Oh Telltale, sometimes it feels like you are deliberately making it hard to love you. The stories told in the Walking Dead, Wolf Among Us, and even this Batman series are genuinely fantastic, and manage to do more interesting things with the characters than any other studio manages to pull off. The Walking Dead series is the most I’ve cared about that franchise since the first season of the television show, the Wolf Among Us series stood up on its own even without knowing what the comic series was, and Batman proves itself to be the most interesting story with Mr. Wayne in it since The Dark Knight back in 2008. But Telltale just can’t seem to dig out of the technical and mechanical issues that range from being visually hilarious to rage-inducing to play.
Starting on the positive side of that spectrum, Batman’s story is compelling, grim, and still manages to have a sense of fun and adventure about it. With the Batman films lately being dower, gritty and utterly humourless (excluding the fantastic Lego Batman movie), this series is a breath of fresh air. One of the things that really makes this works is a willingness to take the story outside of the accepted and established canon that we are all familiar with. Yes, Bruce Wayne’s parents are dead and his mom’s pearl necklace definitely gets torn off, but we learn more about the Wayne’s deep and complex history as a family; Thomas Wayne wasn’t just “a stand up guy who only ever wanted the best for Gotham.” There’s also the reintroduction and reworking of smaller characters like Vicki Vale, who some might remember from Tim Burton’s first adaptation of the character, and Telltale manages to do things and go places with these characters that allow for some moments of genuine surprise. It would have been so easy to play these characters just like the old movies, or just like the comic books, and give people what they want and expect. In a time where fans are obsessed with continuity and connection, a story that is willing to do new things is refreshing, to say the least.
Now, I admit to not being an expert on the entire extended universe of Batman, and maybe this is some extremely well known plot and a huge number of Batman fans out there are screaming at the computer and getting ready to tweet that I should die in a fire, or something, for not knowing the minutiae of every story. I speak, instead, as someone with a ’common’ knowledge of Batman, someone who grew up with the Burton films, and who has a slightly-above-average interest in comic books as a whole. As a layman, in other words, and not a super fan.
Even predictable elements in the story manage to be at least a little subversive and interesting. You’re introduced to Harvey Dent right away, and you can pretty much figure out where that storyline is going, but it gives depth to the relationship between Dent and Wayne, and allows you to establish a relationship with him before he loses half of his face. The characters are allowed to breathe and exist in their world, and as a result everything that happens to them feels like it has meaning. Even your initial meeting with John Doe manages to make a strong impression, and one that lasts well after the game ends. It’s all helped along with some great voice performances, including Troy Baker of The Last of Us and Bioshock: Infinite, and Telltale’s usual top-notch writing on display.
Of course, as promised, there are some problems with the game that Telltale just can’t seem to get out of. Framerate problems are present pretty consistently while the game attempts to “tailor to the way you play,” and in some places I even managed to miss parts of scenes because it skipped around like a bad DVD. I’m not sure if there is some kind of limitation in the way the game is made that causes this, but I’ve seen it in just about every Telltale game that I’ve played so far, and it doesn’t seem to be improving as much as simply saying the same.
There are some pretty janky animations present in the game as well, which make for some hilarious visuals more than ruining the actual game. Bruce Wayne walks around like a Ken doll and it does get pretty funny in the darker moments of the game. While frame drops and buggy animations don’t make it impossible to play through the game, in combination with each other they can be frustrating if they start to happen on a regular basis.
The only other issue here is one that comes as a package deal with this kind of game. Batman: The Telltale Series is more of an interactive movie than anything else, most of the actual input you have in the game comes in the form of conversation decisions and quick time events. The latter being the biggest issue, as some of the events go on forever and become tedious quickly. I’m not sure that there is a way to reconcile this and still meet the same narrative beats and goals, but it is one of those things that might be a deal breaker for players who strongly dislike a slightly more passive role in the game.
All in all, Batman is another stunning piece of video game writing coming from a studio that has proven itself more than capable of producing fabulous stories based on licensed material, at a time when most studios can’t seem to get their heads around the license in the first place. It’s also the most interesting piece of Batman storytelling in years and is really worth playing just to remind yourself that this character and the world he lives in can still be engaging, rather than just gritty. I hope we start to see new mechanics coming from Telltale in future games, but regardless of that I eagerly anticipate the second season of this series which seems pretty inevitable at this point. If you haven’t played through Telltale’s Batman yet, this is the best time to do it, as all 5 episodes are available and there won’t be any waiting through the occasionally insufferable release schedule of a Telltale series.