Spoilers follow for Batman: The Telltale Series, and Telltale's Game of Thrones, too. So if you've not played either game, but are planning to, it's best to click away for now and come back later.
When the first episode of Telltale's interactive take on Batman came out in early August, I felt that, despite its intriguing redrawing of the Penguin, it was ultimately too safe, too familiar, to truly feel like a series I was ready to root for. In this story, Oswald Cobblepot isn't introduced as a dumpy guy with a deformed face and a hereditary penchant for feathered friends; rather, he's a slim of frame and scowling of face menace in waiting, an old pal of Bruce Wayne who's seen his family's fortune and reputation in Gotham thoroughly trashed. When, in episode one, Cobblepot explains that he's the head of a revolution coming to the city, Bruce can be sympathetic, understanding of his frustrations. Nevertheless, there's a barely veiled warning against the proposed storm: Wayne's famous alter ego is unlikely to take any kind of troublemaking sitting down.
Episode one was, as it often the way with such openers, exclusively preamble—but it was also oddly paced, shifting awkwardly between Wayne's two sides and introducing a Catwoman we felt we already knew from movies. It lacked narrative punch enough to truly impress in the way that debut installments in The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us managed. There wasn't a hook like Snow White's decapitated head on the steps of Bigby Wolf's apartment block, or the sudden murder of what looked like being a lead character at the climax of the first episode of Telltale's Game of Thrones. But with episode two, "Children of Arkham," this Batman story hasn't simply got its cat claws into me—it's piling up bodies, too, in devilishly freewheeling fashion.
Which is precisely what Game of Thrones failed to do. The Telltale game was staged concurrently with the television show, shadowing its events from the end of season three to the beginning of the fifth. That meant welcome cameos from small-screen characters and their actors—Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Peter Dinklage, and Kit Harington all played their parts, albeit this time their voices were heard coming from stiffly moving models rather than human actors slathered in fake blood. But because of the TV show taking narrative precedent above any other seam of Game of Thrones fiction—including the A Song of Ice and Fire books that informed it—Telltale couldn't do much of note with the established cast, as that'd take their story away from the HBO canon.
Ramsay Bolton is undoubtedly the biggest dickhead of the video game, significantly more than a thorn in the side of the player-controlled family, the Forresters. He is just as wicked with a PS4 pad in your hand as he is with your feet up in front of Sky Atlantic—but can you take any significant action against his evil ways? No, obviously not. That shit wouldn't get his comeuppance until season six of the show, when its writers went totally off the rails so carefully laid down by author George R R Martin and took a Transformers: The Movie approach to longstanding fan favorites: wiping them out with the kind of merciless abandon, so often suddenly and without lengthy foreshadowing, that we're more used to seeing dealt to mid-ranking video game NPCs, not heaving-budget, ratings-grossing, awards-gobbling TV productions.
'Batman: The Telltale Series'—episode two trailer
A second run of Telltale's Game of Thrones is currently in development, and after the staggering body count of the TV show's sixth season, I'd like to hope that any established characters that show up in the game won't be guaranteed an easy ride. Fans of the franchise should be accepting that a death over here need not necessarily spell the absolute end of someone's story over there—after all, viewers have seen a "back from the dead" turn from The Hound on the box, while the books revived the late Catelyn Stark as the revenge-obsessed Lady Stoneheart (season seven, come on, seriously). While Margaery and Tommen aren't about to make a comeback, with the right approach Telltale could certainly "kill off" its share of famous faces. And the Californian studio really is setting a precedent for that boldness, that bloodlust, with episode two of Batman: The Telltale Series.
"Children of Arkham" is either a fan's wildest dreams made real before their eyes, or a complete nightmare of fan fiction running away with itself, tripping every step of the way. As someone who's only ever flirted with the wider Batman lore—anything that isn't featured in the Hollywood movies or Rocksteady Studios' Arkham series of games (I own a couple of the more renowned comics, but no more)—it's tough for me to really get a read on whether its slaughtering of some fairly central characters is an exciting, unexpected turn for games-makers who only tip-toed around the murderous potential of the Game of Thrones license, or a disaster for those really invested in Bob Kane's most famous creation.
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While I prefaced this piece with a spoiler warning, I feel that going beyond "some people you've known to be a part of Batman for, like, forever get bumped off" is unnecessary here—it's better that you see it all unfold for yourself. But that they do, and how they are, is blindsiding in its brutality and bluntness. There are no carefully telegraphed clues as to what is coming, no unbothered breadcrumb trail that (albeit inadvertently) leads from a place of safety to the oven itself—it's straight into the fire with an almighty shove, shock value to the forefront. It's savage, and shockingly succinct—exactly how Game of Thrones was in season six, and precisely how Telltale's next Game of Thrones should be.
Telltale has also gone back into Bruce Wayne's past, to the moment where he lost his parents, and told that formative story in a new, fascinating way. Again, spoilers were promised, but that meager morsel of information aside I'm not willing to divulge exactly how they've framed the fate of Thomas Wayne in this story. He still gets shot, murdered, by Joe Chill—not Jack Napier, as the ten-year-old me was led to believe—but the circumstances are quite unlike any Batman origin story I've previously come across. A cursory cruise around various wikis shows that there are hints of what Telltale has pulled together here in past comics, but I've not seen it packaged, if that's quite the right word, in this manner before. It's designed, clearly, to make the player feel for Bruce, not just for Batman, and to bring them closer to the man behind the mask—for it's possible to play the vast majority of "Children of Arkham" without donning the cowl, one option allowing you to wear a shirt and tie to the mayor's office rather than Kevlar and latex.
"Children of Arkham" ends with an either/or decision that's of far greater significance to the on-going plot. It's essentially that awful scene in The Walking Dead, where you (as Lee) must choose between saving Carley or Doug from being torn apart by zombies, but with two massive Bat-lore characters in those roles. I've seen how both ways play out, and I'm happy that my main save is what I instinctively chose first; but the repercussions of the one I'm not progressing with are really interesting too, and just like the Penguin's reimagining, represent a new birth for one of Gotham's most infamous villains. I hope that my rescuing of said character means that they won't develop their darker side at all during the next three episodes, because if that fate is locked in it will completely undermine my choice here.
Batman: The Telltale Series's laissez-faire attitude to long-existing backstory is hugely refreshing. The tale that is playing out has already got me suspecting those closest to Bruce of not being as transparent about the past as he assumed they were, and that not everyone who wears the traditional appearance of a good guy is anywhere close to trustworthy. Episode two develops Catwoman beyond the archetype we saw previously, with players getting to see a confident Selina Kyle who can handle herself outside of the suit, and ends with so much more at stake—for Bruce, Batman, and Gotham itself—than the first chapter's climax. A downside to the experience is the hideously juddering frame rate, something of a Telltale trademark by now; but get over that and it's clear that all the pieces are in risky positions on the board right now, with some already knocked to the side, out of the game far earlier than anticipated. Where everything goes from here is an inviting mystery that even the World's Greatest Detective would be hard pressed to make a prediction on.
Episodes one and two of Batman: The Telltale Series are out now for Windows, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
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