Again and again, video games have shown us that Batman is a great fighter. He trounced the Joker in Batman: Arkham Asylum, stood up to Superman in Injustice: Gods Among Us, and trained a whole new generation of warriors in DC Universe Online. But when does the world's greatest detective actually get to do some investigating?
Batman: The Telltale Series looks to put Batman's deductive roots back in the spotlight, presenting him as part Edmond Dantès and part Sherlock Holmes, just like in the comics. In this point-and-click adventure game, you'll fight against street-level thugs and supervillains, but that's only half the story. You'll also navigate the often-treacherous world of Bruce Wayne, gathering information and trying to keep Gotham together during the day, before exposing its dark underbelly at night.
While the game isn't terribly different from the Telltale adventures that preceded it, Episode 1 is a promising start to a new series that both adheres to and tweaks the well-worn Batman formula. Read on to find what we thought about playing as Bruce Wayne — and how it differed from taking control of his costumed alter ego.
A legend, Mr. Wayne
Traditionally, Bruce Wayne is the boring half of the Batman story. He's a billionaire playboy who, in some interpretations, is also a competent businessman and humanitarian.
The Bruce persona usually exists just to give some dramatic contrast to Batman, and hey, it's worked for 75 years, so it can't be all bad. Still, Telltale wants it to be just as much fun to play as Bruce as it is to play as Batman — and I think it's succeeded.
The Wayne sections are not only long but also carry most of the weight in the story. While playing as Bruce, I investigated a criminal conspiracy, made contact with some of Batman's most important allies and enemies, and participated in a political campaign that could change the course of Gotham's future. That's not too shabby for an ordinary guy in a business suit.
Part of what makes playing as Bruce Wayne fun is that the levels are visually diverse, especially compared to the Batman segments. Whereas Batman lives in a world of deep grays, blues and blacks, Bruce Wayne travels from his elegantly lit mansion, to a green(ish) park, to an atmospheric sidewalk café. The Bruce/Batman dichotomy is clear, even in visual terms: Batman's existence is a bleak one, while Bruce's is lavish. Bruce's apparent preference for his Batman persona is, of course, the paradox at the heart of the character.
Although there's a little fighting in the Bruce sections (his combat skills aren't dependent on his costume, after all), the gameplay here happens at a more relaxed pace, allowing Bruce to make some meaningful decisions in conversation and investigation. Without spoiling anything, let's just say that something as simple as a handshake or a statement for a newspaper can carry a lot of weight.
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The fact that all decisions are timed lends Bruce's actions some urgency. The moment-to-moment gameplay isn't as exciting as what you'll find in Batman: Arkham Knight, but it feels much closer to a comic book — some character drama interspersed with some action, rather than all action, all the time.
The man behind the mask
One of the reasons the character drama succeeds is its wide and recognizable cast. It would spoil a lot of the fun to say which characters show up — but I counted at least four mainstay Batman villains (some of them in previllain forms), as well as a handful of important supporting characters. Bruce can be honest and forthright, coy and flirtatious, or charming and subtle, depending on your actions, but every response has a distinctly Bruce Wayne feel to it.
The only major downside of playing as Bruce Wayne is that for Telltale aficionados, it may feel extremely familiar. Whereas the developer has introduced some interesting gadgets and combat mechanics for Batman, Bruce's adventures are very much about talking, taking in the scenery and solving simple puzzles.
The story kept me hooked and keen to find out what would happen next, but controlling Bruce is a lot like playing as Bigby from The Wolf Among Us, or Clementine from The Walking Dead, or Fiona from Tales from the Borderlands: Although the formula doesn't really need to be changed, it's easy to feel like Telltale is relying too much on a well-worn formula.
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Even if the Bruce sections err on the side of slow pacing, the story is well worth the investment. Telltale has taken care to throw Bruce's life into as much turmoil as Batman's, and even as a longtime comic book fan, I did not expect some of the twists and turns, nor do I have any idea what will happen next. While I'd like to see Bruce try something that differentiates him from past Telltale protagonists, color me intrigued for what happens next.
The Telltale Bat
I am fear, I am vengeance, I am the night. I am Batman, and I am on the hunt. A crew of mercenaries has broken into City Hall, and it's my job to stop them. After grappling through a window and tackling one of the perpetrators, I melt into the darkness. Latching onto a hostile with the grappling gun, I pull him into the gloom, the screams drawing the rest of the crew just where I want them. It's not long before most of the combatants are hanging upside down, incapacitated, sending an undercurrent of fear to the remaining criminals. This is Telltale Games' Batman, and I am enthralled.
Despite my initial reservations stemming from Arkham Knight burnout, Telltale has pulled from several parts of the Caped Crusader's mythos, letting me be an intriguing mix of The Animated Series' and Frank Miller's interpretation of the Bat. The crime fighter's world isn't clear black and white; it's shades of gray with a smattering of blue and black for good measure. The decisions made while wearing the cowl and cape will reverberate through the rest of the game.
An interrogation of an unlucky sniper has stayed with me a week after playing through Episode 1. After stringing him upside down, Batman picked up a pipe, which ramped up the tension. He walked toward the villain and told him to start talking, to which he replied with the usual "I'm not telling you nothin'" spiel.
And this is where it got interesting. Batman quickly closed the space between himself and the criminal, and he raised the pipe to swing after a menacing threat about internal bleeding. My eyes widened in disbelief just in time to see a set of choices: Batman could use the pipe and hit the criminal's head, ribs or the large steel drum just off to the left. With relief, I chose the steel drum, and the now-properly motivated sniper began dropping information. I learned from the developers that the other choices had more grisly repercussions.
While you expect some level of violence in any Batman game, the thought of bludgeoning someone with a pipe is a bit disconcerting. At least it is for my version of Batman — the caped vigilante who's not afraid to work outside the law for justice but not willing to kill or physically maim, either. But others might want to take the more visceral approach, and they'll definitely have the opportunity. If I had chosen the other options, that criminal eventually would have had a date with an exposed piece of rebar.
As fun as Telltale's take on Gotham is, I can't help but feel like I've played this game before. That's because I have — but back then, it was called Tales From the Borderlands and The Wolf Among Us. The palettes and stories were different, but quick-time events still drive the majority of the action. And even though I'm wielding smoke bombs and grappling hooks this time around, it might be time for Telltale to look for ways to evolve the system.
Overall, Batman: The Telltale Series has all of the trademarks of a Telltale game, including a compelling story with morally taxing decisions, beautiful graphics, and predictable puzzles. If you're a fan of Telltale's brand of point-and-click games and want to explore the developer's take on Gotham (particularly Bruce Wayne), this is a must-play.