"Well then, time to save the city."
It's the sort of line you'd expect to hear uttered in a gravelly rumble, barely decipherable, by the cowled, gadget-packing vigilante of Gotham himself. You can picture the scene: The Dark Knight, rigid like a gargoyle on the very edge of a towering structure gnarled by the rigors of fantasy fulfilment, unlikely architectural swoops and curves complementing gleaming glass and dazzling neon, looking out over the city he's guarded for 77 years.
But it's the man behind the man behind the mask, Bruce Wayne, who steps out into a fundraiser for Gotham DA Harvey Dent after muttering these words to his faithful butler, father substitute, and confidante Alfred Pennyworth. Having just patched himself up after a city hall dust-up with gun-toting bad guys, he's hosting the party at Wayne Manor, throwing his weight behind Dent as he campaigns to become mayor of Gotham. There's small talk with old family friends. A reporter, Vicki Vale, slips into the fray to ask a question or two—strictly off the record, for appearances anyway. There's the briefest glimpse of someone called Oz—we'll come back to him. And then Carmine Falcone makes his entrance, and the mood sours, never to be sweetened.
The player's not even seen the title card of Telltale's new Batman series before they're thrust into one of the studio's trademark game-affecting decisions: Does Bruce, voiced by The Last of Us and Uncharted 4 actor Troy Baker, shake this notorious Mafia boss's hand, or decline to play friendly with him. Falcone's got connections, and his influence could make a difference in Dent's efforts to dislodge the corrupt Hamilton Hill from the city's mayorship. Whatever your decision, it has repercussions that are felt before the end of episode one of five, "Realm of Shadows."
But this is all familiar, all seen before—we know how Telltale Games play, so what's important is the stories they're telling. While Batman: The Telltale Series features action sequences, they're no different to what we've promptly responded to in the past in the likes of Game of Thrones and Tales from the Borderlands: Mostly it's a case of nudging sticks and tapping face buttons, but there is some basic targeting, too, and (this being the broad-fisted Batman) special finishing moves are activated by combining commands. Even Bruce gets the chance to throw some punches (and dodge plenty, too), as the game splits itself fairly evenly between the two playable identities.
What is new, and makes sense given you're playing as the world's greatest detective, is crime scene–investigation sequences in which clues must be connected to find a hypothesis regarding the absolute state of the situation. It's simply handled, just a case of clicking one point in the environment and dragging a line to the related evidence, but it does make you feel like you're as smart as a man who possesses genius-level intellect. Another interesting part of proceedings is the planning of an assault on Falcone's club—before the quick time events begin, you essentially draw a path of carnage through the throng, taking out goons as you go, and the game then asks you to act accordingly. Do you put this gangster through a flimsy, decorative screen, or introduce his face to a solid oak table? It's barely a choice, but one you have to make all the same.
The Falcone here is the standard angry old man in a suit, albeit excellently voiced by Richard McGonagle, who's previously done work as Uncharted's Sully. Batman is Batman: Pissed off and given to extreme (albeit rarely lethal) violence. Wayne is as much of a prick as you choose to play him as, and Catwoman is the conflicted thief we know so well. Where Telltale does throw a curveball is with the aforementioned Oz, a.k.a. Oswald Cobblepot, a.k.a. the Penguin—only he's not (obviously) yet the villainous umbrella-lover. He's an old school friend of Bruce's, back in town and going through some tough financial and personal times. You can choose to play nicely with him when he helps the unmasked Wayne out of a sticky situation, but his plans are clear: He's here to claim some of this city for himself, and he won't be responsible for whoever stands in his way.
'Batman: A Telltale Series,' launch trailer
This Oz is the sole genuinely interesting character in "Realm of Shadows"—clearly a sandwich, bottle of wine, and chocolate-coated cookie short of a picnic, but without the hat and the nose and all the squawking, he's quite likeable in a menacing kind of way. If Telltale takes him down the road of realism, so far away from the character seen in Tim Burton's Batman Returns and countless comic stories, it'll be fascinating to see what the hardcore fan base's reaction is. His relationship with Bruce looks to be one of the central narratives of the series to come, even more so than Batman's beat downs of Gotham's various thug elements, and I hope that we'll be able to keep him more on Bruce's side than not. The Penguin as (almost) an ally could be quite the twist.
By the close of "Realm of Shadows," we've seen Bruce in a tiff with the local press and facing some serious damage to his family's reputation. He's about to ask some questions of someone very close to him while also nurturing a professional partnership with Jim Gordon. At least, that's how I left things, when my credits rolled. As with all Telltale productions, your mileage is likely to differ—you might choose to be polite to the snooping Vale, whereas I essentially told her to get the hell out of my house. It's all intriguing enough, but not exciting, yet. But then, it's the rare episodic game that does more than begin to position its pieces on the board in part one.
Batman is its makers' best-looking game yet, running on an updated engine, and its cast—which includes Erin Yvette as Vale (Snow White in The Wolf Among Us) and Laura Bailey as Catwoman (Fiona in Borderlands)—is undeniably excellent. But without anything really radical happening in this opening 90 minutes—some trademark growling, a splash of gore, probably-going-somewhere flirting between Bats and Cats—it's going to take another episode or two of development before we really know if this is a Dark Knight worth following to its conclusion, or a Batman & Robin best left in the bin.
The first episode of Batman: A Telltale Series is out now for various platforms. Find more information at the Telltale Games website.
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