It isn’t easy to make a Batman game worth getting exciting about these days. Quite apart from the fact that the recently wrapped up Arkham series is considered the finest example of superhero gaming in history, the character also appeared in two blockbusters and one animated feature this summer, in addition to having already graced every conceivable platform, genre, and underoo over the last 75 years. Folks love Batman, that goes without saying, but it’s tough to deliver any new Batman product that’s worthy of attention given everything that’s already out there on the Bat-marketplace. Enter Telltale, that spunky adventure game company that prides story over all else. They got the rights to make a Batman game and their goal was to actually deliver a detective/noir narrative worthy of the caped crusader rather than just another smash em’ up featuring all of your favourite Gotham faces. With one episode in the books, it looks like the gang does indeed have some new twists to offer an old friend.
As is the Telltale way, the storytelling here is all hinged on choices. In this particular case, it’s all about which type of Batman or Bruce Wayne that you want to be. The two-hour tale takes place early in Bats’ career. He’s been around long enough to have the trust of Gordon, but not long enough to inspire the legion of costumed baddies kicking around the city vying for attention. Most of the current criminals running the streets are old-fashioned gangsters led by Carmine Falcone. As Bruce, you’re working closely with Harvey Dent on a mayoral campaign and uh-oh! Falcone shows up to a Wayne manor fundraiser. As Batman, you’re out investigating a crime spree when you encounter a certain cat burglar with a compatible fashion sense who seems suspiciously similar to a woman named Selina Kyle who pops up unexpectedly in Bruce’s life around the same time. Around the edges, Vicki Vale is doing some pushy reporting that’s edging in on those dual lives and a childhood friend known as Oz Cobblepot makes an intriguing appearance threatening revolution in a twist on The Penguin influenced by the only enduring element in the dreary Gotham TV series.
The Telltale writers have whipped up an intriguing bit of Batman lore that both includes all the familiar elements fans want with clever and subtle twists on continuity that are primed for unexpected surprises. It’s an intriguing premise and a strong start to the series. The choice-based Telltale game mechanics work well with players essentially deciding which version of Batman/Bruce they want to play. As Bruce, you decide how closely should he keep his friends and enemies in a public setting. As Batman, you must decide how violent of a vigilante you should be and the response of the local authorities and the press changes accordingly. Ultimately, it’s the same old Batman morality play with constant references to murdered parents that some might find tiresome. However, there’s great potential in this tale to push those usual plot beats in unexpected areas and the renegade way that players can choose to behave as Bruce and Batman opens doors to a darkly amoral twist on the character that would never pop up in continuity. Players can choose to explore those dark alleys if they don’t want their hero to be the same old shadowy goody two-shoes.
The visuals are all in keeping with the Telltale house style, which suits the material well. After all, this aesthetic was founded in their The Walking Dead series, which was designed to look like a comic book brought to life and obviously that suits Batman just fine. The voice acting is strong, although the limited deadpan facial animation can be hilariously out of sync with the most dramatic line readings. Action scenes are essentially quick time events, but are animated so well and with such variance in bat-gadgetry and fight options that they play out smoothly and effectively. Crime scenes come with an intriguing crime solving mechanic where Batman connects various pieces of evidence together to form a story in a satisfying manner that should only improve in future episodes. The playthrough experience was smooth with few bugs; this team knows what they are doing. Obviously anyone hoping for another Arkham smash ‘em up might be disappointed by the “interactive movie” Telltale offers, however, those who appreciate Batman’s noir/detective storytelling potential will also appreciate the way the adventure game style allows that to take centre focus over action.
As for what amounts to a pilot episode for Telltale’s Batman experience, Realm Of Shadows felt like a very satisfying two-hour table-setter. This is a different brand of Batman game from the various action titles the folks over at WB Games have cranked out in recent years, but one that suits the mature superhero style of the franchise rather perfectly. In a summer where the movie Batman has become a hyper-violent punching machine, it’s odd to think that fans of the character need to turn to videogames for a more thoughtful spin on this mythology. But hey, as long as there are good Batman stories out there in any form, I’ll accept them. Telltale officially has me locked in for the rest of this episodic adventure series. Now it’s just a matter of waiting to find out whether I’m enthralled with where they take this bit of long form storytelling or heartbroken as I watch the potential slowly wither away. For now, I’m betting on the former, but in Gotham City, it’s hard to tell where the future leads.