Batman: The Telltale Series review

Game Info
Platform 360, PS3, Win, Mac, iOS, Android, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Telltale Games
Developer Telltale Games
Release Date August 2016

Batman: The Telltale Series is a game about Bruce Wayne.

This is good. For one thing, there's already a thousand-pound gorilla in the Batman-based video games room: Rocksteady's Arkham series, lauded for its overall design, engaging combat and smorgasbord approach to Batman's extensive cast of characters. But as an avid fan who's grown uncertain in the last year of Rocksteady's ability to consistently tell a good Batman story, I saw in Batman: The Telltale Series the tantalizing potential of a very different, story-first experience.

When the first teaser for the game premiered at The Game Awards last December, the only information it held was that it was a game about Batman from Telltale Games: a choice-driven Batman game played primarily through conversations and dialogue. And maybe, I hoped, a game where solving mysteries was more complex than holding down a button to automatically identify blood spatter with your computerized HUD.

So Batman: The Telltale Series is a game that focuses on Bruce Wayne's challenges as Bruce Wayne as much as it does on his adventures as Batman. But does it work? Is it fun? And let me be clear, when I ask this, it's as someone who literally wrote a whole article about how the best Batman comic ever is one that proves that Bruce Wayne is as important to Gotham as Batman is.

As with the first issue of a comic, there's plenty that remains to be seen. But Batman: The Telltale Series is off to a solid start.

This review will follow the series as it develops, with updates as each chapter arrives detailing the current state of the game.

batman telltale ep 1 bruce wayne

Episode 1: "Realm of Shadows," August 2016

With all the Batman world as their playground, the folks at Telltale have chosen to root their game in the early history of the character. District attorney Harvey Dent (Travis Willingham) is running for mayor against the corrupt incumbent Hamilton Hill. Bruce Wayne (Troy Baker) is Dent's biggest backer and best spokesman, while mobster Carmine Falcone (Richard McGonagle) is complicating the whole thing with his clear desire to get his money (and his control) in on the ground floor of a new city administration.

Meanwhile, an expert cat burglar has been making high-profile heists in Gotham, Bruce's childhood friend Oz is unexpectedly back from a long exile, and the police are at odds with the vigilante known as the Batman. But at least one cop, James Gordon (Murphy Guyer), seems to have accepted him as a tentative ally.

For the attentive nerd, the game is pulling from a mix of ideas, and I was a little surprised at just how recent some of the referenced comic details were, like the use of a white rose as Falcone's personal symbol and calling card. As far as I know, that detail first appeared in Batman Eternal, a comic that's a mere two years old.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Batman: The Telltale Series builds on Telltale's usual exploratory gameplay (wander around, examine environmental features, read flavor text or discover objectives) to create a detective mode that asks the player to do at least some of the intuitive lifting. It might only have made one appearance in "Realm of Shadows," but I hope it's a recurring mechanic. Batman films are rarely mysteries, usually because the audience already knows who the villain is from the advertisements. And it's hard to feel like the World's Greatest Detective while you're just pointing your reticle at telegraphed waypoints, scanning, rinsing and repeating.

Batman: The Telltale Series jazzes up the company's usual combat mechanics as well, instituting a finishing move meter that fills as you successfully complete a fight scene's quick-time events, until you unleash a suitably Batman-esque closer to the challenge. This gives the player a reason to strive for martial perfection other than the obvious — because, really, even if you do miss a press of a button, it's not like Batman's going to get cold-cocked by some low-level mook. That would just be silly.

batman telltale 3

There's even a bit where "Realm of Shadows" combines both the game's detective and combat features into a single event that has the player essentially choreographing a whole fight scene under the guise of Batman planning ... well. I should stop before I say too much.

Batman: The Telltale Series is still packed, like any of the developer's games, with conversational social roleplay choices. This episode alone asks you to give a press conference and multiple speeches. And though the game begins with kicking butt as Batman, the front half of "Realm of Shadows" does drag a little. The dialogue is often pretty hammy — how many times have I heard Alfred tell Bruce "you can't keep doing this" before? — and the story takes a while to get to interesting places.

