At their absolute best, Telltale’s adventure games impart an overwhelming feeling of consequence in games where most of your time is spent talking to people, picking things up, giving meaningful looks and often doing nothing at all. In The Wolf Among Us, The Walking Dead and others, the focus on how your words and actions affected characters made even the slightest interactivity in the game feel profound. Batman: The Telltale Series suffers from many problems, as a whole and in the context of its individual episodes, but its fifth and final episodes demonstrates the biggest of those problems. Your actions as Bruce Wayne and as Batman feel almost entirely inconsequential in the world of Gotham. Poor pacing, manic shifting between seemingly disconnected plot threads, and inexplicable characterization are all secondary to the fact that Batman seems like a passive witness to everything happening around him.
At the beginning of City of Light, episode five of Telltale’s run, there is still an opportunity to tie everything together. Over the dozen hours making up the series, Batman’s faced a number of problems that have felt only loosely connected. There’s Harvey Dent’s mayoral run and subsequent transformation into a murderous psychotic; Catwoman’s machinations and romance with Bruce; Penguin’s jockeying for control of Wayne Enterprises kicking off a half-assed people’s revolution; the fall of Gotham’s old power, the mobster Falcone and corrupt mayor Hill; and finally the rise of the Children of Arkham, new villain Lady Arkham’s private army that’s either a bunch of militant anarchists or revolutionaries fighting the rich or something. It’s never really explained. In fact, all of these throughlines feel only partially explored in the full game, but connected by the revelation that Batman’s martyred father was actually a criminal.
Nothing could have redeemed the first season of Batman: The Telltale Series as a whole – its first and third episodes in particular are confused messes – but it could have at least brought all these stories together by actually exploring what the Wayne family did to make everything so terrible. Instead the sins of Thomas Wayne are left ill-defined beyond the fact that he helped commit otherwise sane people to an abusive asylum to further his political and economic interests. Why he did those things, how the reality of those decisions pushed the story’s players to where they are now, and how they actually affect Batman beyond making him an even sadder boy are never brought up. Instead, Season One wraps up with a series of disjointed action scenes and click-the-background investigations that amount to nothing more than busy work.
The high stakes conclusion of the fourth episode turns out to be something of a non-event. In his quest to defeat the Children of Arkham, the newly appointed mayor Harvey Dent sends his armed private military to mess up anyone standing in his way. How and why isn’t clear. Are these cops assaulting Jim Gordon at the GCPD and literally hauling critical news anchors off staff on live television? Those questions would matter more if the final confrontation with Harvey amounted to much. Where the final scene of the previous episode should all of Wayne Manor on fire after Harvey lit it up, you confront him in a mansion only lightly singed and talk him through a hostage crisis. Turns out that it doesn’t matter if Harvey was scarred because of your choices or not; no matter what he’s just the same old Two Face you’ve seen before.
Characters like Catwoman pop back up even though their storyline had seemingly wrapped up in the last episode in between the busy work as well, which only further confuses the timeline of these events. The entire game seems to take place for the course of just a week, days that vacillate between the entire city burning to the ground and Bruce Wayne being able to leisurely stroll to meetings. Other major developments that were the entire dramatic impetus for earlier episodes like Oswald Cobblepot’s appointment to Wayne Enterprises CEO are resolved with a throwaway line. One second he’s a disgrace to all of Gotham, the next Bruce is just CEO again. Moments like these make Batman: The Telltale Series feel like it was made by a large group of people who simply never talked to each other.
Connecting these beats are a string of fights before a final duke out with Lady Arkham herself. Between those fights are investigations that involved clicking on Batman’s computer files are just staring at rooms where Lady Arkham has held hostages. No critical thought enters these sequences, though; all that’s required is clicking until the story continues like a cartoon with a bad cold pausing incessantly to cough. Again, Telltale typically has a knack for making work like this feel significant. Leaving precious food where you found it in The Walking Dead isn’t exciting action, but a simple choice like that has profound consequences later on. Both the fights and the blunt detective work in Batman, though, are devoid of weight. If Batman’s the greatest detective on the planet, why does it take him fifteen minutes of poking buttons on his high tech visor display to reach conclusions a regular person would reach as soon as they enter the room?
