‘Batman: The Telltale Series’ season review: Just like the caped crusader, this is a flawed delight

Oh, stow your complaints already!

It’s not like the Arkham games.

I want action.

This isn’t a real Batman game.

There’s too much conversation.

Balderdash!

Batman: The Telltale Series (BTTS) is the singularly best non-comic book Batman-related offering to emerge this year. I added the ‘non-comic book’ part because honestly, I don’t follow the regular output of comic books, and for that I apologise. But there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.

Anyway, considering the complete car crashes that Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad were, it was a pleasant surprise to get one’s filthy, grimy mitts on BTTS. Admittedly, the rollout left a lot to be desired. The first episode Realm of Shadows hit the PC, Playstation 4 and Xbox One on 2 August. But for mobile gamers, the release was long-delayed.

The second episode Children of Arkham was announced and was a week or so away from release, and yet, not even a sniff of the first episode for the mobile gamer. Finally, at some point in September, the game made its long-awaited appearance on iOS (the system on which this game was tested). But the subsequent episodes were released under a month apart all the way till the final episode dropped.

Titled City of Light, the season finalé arrived on iOS on 20 December and wrapped up what was a very novel take on the Batman story and canon. In fact, it smashed one of the most closely-held and cherished beliefs about the Batman universe to smithereens.

Telltale Games has an uncanny knack for breathing new life into already popular franchises with its sometimes subversive, sometimes mischievous take on canon and storylines (see the season review of Telltale’s Game of Thrones here).

But before we go any deeper, a warning should be issued.

BTTS, like its brethren in the Telltale Games stable, is approximately 90 percent about the story and dialogue. And what that means is that the review you are about to read is fairly heavy on spoilers. And should you choose to avoid these spoilers, skip ahead to the section titled ‘Gameplay’. Ignore everything along the way.

Consider yourself amply warned. Spoilers follow the BTTS world premier trailer below:

Story

One of the first things you’re likely to notice about BTTS — and this is a feature Telltale Games went to great lengths to publicise before the game’s launch — is that you get to spend a significant amount of time as both Batman and Bruce Wayne.

This is a sharp deviation from the action-oriented Arkham games, where you actually spend more time as Catwoman or Robin than you do as Bruce. This was a smart move from a gameplay perspective (see Gameplay section for more on this aspect), but more so from a narrative standpoint.

The storylines of Rocksteady’s Arkham series of games focus on the crisis at hand — inmates taking over the eponymous asylum or one mega-villain putting a bounty on Batman’s head. It also spends a bit of time developing the characters of the caped crusader’s adversaries, complete with handy codex entries to better understand who you’re up against.

Batman, by which I mean his identity, pathos and character, is largely a constant. Unchanging, unwavering, except very slightly in Arkham Origins — where a more aggressive and angry avatar of the comic book hero is on display. In BTTS, the focus is on Bruce and Batman as two sides of one coin, and the player gets the chance to shape his character over the course of the five episodes.

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The catalyst for all this is the shocking discovery that Thomas and Martha Wayne are not the pristine, admirable and upstanding citizens of society we’ve been led to believe they were for all these years. That’s right. The Wayne patriarch, as it turns out, made his fortune through extremely questionable means, allied as he was with the corrupt Gotham mayor Hamilton Hill and the mobster Carmine Falcone.

And that infamous assassination of Bruce’s parents — the one immortalised in cinema, comic books and games; surely you remember Martha’s pearls scattering all over the curb after she took a bullet — was no simple mugging. No Ma’am, it was a straight-up mob hit.

So after 77 years (across all media) of Bruce waging war on a variety of scum to avenge the Wayne name, you are now thrown into a scenario where he is actually trying to redeem the Wayne name by atoning for his father’s sins. It’s here that the story works wonders in pulling you in.

For starters, you find yourself reacting much the way Bruce does from the time he stumbles upon a hint that his parents might not have been entirely as pure as driven snow, all the way to the point that he receives incontrovertible evidence that implicates his folks. First, you dismiss it, then there’s disbelief, then there’s suspicion that someone’s trying to frame them, then there’s anger and finally, acceptance and uncertainty about what to do next.

And within this frame, the game allows you ample opportunities to address a situation or take on an adversary as Batman or Bruce. A tough-as-nails approach to drive fear into the hearts of your adversaries or a gentle and convincing approach that seeks to improve your horribly tarnished public image. There’ll be a deeper exploration of this concept in the Gameplay section.

Another noteworthy aspect of the story is the fact that a majority of Batman’s ‘nemeses’ do not subscribe to the good-evil binary. Catwoman has always been a tweener (on-off ally and enemy), but here, Harvey Dent, Penguin and indeed, Lady Arkham (whose shocking identity reveal is one of the biggest WTF moments of the game) are all painted in grey hues. You want to punch them in the teeth for trying to hurt the people, things and notions closest to you, but somewhere down the line, it’s hard not to understand (if not truly accept) their motivation.

Sadly, after kicking off the series and throwing the conventional story of Batman and company to the wind, Telltale does do an auto-correct of sorts. Familiar themes are brought back, as is a very familiar cackling villain. I felt Telltale was trying to make a statement by showing that the franchise is personally capable of flourishing even without that guy. But, make an appearance he most certainly does.

Fortunately, for the sake of the main villains in this season, his appearances don’t overshadow them. Unfortunately for one of those main villains, a refreshing take on backstory and raison d’être is cut tragically and abruptly short with said villain’s departure.