But after the slow start, the social situations you find yourself in start to take on weight and tension. The conversational gameplay, and the writing, shines most when characters are locked in battles of will with an added level of intrigue (as in a certain scene between Bruce and Selina Kyle). Telltale's Bruce Wayne also has an easy, wry sense of humor, even in unguarded moments with Alfred. That took me a while to get used to, as my mental version of Batman is stoic to the last, but when I did, I found that I much appreciated it — it was a large part of what made those scenes flow.

By the end of "Realm of Shadows," Batman: The Telltale Series raises the stakes for players who are already pretty familiar with saving Gotham City by paying attention to character over plot, crafting a climax that's deeply personal for Bruce Wayne. The cliffhanger ending hits some good emotional notes, even if the game never quite stops having a clunker of a line every scene or so.

Overall, the game's big choices boil down to optics — what Christopher Nolan's Ra's al Ghul might call "theatricality." How do you want Gotham's wary citizens or superstitious criminals to view Batman and Bruce Wayne? What about James Gordon, Carmine Falcone or Selina Kyle? Does your Bruce Wayne play the moneyed dunce in public, or the brooding orphan? Does your Batman work with cops, or in spite of them? Does your hero torture? And how does he act around those who already know his secret? These are questions at the heart of every Batman adaptation, whether it's a film, game, or even comic book reboot or relaunch. Telltale puts them in the hands of the player.

As a longtime fan of of the character, I credit Batman: Arkham Asylum as the first time anything ever made me want to be Batman. Where I lost faith with that series was precisely when its version of the Caped Crusader diverged too far from my own. Clunky bits of dialogue and sleepy start notwithstanding, Batman: The Telltale Series, a game about Bruce Wayne, might just make me feel like I am Batman.

telltale batman ep 2 screen 1

Episode 2: Children of Arkham — September 2016

What is the most central idea of Batman?

It’s that after watching the death of his parents in an act of random violence, Bruce Wayne pledged his life to the battle against crime in all its forms, in the futile but undying hope that no innocent person in Gotham City would ever again meet his parents’ fate. The second episode of Batman: The Telltale Series kicks off by drilling down on its first episode’s cliffhanger reveal: Thomas and Martha Wayne weren’t exactly who he thought they were.

The game’s writers are by no means the first to reveal heretofore unknown details about Bruce Wayne’s childhood in order to make the reader, and Bruce, consider his origin in a new light. And when when you’re talking about a character with 75 years of history, that’s not a criticism; it’s an inevitability. In fact, for a while I assumed that the whole thing would eventually be revealed as an elaborate sham — because that’s exactly what was going on when writer Grant Morrison introduced similar ideas into his run on Batman in as recently as 2008 — but Alfred confirms it in the episode’s first scene: the Waynes were friendly with some of Gotham’s less reputable set.

This is a bold choice, but one with meat on it for Telltale to use. The realization that your parents are just humans and not the lionized, omnipotent figures you always thought they were is a familiar emotion. And, after all, Telltale doesn’t have to eventually return its Batman story to the status quo so that the next editorial team can take over in 12 to 24 issues. The studio is free to do whatever it wants to the canon.

But ultimately, "Children of Arkham" doesn’t really execute on the idea properly, either thematically or logistically. Comic books require a certain amount of suspension of belief, sure, but the player is expected to believe that Bruce only now remembers vital details of his parents’ murder — after spending more than 10 years building a vigilante career based on being unable to move past that precise moment — and that the World’s Greatest Detective never noticed the documents in his family’s files that tied them to Gotham’s corrupt politics and criminal element.

telltale batman ep 2 screen 2 tall

As a second episode in a five-episode series, it’s reasonable for "Arkham" to lack the exciting oomph of being introduced to new versions of familiar characters, and to broadly feel like it’s still setting up challenges for Batman to knock down — without anyone too important actually being knocked down. But it’s also reasonable for the player to expect fun stuff to chew on in the meantime. The second episode does improve upon the first’s dialogue; I don’t think I groaned once at an overwritten or overacted line (well, I might have gotten a little tired of the Penguin’s accent). But it’s also more dialogue-heavy, with fewer puzzles, exploration or introduction of new mechanics, than its predecessor.