Batman: The Telltale Series had enormous potential at the start. It had the freedom to create a new continuity for the character not beholden to past incarnations and to leverage the studio’s quiet storytelling style to give players a Batman video game that didn’t have to have the action of big releases like Arkham Asylum. Instead, in its confused rush to include as much familiar Batman iconography as possible in one place and to match the bombasity of recent games, movies, and cartoons, Telltale has made a game that feels sadly inconsequential. Considering how its other games make doing nothing matter of real consequence, that’s disappointing.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Episode 4 review
Spoilers for Episodes 1 through 3.
With our Batman: The Telltale Series review hitting Episode 4, Guardian of Gotham, one thing is now clear: there is too damn much in the game. Batman stories where a huge swath of villains show up and the fabric of the Wayne family, Gotham City, and Batman’s own sanity come unraveled can be handled well even if they’ve been done to death over the past century, but they need to be paced perfectly to succeed. Telltale’s Batman series is almost pathological in its checklisting of Batman tropes. It’s not enough to have Batman sleep with Catwoman and make peace with the cops and tackle organized crime and have his fortune threatened and see Harvey Dent turn into Two-Face. No, of course the Joker has to show up. In Arkham Asylum no less. What really stings about the inevitable appearance of Joker in this game is that it hints at the genuinely creative paths Telltale could have followed if they’d drilled down and focused on just one element of this Batman tale. For every confident step in an experimental direction Batman: The Telltale Series, it takes one step back then trips over its own laces and falls down a flight of stairs.
Last time on Batman, the big twist finally hit. Reporter Vicki Vale was actually the new villain Lady Arkham the whole time. After she infects Bruce Wayne with a powerful psychotropic that makes people act on their worst violent impulses, Bruce beat the everloving crap out of Telltale’s new Sexy Penguin in front of a crowd. The psychotic but unscarred Mayor Harvey Dent has him committed to Arkham Asylum because the game needs to have a section at Arkham Asylum. (Dent and the nonsensical power he has, both political and physical, continues to be the weakest part of Telltale’s series.) When Bruce comes to, flashing in and out of a medically induced aggressive state – which is depicted with a brighter, oversaturated color scheme which looks much nicer than the game’s usual look – he immediately meets the Joker. What should feel like an exercise in token fanservice instead feels like a section of a much, much more interesting game.
After inmates wronged by Bruce’s allegedly corrupt father attack him in his cell, John Doe comes to the rescue, all maniacal smiles and crazy green hair. He’s the Asylum’s would-be mayor, what one doctor calls their most improved patient, and in addition to not having a real name on the records, one inmate tells Bruce that the staff don’t even have a record of when he got there. Telltale’s Joker is as much a mystery as the one in the comics and movies, but his personality and presence are distinct. This isn’t the evil genius of recent comics, the sadist of Suicide Squad, the quack of the cartoons or Heath Ledger’s unstoppable, shaggy embodiment of chaos. Telltale’s John Doe is charismatic and comforting but still terrifying; he’s instantly more captivating than every other character that’s appeared in the game.
What’s more he’s the first one that feels genuinely new as a variation on established Batman characters. Even making Vicki Vale into a villain smacks of Talia al Guhl’s turn in The Dark Knight Rises or Andrea Beaumont in the classic Mask of the Phantasm. The John Doe Joker feels both completely human in a way that other Jokers never do but still supernaturally informed. He knows things Bruce and the player both want to know, and he teases them with it even as he helps Bruce throughout the first third of the episode, first with navigating the dangers of Arkham and then with a path to escaping.
It’s not a perfect sequence. Interactions with Joker in this episode lay bare a flaw throughout the whole series. The dialogue choices Telltale presents to the player to customize their play through rely entirely on established familiarity with the characters. The story seems built to meet your expectations about who these people are. The Joker has been nothing but helpful and fascinating when Bruce meets him so there’s absolutely no reason to distrust him at first. On the contrary, Batman should be studying him as closely as possible. Yet the dialogue options still range from hesitant to openly hostile even though this is the first time Batman’s meeting this person. It’s bad enough the Telltale series leans so heavily on familiar Batman tropes without shattering the conceit that this is the first time the Dark Knight’s running into his supporting cast. The dialogue is still sound enough, and the performances are strong enough, to make this whole sequence entrancing.
