Batman The Telltale Series Ep. 1: Realm of Shadows Review – Unmasked (PS4)
Batman seems to be a household name these days. The guy’s got movies, TV shows, assorted merchandise — there’s even a comic or two about the caped billionaire! All kidding aside, Batman and his story are well known to just about everyone, with 77 years being plenty of time to tell countless stories about how his parents died in an alley and made him the vigilante fighter he is today.
And here it comes again. There’s not a lot in Telltale’s inaugural episode of their Batman series to shock and surprise. There’s the origin story. There’s the politics. There’s the dark criminal underworld. It’s all here in spades, and yet, despite it all looking so familiar, the unexpected does leak through. A redesigned Oswald Cobblepot (The Penguin, for the unfamiliar) is the first hint that this isn’t the Batman we’re used to — a thin framed man who was once Bruce Wayne’s childhood friend isn’t how I remember the traditionally portly old codger. Could this be a sign of more left turns to come?
In addition to being classic Batman, Batman: The Telltale Series is so far classic Telltale in look and and feel, complete with quick-time events for the action, conversation decisions for the politics, and unique portions based on the subject matter, in this case, Batman’s detective mode as he sweeps crime scenes. It’s a unique approach that other games have a hard time taking on because they focus far more on Batman, and leave Bruce Wayne for the cutscenes. In Telltale’s take, you get to be both Batman and Bruce Wayne, shaping his responses and personality, making him your own character in the face of the so far traditional take on the Batman lore. Arguably, there’s far more decision making to do as the billionaire, though Batman’s choices do shine when forced to take either a hands-off terrorizing approach, or lean on physical brutality to make thugs fear you.
Politics and Exposition
For all of the politics in being Bruce Wayne, there’s a terrible amount of exposition in conversation, making the two hour running time seem much shorter when a large majority of it is spent talking to Telltale’s comically meat headed version of Harvey Dent about corruption in Gotham, or a caring Alfred that repeatedly chastises Bruce for his nighttime hobby. Future episodes may shrug off this excess in favor of some great twists and compelling beats, but for now, we’re stuck with accessibility for all, learning the basics of the rogue’s gallery, the Waynes, and the dark heart of Gotham. This same very basic and accessible methodology permeates the quick-time events too.
I know damn well I missed a couple of those button prompts, reach for square instead of X, or overshooting the targeting reticle before mashing R2. And yet blows were dodged, punches were landed, and an extraordinarily sharp batarang found its mark in a certain mob boss’ shoulder blade. Is it all just a placebo? Aside from building up a meter to do a cinematic finisher, it didn’t seem like nailing the quick-time events perfectly was in any way required. I would have welcomed something like failing to dodge giving Bruce a noticeable bruise later, potentially changing situations and decisions for him — you know, really draw the connections between actions and consequences as Bruce Wayne and Batman.
Though Telltale is trying to reinvent Batman and put a twist on a narrative and cast of characters we’re all intimately familiar with, it’s still hard not to judge things based on previous knowledge, and the breakdown of choices made at the end seems to show many other people falling into this same trap. Try as I might to go into this without any preconceived notions about who Harvey Dent is, the role Catwoman has to play, or why Alfred is such a caring old man, the truth is that I already feel like I know these characters. With the exception of the radically reinvented Oswald Cobblepot, Telltale’s first Batman episode hasn’t done enough to shake up the foundations of my Batman knowledge. Again, I think it’s just the first episode building foundations, and hope the next episode builds upon it in a way we’ve never seen before.
The Darker Side of the Dark Knight
One thing Telltale isn’t shying away from is the mature side of Batman. One of the opening scenes is a guard being shot in the head, and the crime scene that Batman investigates later in the episode has the gory aftermath of a chemical explosion, and even sees him digging a bullet out of the skull of a burned up cop. This is a great showcase to Telltale’s detective mode, linking up evidence in the scene to recreate what previously happened. This task isn’t difficult at all, but it’s a little interactivity that makes exploring the scene more interesting than just clicking on the different elements that litter it.
This early episode doesn’t yet feel like decisions have much weight, though there are hints that Gotham’s perception of both Bruce and his darker alter ego will be impacted by things like whether Batman uses his fists excessively, or if Bruce publicly acknowledges the presence of a mob boss in his home. This Batman story has that close focus. Telltale’s approach is a much more personal one, as the Wayne family name is being dragged through the mud and Gotham’s beacon of hope is fading. I’m banking on some great decisions that fall into a morally grey area instead of the “good guy Batman” routine that I wanted to lean towards in Realm of Shadows.
Batman: The Telltale Series is off to a strong, if very basic, start. It shows promise of the ability to be more than just another Batman story, though Realm of Shadows did dabble in the ultra accessible exposition more than I (or just about any other Batman fan) would have liked. The intrigue lying in the episode’s cliffhanger regarding a dark Wayne family secret has me itching to find out more, but I don’t feel like the series has really taken off yet. It’s unusual for a season opener by Telltale to land in the mediocre category, but it seems like they are taking their time with such an iconic legend, letting us in to know the heart and hope of Bruce Wayne rather than just the fists and terror of the Batman.
Batman: The Telltale Game Series Season Pass review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.