That said, there is one fascinating new choice. "Children of Arkham" offers you two options when accomplishing a single plot point: Show up as Batman and get all growly, or show up as Bruce Wayne and see where charm and influence can get you. Still, the one I picked didn’t seem to have an effect on the story, just my own player experience.

It isn’t the only major choice that feels a little divorced from the rest of the episode. "Children of Arkham" opens by asking a question — were the Waynes fatally mugged, or is there more to their deaths than Bruce realized — and the ensuing thrust of the plot follows Bruce’s attempts to find the answer. Episode 1 also demanded answers of the player — How does Bruce Wayne want Gotham to see his legacy? And how does Batman want to be seen by cops, criminals and the public? — and that was reinforced through narrative and choice mechanics in the episode’s climax.

"Children of Arkham" answers its question in its finale, but doesn’t give an opportunity to act on that answer, or even to engage in how it’s revealed. Instead, my big final choice was, I suppose, loosely connected to the episode’s B-plot about Bruce’s relationships with his friends… a distant emotional second to our main character wrestling with information that would make sense of his parents’ insensible death — and might invalidate his lifelong crusade.

Still, the episode’s final big choice was one I immediately quit the game to replay — because, as a comic book fan, I couldn’t believe it was a variable that Telltale would want to leave to the player. I’m extremely interested to see how the effect of that particular turning point plays out as the story continues.

Episode 2 of Batman: The Telltale Series continues a solid start to a Telltale game through to a solid middle, neither raising nor lowering the bar for the episodes that come after it. Though it has fun splashes of character work alongside its big comic book emotions, it rarely surprises. Serial media, whether it’s a podcast, a television show, a comic or a Telltale game, has to treat its individual installments as complete chunks of story in and of themselves. Ultimately, Episode 2’s arc is a little too loose.

telltale batman ep 3 screen 1

Episode 3: New World Order — October 2016

If Episode 2 of Batman: The Telltale Series, "Children of Arkham," was still writing checks after Episode 1, Episode 3 starts cashing them.

Batman: The Telltale Series promised us a game about Bruce Wayne, and "New World Order" is the episode that delivers best on that idea so far — and accomplishes the most. About halfway through Batman’s latest installment, I realized that I hadn’t seen a combat sequence in a while, and also that it had taken me quite a while to notice that I hadn’t seen a combat sequence in a while.

"New World Order" is packed with tension whether or not anybody’s wearing a cape. I was consistently drawn into conversations where, as Bruce, I had to act based on knowledge I gained as Batman without showing my hand. It’s the sort of split second decision making that even made a conversation about a corporate board vote interesting. When the episode winds toward its climax, there’s not a pointed ear or inch of kevlar in sight, and it still delivers the best cliffhanger ending of the series so far.

The finale of "Children of Arkham," contained several events that play a large role in determining the major threads of "New World Order." A traumatized Harvey Dent is now in the mayor’s seat. The Children of Arkham have revealed themselves and their mission to tear down Gotham’s interconnected political, criminal and financial elite, creating a clear, powerful enemy for Batman. Additionally, they tarnished Bruce’s family name, leading many members of the Wayne Tech board to question his suitability as the company’s figurehead.

It’s no wonder you spend so much time as Bruce Wayne, really — his best friend is on a swift slide down into supervillainy, his company is being taken away from him, and he’s just found out his father wasn’t at all what he thought he was. Managing all that and still having time to foil the latest Children of Arkham plot is why this is the guy is Batman — and not the guy wearing hockey pads.