As soon as it’s over, the muddy incoherence of Episodes 1 and 3 return. Batman flits between meetings with Catwoman, confrontations with Harvey Dent and Penguin, and one investigation scene where he uncovers a bit more about Vicki Vale’s backstory before she becomes Lady Arkham. While pieces of it are interesting in isolation – the scene at Vale’s childhood home where Batman meets the survivor of a crime is particularly well done – none of it congeals into a gripping whole. Worst of all, each of these scenes feel like they’re retracing steps taken in previous episodes. Do we need another scene of Bruce or Batman telling Harvey he’s acting crazy? Another confrontation with Penguin? Another dialogue with Alfred about how Batman can’t do everything on his own?
At five hours already with one episode to go, it’s hard not to feel like Telltale would have been better served either telling self-contained stories across multiple episodes or making a shorter game with fewer characters and plot threads. Given his overexposure since 1989’s Batman movie, it’s hard to say the world needs another Joker-centric story but Telltale hints at an absolutely magnetic one with the appearance of this John Doe. I wish I was playing a game about his story rather than this collage of well worn pop detritus.
Episode 3 review
Batman: The Telltale Series Episode 3 doesn’t make a ton of sense, which isn’t inherently a problem for a Batman story. Logic isn’t the most reliable tool in his utility belt. If it was, we wouldn’t see a sociopathic, fascistic billionaire beating the crap out of space gods before failing to keep colorful serial killers in prison. Even the “realistic” Christopher Nolan films – which are again cribbed from liberally in this episode – take place in some kind of bizarre alternate reality where people act like major American cities exist in a vacuum divorced from society. All you need in a Batman story to keep the beautiful freaks, fancy gadgets, and Olympian angst afloat is clear internal logic. After a strong second episode, Batman: The Telltale Series spirals into incoherence. Not even a pretty respectable sex scene can right it.
When we left Gotham, the city was under siege by an anarchist in an industrial fetish mask ranting about how they were going to cast out the elites and serve the poor. The Children of Arkham – if you thought I meant Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, fair enough – stormed the mayoral debate between a corrupt incumbent connected to dirty history with the Wayne family and an idealistic but seemingly dim Harvey Dent. Their man on the ground was the new Penguin, Telltale’s rakish, embittered Bond villain by way of Occupy Wall Street. Penguin kills the old mayor and almost kills both Dent and Batman’s new ally, Catwoman, as the Children deliver their first major message to Gotham on a pirate broadcast: we’re taking apart the establishment created in large part by Bruce Wayne’s corrupt father.
It was a hell of an exciting step up after the rote exercise in reciting Batman tropes that was the first episode and an amazing set up for a middle chapter of raw nerves. The third episode out of five should be the place where the hero is knocked to their lowest point and we wonder how they’re going to get back on top. While New World Order does end with Bruce seemingly at his lowest, it’s baffling how he gets there over a series of disconnected set pieces that find characters either behaving in inexplicable ways compared to what’s been established or flat out illogically.
Harvey Dent, built like a linebacker and dumb as a foam prop brick, is the most problematic character. One of the most iconic villains in Batman’s menagerie, the man who inevitably becomes Two-Face seemed to be a very different character in Telltale’s hands. Rather than the hyper-competent idealist attorney of The Dark Knight movie, the comics, or the Animated series, this Dent has come off as an aspiring politician with his heart in the right place but his brains AWOL. He wants to fight for a crime-free Gotham, but he thinks it’ll be totally okay if people see him hanging out with a mob boss like Carmine Falcone. He knows Bruce Wayne isn’t guilty of the crimes his family’s accused of but still fires him from his campaign, only to turn around and demand he be by his side in this episode. And while he’s seemed like a completely stable albeit easily manipulated man up to this point, he suddenly goes full Golem here, succumbing swiftly to an aggressive alternate personality that refers to him as Harvey while ranting in a Halloween growl.
