions also seem to be pushing the game engine to the limit. There are frequent frame drops and stutters this time, especially in the early going. It’s distracting and frustrating, but at least it seems to smooth itself out by the end of the episode. Hopefully these are problems that the Telltale folks are very much aware of and working on. Clearly on the creative side of things, this team knows what they are doing and are delivering a hell of a ripping Batman yarn. So, it sure would be nice if the gang could clean things up on the technical side as this season marches towards what we all have to assume will be an epic finale.