If there’s a bright spot to the whole situation for Bruce, it’s the deepening of his relationship with Selina Kyle, Catwoman. Selina’s character has often — and relatively recently — been roughly mishandled when writers decide to view her primarily through the lens of her romantic interest in with Batman, and, inevitably, through the lens of her sexual appeal to the straight, male viewer. Telltale has decided to wade into those well-trod waters with "New World Order," and I found myself surprised both at how far the game was comfortable going and at how dexterously it performed when it got there.

Certainly, Batman: The Telltale Series’ detective mechanic felt like it was wearing itself thin with a patently obvious mystery drawn out by fiddling with points and lines this time around — and an early choice in the episode seemed to be set up to have dire consequences and turned out to be a bit of a blip. But the the writing steps up in a big way in "New World Order," in dialogue, plot and character, and in the end it viciously one-two-punches the player with a major reveal and a hard cut to cliffhanger. We’re more than halfway through Batman: The Telltale Series, and it feels like we’re starting to see the best of it.

Telltale batman ep 3 screen 2 Telltale Games

Episode 4: Guardian of Gotham — November 2016

If you’ve played Episode 3 of Batman: The Telltale Series, you won’t be surprised to find that Episode 4 opens with Bruce waking up in a cell in Arkham Asylum. And if you’ve watched the trailer, you know that "Guardian of Gotham" features a pale, green-haired, laughing inmate. So I don’t want to hear anybody crying spoiler when I say that Telltale’s interpretation of the Joker is rather good.

The series’ placement in the early year of Batman’s career — pre-Two-Face Harvey Dent, not-yet-Commissioner Gordon — is necessarily reflected in "John Doe," voiced by Anthony Ingruber. Absolutely the worst thing a writer can do to the Joker is attempt to explain him, and Telltale does not fall into the trap, giving the Joker a place and a history in their version of the Batman mythos that raises as many questions as it gives answers.

Telltale doesn't fall into the trap of trying to explain the Joker

The player gets plenty of time to interact with "John" in his natural habitat during the episode’s high point and the series’ first significant look at Arkham Asylum. In a lot of ways, Episode 4’s "Arkham interlude" is a vacation from the rest of the story — for good and for ill. It’s fun to have a chance to interact with a bunch of NPCs, and it’s especially interesting to watch Bruce Wayne and a pre-Joker Joker interact; neither of them having any idea of the titanic clashes in their shared future. But just like taking a vacation, the interlude is soon and abruptly over … and it’s the first thing that happens in the episode.

Everything that comes after feels like waiting for the other shoe to drop — which is to be expected, given that this is the penultimate chapter in Batman: The Telltale Series. Things are starting to get very bad in Gotham City, and several scenes in succession illustrate for us. And for the first time since Episode 1, things get very bad even without the direct influence of the shadowy Children of Arkham.

This is honestly a bit annoying; after Episode 3’s surprise reveal of the true identity of the organization’s leader, we see neither hide nor hair of them except a replica in Batman’s fancy augmented reality detective setup. Episode 4 packs most of its compelling character work into its early Arkham scenes, then tosses it to the wind to get all the pieces in place for Episode 5 — and there’s no direct indication that the Arkham stuff will remain relevant as the first season of Batman: The Telltale Series comes to a close.

"Guardian of Gotham" doesn’t disappoint with its climactic player choice, though, giving the player a clear, high stakes decision regarding Bruce’s two lives. Telltale has warned players that regardless of what they select, Episode 4’s final choice will dramatically impact the course of Episode 5, and when you get to it, it’s not hard to understand how.

Batman: The Telltale Series’ fifth episode has its moments, but ultimately — like Episode 3 — it’s doing more heavy lifting for the end of the series than it is for the story of its own discrete installment. Fortunately, from everything we see in "Guardian of Gotham," it seems like that ending is going to be worth it.