On the one hand, it’s nice to see an alternate take on Two-Face. That Harvey’s split personality – comically exaggerated well beyond any real world personality disorder – is endemic and not the result of a theatrical physical trauma is interesting. (At least this is the case in my playthrough where he isn’t disfigured.) But the shift comes completely out of nowhere in this story and even the characters seem confused about what’s happening. In the opening scene when Bruce is visiting the new default mayor in the hospital after the debate attack, Harvey mentions that his psychiatrist is concerned that the event might trigger his condition. All of your response choices as Bruce indicate that he knows about Harvey’s struggles, but just a few scenes later he’s shocked to discover Harvey’s killed one of the Children of Arkham, he has new dialogue options suggesting he never knew Harvey had a psychiatrist, and in the penultimate scene is aghast to see Harvey seemingly talk to himself. So which is it? Is Bruce a compassionate friend (not to mention the world’s greatest detective) to a politician he was backing who knew about his mental health or some unwitting acquaintance? This isn’t the muddy logic of a story that alters based on player choice; this is completely incoherent storytelling.
The whole episode suffers from these baffling leaps of logic. When Batman rushes from a crime scene in the middle of the night saying he needs to get to Wayne Tower right away, the game hard cuts to the middle of the day the next day. I guess it wasn’t that big of a problem after all? When the board of the company votes him out as CEO, they replace him with Oswald Cobblepot within 24 hours. While evidence came out that Wayne’s father committed multiple crimes against the Cobblepot family, it doesn’t change the fact that the first two episodes already established that Oswald is a known international felon! Why would the company drop Bruce, an accused criminal, for a known criminal? And when Batman tracks down the Children of Arkham for a massive confrontation at mass transit terminal – a place the bad guys have clearly been holed up in for a while – why is there no security presence at all? Or mass transit employees? Or the many, many other human beings that populate cities? All that’s bad enough, but it’s even more irksome when the underlying plot of the episode is that the Children of Arkham’s power comes from their hacking a massive surveillance backdoor in all Wayne Tech phones and communication devices built by Batman ally Lucius Fox. You know: almost the exact plot from The Dark Knight.
Batman: The Telltale Series Episode 3 at least smartly focuses on storytelling and dialogue rather than action. There are fights, but they’re mostly working to build dramatic tension rather than trying to thrill. Telltale isn’t in the business of making action games, something the first two episodes forgot.
Despite the big problems throughout this episode, it does have great moments. When Catwoman brings Batman back to her apartment, the humanity Telltale is so well known for shines through. I got legitimately caught up in the characters, their confused relationship, and their animal attraction to each other. I even admired the attempt to show real, passionate sexual contact even though Telltale’s graphical engine is completely incapable of making that contact look right. (Video game sex suffers in the Uncanny Valley in the most technologically advanced games. Selina and Bruce’s make out session looks like people smashing Krispy Kreme Donuts together but I was still into it.) Great moments like these flounder and die on their own in the morass of the rest of the story, though. Audiences need to be able to follow a thread for any story to work. Batman Episode 3 is nothing but knots.
Episode 2 review
Halfway through Episode 2 of Batman: The Telltale Series review session, I finally ran into the sort of choice that made the pairing of this developer and this character so enticing. After one of the game’s myriad, awkwardly paced action sequences, you have to decide whether or not to confront one of Telltale’s apparent villains as Batman or as Bruce Wayne. Both the man and the myth can get results. Batman can intimidate his quarry (who also happens to be a recognizable public figure), and that might turn the people of Gotham against the vigilante right as he’s earning their trust. Bruce Wayne, on the other hand, can navigate the politics of public opinion while saving the face of his alter ego, but he’s risking even more scrutiny into criminal allegations against his sainted dead parents and the mayoral campaign of Harvey Dent he’s currently funding.
The decision carries real weight, seemingly changing the color and shape of the whole story, with no clear answer as to which choice is the right one. What’s more, it’s the choice of the cunning detective Batman; no gadgets, no punching, no mugging supervillain talking about how he’s the Dark Knight’s grim reflection. Few choices in Episode 2, called Children of Arkham, are as interesting as this one. And it does come directly after one of those drawn out, very out-of-place fight scenes that pepper Batman: The Telltale Series like an annoying corporate brand manager reminding that you’re playing as Pop Culture Icon Punch Man. But an accomplished experiment toying with the expected tropes of the average Batman story is starting to bubble up. The unpredictable, exciting Telltale behind The Walking Dead and Tales From the Borderlands is emerging from beneath the mountain of Bat cliches laid down in Episode 1.
