Batman: The Telltale Series (2016)

I’m generally a fan of Telltale Games, though I have my issues with them like most longtime fans do. I really like episodic-style story-focused games like theirs, “Life is Strange”, “Until Dawn”, that sort of thing. Heightened focus on storytelling and on reactivity to player choices? Exactly what I like. I’m also a pretty big fan of Batman. So I felt pretty confident I’d like this game. And I do. It would have been easy to basically make “The Wolf Among Us” all over again, just in a Batman skin, but Telltale actually do some fascinating things with the whole Bat-mythos here, and tell a pretty original story about a character it’s very difficult to write original stories for in this day and age.

[Note: This review does not contain any spoilers.]

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 There are plenty of traditional aspects of Batman storytelling here, although even some of the more traditional aspects like the characterisation of Alfred get enough attention that they feel earned and interesting even though we’ve seen similar characterisations and relationships play out before. But the first episode of the game makes it pretty clear the story being told here is a new one, one warping and changing vital fundamental aspects of the Batman character and the stories told with him. It’s not an empty promise either, as later episodes offer further chances for the player to push the limits of traditional Batman storytelling elements, and expectations continue to be played off. The steady expansion and development of the antagonistic forces in the game is very surprising, fascinating, and creative. It doesn’t feel pandering or like some dishonest way to confront or shock players. It feels like a proper, creative, original idea, playing with elements and characters other Batman storytellers haven’t explored or interpreted in the same way before.

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The unique new angle of the game is not as immediately confronting as the sort of Batman deconstruction Zack Snyder offered in his 2016 “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, but nor is it just a typical Batman story told with uncommon precision and a different tone, like in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies (at least, the first two – the third does go to some unexplored places). I greatly enjoyed trying to push the game as far as I could to make as non-Batman a story I could. The game often lets you address a situation, threat, or event as either Bruce Wayne or Batman. In every such choice, I chose Bruce Wayne. The game offers multiple ways to participate in Bruce’s relationship with Harvey Dent. At every stage, I’d make every effort to prevent him falling into his Two-Face supervillain identity.

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Telltale are often criticised for only presenting the “illusion of choice”. I see some legitimacy in that criticism, although I feel it somewhat misses the point – I take their games as opportunities to participate in a semi-handcrafted journey of characters, so I see character motivation and attitude as important as big plot changes or whatever else. Even so, I was actually pretty impressed how far I could push this game with my insistence on avoiding a typical Batman story with typical Batman events. Sure, there are loads of quick-time-event action sequences, but in terms of the characters, you can push some relationships to pretty unique places. It actually felt pretty liberating to play a Bruce Wayne who used Batman purely as an occasional tool for crimefighting, not as a fundamental part of his identity. In many ways, the player can make the game “Bruce Wayne: The Telltale Series”, and I absolutely love that.

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I have a few quibbles with the story and writing, but overall I felt it carried through neatly through the episodes, with no huge dips in quality. The biggest issue I had with the writing was occasional tonal oddities, like some characters and events being way more fantastical and comic-book-y than the majority of the game, as well as some would-be serious events basically getting ignored after they happen, and not every character getting enough closure at the ending (the ending is satisfying and concludes the major arcs of the game well, but has a distracting stinger, and doesn’t provide any closure to some secondary relationships).

The biggest flaws with the game come down to Telltale’s abysmal engine. I had so many bugs. Characters mouths would stop working as they talked. Button prompts would be wildly inaccurate (some I couldn’t even complete at all, and had to switch to mouse-and-keyboard instead of controller). Random crashes and slowdowns. Most egregious of all, for some bizarre reason Telltale removed the “rewind’ feature present in all their other modern games. If you want to change any choice in an episode, you have to replay the entire thing. I cannot fathom the reason for the exclusion of the “rewind” feature. The user interface in general is a pain, so clunky and barely responsive at times. Lacking in basic functionalities present in competitor’s games. No skipping of any dialogue (even if you’re replaying an episode for the umpteenth time), only a crude pausing function, barely any relevant settings. It’s impressive Telltale’s games run on so many platforms, but I wish they’d run well.

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It’s not as masterful a game as Telltale’s “The Walking Dead”, and too often does it feel more interesting than actually engaging, but this is still a very fine game, one of the better Telltale games (though not one of the greats), and a unique, original Batman story, which is no small feat. I give it three and a half bribes, and a VR cowl.

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