Batman: The Telltale Series Episode 5 screenshot Telltale Games

Episode 5: City of Light — December 2016

Back in August, I felt that Batman: The Telltale Series might be a game that made me feel like I was Batman. It succeeded in doing something subtly different, but just as exciting.

If the season overall has been uneven, at least it has used its more lackluster episodes ("Children of Arkham," "Guardian of Gotham") to set up sizable highs in narrative stakes and meaty character writing in the follow-ups. Which is to say: Episode 5, "City of Light" kicks off with a bang and doesn’t let up until its climax in the gothic catacombs of Arkham Asylum.

The player's final choice in Episode 4, "Guardian of Gotham," determines which challenge they face in the early third of "City of Light." That meant that I was up against a fully deranged Harvey Dent in the process of burning Wayne Manor to the ground. But rather than throwing me directly into the action, Batman: The Telltale Series takes a moment to remind me — a savvy nerd who’d been waiting patiently for Harvey's descent into madness since the moment he was introduced — exactly what was at stake here for Bruce Wayne.

A flashback of Bruce and Harvey planning the bright future of Gotham together is directly contrasted with a gun-waving Harvey in the scorched and gutted fixtures of the manor — and that's just the title sequence. What follows, and what it asks of the player, is as moving as some of the best versions of Two-Face's origin story out there.

In fact, Telltale does laudably well with all of its big borrowed names as it wraps up the season. I particularly loved the ways in which "City of Light" allowed me to play the dynamic between Bruce and Alfred, the humble surrogate father to a man whose entire life is built around an inability to let go of his biological parents. And I'd love to see Lady Arkham make her debut in comics, not least of all because she's one of the vanishingly rare female Batman villains whose sexual and romantic appeal to Batman (or one of his top rogues) is not her primary character attribute. Not to mention that her costume design is deliberately gender neutral (if only to throw the audience off when trying to guess her true identity). Why is it that we get these sorts of lady villains so much more often in adaptation, not comics?

Batman: The Telltale Series Episode 5 screenshot Telltale Games

Now that Batman: The Telltale Series has reached its conclusion (complete with a post-plot stinger for what could come next in another season), it's possible to speak not just of its story as a whole, but of its mechanics. The game's final fight planning sequence ups the ante from previous episodes by containing timed choices, a twist that feels very Batman. But the series' take on crime scene investigation, while promising, never quite reached the height I wanted it to. It's far too easy to get through these sequences by process of elimination rather than intuitive thinking. A few red herrings would go a long way.

Still, the detective sequences in "City of Light" have an urgency that those in other episodes have lacked, as Batman investigates an ongoing crime rather than reconstructing a cold crime scene. All of the character arcs set up by other episodes come to a head, and the finale uses them to lean hard into the game’s overall themes, perhaps more consistently than any other installment of the series. Every one of our big bads is inches from achieving their Big Bad Goal. And if ruining Bruce Wayne's life and legacy isn't a huge part of their plans, it's at least a happy coincidence.

If you’re a seasoned Batman reader, the question of "Who is really the mask, Batman or Bruce Wayne?" has been answered so often as to render it old hat. In any case, the answer is always "Bruce Wayne," as if the irony of a superhero’s secret identity being the true mask hadn’t worn off a dozen repetitions ago. "City of Light" sets itself apart in that it allows the player to approach that question however they want. That includes ways that don’t presuppose that there are only two possible answers.

The truth is that Batman is at his strongest as a character when his true nature is somewhere in between that binary. "Gotham's most eligible bachelor" is a mask, but so is "Gotham's growling, unstoppable vigilante." Between those two is a person that only those closest to Bruce get to see.

Wrap Up:

Telltale Games has put together a smart, sophisticated and modern take on the Dark Knight.

I began this review series by wondering if it "might just make me feel like I am Batman." By the end, something even better happened: I figured out how to properly be Bruce Wayne. I couldn't be happier with that conclusion.

Batman: The Telltale Series - "Realm of Shadows" was reviewed using non-final Windows PC code at an event held by Telltale Games on Tuesday, July 26. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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