This is already well-trodden territory. Storied comic book writers like Scott Snyder and Jeph Loeb, not to mention many others, have tarnished the memory of Thomas and Martha Wayne to add some emotional turmoil to the pathology of their son’s quest for justice. But in setting its Batman story in its very own tailor-made continuity, Telltale gets a chance to do what those writers didn’t: risk the lives of its cast. The scenes that follow Bruce’s visit to Crime Alley continue to explore both his interior and exterior life in familiar but capable ways. Without spoiling what happens next, the first half of Episode 2 takes place almost entirely in the form of well-written conversations that add tension and depth to the relationships between Bruce, Jim Gordon, Harvey Dent, Alfred, and the always welcome mob boss Carmine Falcone, and all of their relationships with Batman as well. These characters can be hurt. They even die, suddenly and brutally. Telltale’s story is free of the shackles attendant to episodic narratives that don’t have an ending. They can play for keeps and seem to be willing to do just that.
Then, of course, there needs to be a couple of fight scenes. One of those takes place in an already-used location from the first chapter, further singling it out as padding, and the second takes place in a generic dive bar with some hilariously fashionable Hipster Thugs. Neither of these scenes do much, not advancing the story in meaningful ways nor providing the Tough Guy Psychotic Batman thrills they’re meant to emulate. Telltale’s a deft hand at making action where you don’t really do much but still feel bodily impact and desperation. In Batman, though, these brawls are perfunctory. If someone wants to make Batman kick someone’s teeth out, there are five Arkham games across every game playing device under the sun for them. The bar fight does thicken up the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, but episode one already opened with a tussle that spelled out how much Batman and Catwoman want to sleep together. Plus, everybody already knows they want to sleep together because Batman is one of the most popular characters on earth.
The fights don’t detract from the pleasures of Telltale’s smart plotting, solid writing, and conscience scratching decisions elsewhere. To its credit, there is a spectacular action scene at the end of the episode. When Batman finally comes face to face with the game’s new Sexy Anarchist Penguin and the mysterious Children of Arkham reveal themselves, the fight is brief, brutal, and adds needed stakes to the game’s system allowing Batman to plot out how to take out armed thugs ahead of time. But there’s a lesson in this episode for Telltale going forward into the story: only the smallest amount of action is necessary to spice up the morality play of being Bruce Wayne. Batman: The Telltale Series’ second episode hints at being an amazing Dark Knight game we’ve never really seen before. It’s becoming the story of trying to be a socially well-adjusted person who still dresses up like a bat and punches people he doesn’t like at the end of the day. The more it sticks to the conversations and investigations that tell that story, the better.
Episode 1 review
Batman video games (opens in new tab) always fall into a specific spot of the Batman spectrum. Video game Batman tends to be punchy-broody Batman first, everything else second. Hence why everything from Sunsoft’s Batman: The Video Game for NES to Batman: Arkham Knight on PS4 and Xbox One is centered on connecting a gloved bat fist with a mad thug’s face. Patient detective Batman, the master of social manipulation Bruce Wayne by day and expert crime decoder in a cape by night, doesn’t often get a chance. Batman: The Telltale Series (opens in new tab) is a rare opportunity then. The studio’s episodic interactive stories are the perfect venue for the slow-paced Batman rarely scene in gaming. He might yet pop up, but the series’ first episode is a strange re-tread of punchy-broody Batman’s greatest hits that’s missing the adventuresome soul of Telltale’s best.
Telltale is always at their strongest when they’re making up entirely new story elements, even when they’re playing in somebody else’s world. The Walking Dead Season 1, for example, remains the studio’s gold standard thanks to the strength of original characters like Lee and Clementine. From the very opening moments in Batman, when a team of armed mercenaries in masks and riot gear attempt to break into the Gotham mayor’s office, it feels like Telltale is revisiting elements from famous Batman adventures.