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By and large though, Telltale has nailed the storyline and its twists and turns — a massive reason to get your hands on it.

Gameplay

Okay, you can open your eyes now. We’re done with the spoilers.

Suffice it to say that the story is fantastic and almost singlehandedly justifies the pricetag, which on iOS is Rs 810 (Rs 190 for the first episode and Rs 620 for a bundle of the next four episodes; you can also buy individual episodes for Rs 190).

Gameplay, however, is an area where BTTS hits a major roadblock. The first episode was almost unplayable. With massive loading times (I was hanging around twiddling my thumbs for around a minute-and-a-half in one instance), character models and textures randomly dropping out, framerate slowing to a crawl, poorly synced audio and visuals and on some occasions, audio going missing.

While this made for an unpleasant experience, the game wasn’t entirely unplayable. Until, that is, you got to combat sequences and the inevitable ‘Game Over’ screen. A patch was released that mitigated (not eliminated, mind you) most of these issues.

Speaking of combat sequences, these utilise the familiar Telltale structure of swipes, taps, taps with two fingers and a new dynamic in the form of a meter that fills up with every successful attack, parry or defensive manoeuvre. Filling that meter allows you to unleash a devastating finishing move.

Apart from the meter, there are two other additions that add a new element to gameplay. First, there’s a detective mode (albeit, a very simplistic one) that entails linking bits of evidence in pairs to trigger a holographic reconstruction of just what went down at that crime scene. Second, there’s an effort at introducing a bit of strategy in combat with Batman analysing the entire scene and plotting how to eliminate each goon in his way. Regardless of your choices, however, there’s no wrong way.

And that is a problem that continues into the overall scheme of things, combat-wise. Unless you are absolutely inept, it’s almost impossible to fail an action prompt and trigger a ‘Game Over’ screen (after installing the patch, that is).

For the most part, if you’ve ever played a Telltale title before, you’ll know what to expect with navigation, interaction with objects and conversation (the four-option grid remains very much in play).

Onto the Bruce-Batman dichotomy.

As mentioned earlier, there are a number of instances in the game when you can choose whether to approach a situation as Batman or Bruce Wayne. To use the example of a point in the story very early on (without giving away major details), you can choose whether to go to meet an antagonist, who is threatening the very foundation on which the Wayne empire was built, as Bruce or Batman.

Going as Batman allows you to intimidate and maybe rough up the antagonist, but this earns you no favours from the Gotham City Police Department, nor the press. In fact, Batman is portrayed as a goon for the Wayne establishment. Going as Bruce will allow you to reason with the antagonist and sort out matters non-violently. While this will help Bruce’s personal image in the press, you will not be taken nearly as seriously by the antagonist.

Deciding whether to sort an adversary out as Batman and lose political capital as Bruce or to approach them as Bruce and risk being physically outgunned and intimidated is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the BTTS experience — not to mention the instant replay value it throws up.

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Overall, though, the game lacks the sort of smooth gameplay with which Telltale’s Wolf Among Us and Tales from the Borderlands were blessed. And that’s even after the multiple patches released by Telltale were applied.

Experience and verdict

Telltale largely has the audiovisuals spot on in most of its games and BTTS is no different. Here, the cel-shaded graphics work perfectly for a game based on a comic book character. The quality of voice acting, as with most Telltale Games, is also fantastic. Troy Baker reprises his role from the Arkham series as Batman/Bruce in a typically no-nonsense style, while Laura Bailey and Erin Yvette make for a very convincing and engaging Catwoman and reporter Vicki Vale respectively. But, it’s Travis Willingham who shines the brightest in BTTS, imbuing his lines with the requisite paranoia, aggression and menace neede

Games by Telltale are accompanied by the rider that your choices will impact the outcome of the story, but so far, they’ve failed to deliver on that. With BTTS though, it appears Telltale Games has embraced that fact and instead, tried to make the journey to that eventual destination a fascinating experience. Chalk up another point for the game’s replay value.

Each episode lasts between 70 and 90 minutes, and for the most part, the narrative is perfectly paced. A glaring exception is a sequence that sees Bruce in very alien surroundings (sorry, but I did say there would be no spoilers) and wastes too much time there. At the end of the day though, it’s a seven-or-so-hour story that rarely misses a beat.

So what’s the bottom line?

Much like Batman himself, the game is intriguing, full of conflict, brutal when required and kicks a lot of ass. However, and also like Batman, the game has flaws — a few of them, but very deep-seated ones, particularly in terms of gameplay. But it’s still a hell of a lot of fun.

It must be borne in mind that BTTS was never intended to mimic, copy, rival or be anything like the Arkham games. That’s not what Telltale set out to do and it would be foolish to expect that. What Telltale does is, if it wasn’t obvious, tells tales and to that effect BTTS is another winning gadget on the utility belt that is its back catalogue.

It’s nearly Christmas and whether or not it’s the game you deserve (perhaps you haven’t been very nice this year), it’s definitely the game you need.

Feel free to add any other Batman cliché that takes your fancy, I’m off to fire up the first episode and re-immerse myself in Gotham.

How to get it

The game is available on PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Mac, iOS (version tested) and Android. For iOS users, the game is available on the App Store for Rs 190 for each individual episode, or Rs 810 for the entire bundle.

Episodes released:

1) Realm of Shadows
2) Children of Arkham
3) New World Order
4) Guardian of Gotham
5) City of Light