Just the look of the game is recognizable, with the art deco future-meets-past architecture and muted color palette of Batman: The Animated Series crossbred with the neon laced Bat-technology of Rocksteady’s Arkham video games. Batman is on the scene busting up the would-be crooks, crossing paths with the Gotham Police Department, ever-mustachioed Jim Gordon, and even Catwoman with her own pilfering agenda. Butler Alfred advises Batman from afar as you the player select dialogue choices and press buttons on your controller in time with the action. Batman goes to tie a crook to the rafters, you press up on the D-pad when prompted on screen; Catwoman takes a swipe, you press Y to counter. The Batman theatrics are on loan from all Batman media, the interaction and choose-your-own-adventure stylings are vintage Telltale. Perfect set-up to move into a story that’s something different.
Only that never happens. In fact, the familiarity of the scenario becomes overwhelming as the two-hour episode progresses, especially since about half of that time is devoted to establishing who all the characters are. Taking place in Telltale’s own continuity, most of this episode is just getting to know who’s who. In their universe, this is the first time Batman and Catwoman meet, it’s the first time Gordon and the Dark Knight work alongside each other, and Bruce Wayne is still haunted by the murder of his parents (which you have to watch a flashback about.) Wayne’s also in the midst of helping Harvey Dent run for Mayor to replace a corrupt politician. You can even suggest he choose “A new face for Gotham City!” as his campaign slogan. Boy, I sure hope nothing bad happens to Harvey, who happens to be under pressure from mob boss Carmine Falcone.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making a new continuity for a new Batman video game. In fact, it would be really exciting to see Telltale build the world from scratch out of familiar faces and character types. Only problem is, there’s really nothing to distinguish any of these characters or their relationships from other renditions, and massively recognizable ones at that. At one point, Batman connects a crime scene covered in psychoactive chemicals to Carmine Falcone, a plot point instantly similar to one in Batman Begins, one of the most popular superhero movies in the past decade. That’s on top of Harvey Dent’s perilous political ambitions backed by Wayne which calls to mind The Dark Knight. Telltale’s one original spin is a younger, anarcho-punk Oswald Cobblepot who hasn’t become the Penguin, but whose intimations of starting a people’s uprising against Gotham’s rich come pretty close to Bane’s plans in The Dark Knight Rises. Even a subplot about Bruce Wayne’s family being connected to organized crime is similar to Scott Snyder’s best-selling run on the flagship Batman comic from the past five years. When you’re dealing with a character who’s nearly a century old, you’re bound to run into plot retreads but Batman: The Telltale Series echoes some of the most popular recent media on the planet.
Even if it didn’t, though, why spend time recapping who’s who? Is anyone playing Batman: The Telltale Series totally unfamiliar with who Batman is on a basic level? The idea that this might be a kid-focused game, introducing the Batman world to young newcomers is right out. No kid game invites you to investigate “Exploded Human Remains” between scenes of Batman violently intimidating or outright beating a mercenary–it’s your choice in a Telltale game after all–and fighting your way through a mob club until it literally explodes. This also isn’t a primary candidate for adult newcomers. Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment already has five Arkham titles to invite curious players that might not be hardcore Batman fans into the video game world, and their blend of punching and open world exploration is a smoother sell than a cartoon with dialogue options.
There is more to do than dialogue options, of course. There are two sequences that distinguish Batman from other Telltale games. The aforementioned crime scene covered in chemicals has you connecting parts of the environment to figure out the chain of events. Spot the incendiary round from a gun, check it with a button, then click on the exploded chemical barrel. It feels a little more detective like than most Batman games, but it’s ultimately not functionally different than the crime scene recreations in Batman Arkham City, Origins, and Knight. Later when you raid the mob club, you observe the muscle inside using a drone and select a few different ways to take them out in sequence; click on an armed guard then one of a few highlighted objects in the environment, then play the whole thing out with on-screen prompts. It’s new for Telltale, but frustrating because there are already plenty of Batman action games where you actually get to do what’s happening on screen.
Batman: The Telltale Series has plenty of room to run with a whole season coming up, and nothing here is poorly made. It’s all fine, but it’s also utterly plain. Batman is one of the most recognizable characters on planet Earth. Time spent introducing him is wasted time. Fingers crossed that episode two has more, much more, to say.
2 out of 5
Batman: The Telltale Series review – Season 1: “Batman seems like a passive witness to everything around him.”
Batman: The Telltale Series squanders its potential with a messy story obsessed with retreading older Batman tales.