Batman: The Telltale Series is what people have decided for some reason to call an Adventure game. Really, considering the gameplay, a better name for these kind of games would be something like Interactive Stories. The way Telltale designs its games, this most often takes the form of a multi-episode and rather long story where the player is able to interact with it at key points, choosing certain dialogue options or completing certain tasks to progress the plot and potentially alter its course.
Batman, as a choice of franchise to adapt, helps to make the interactive portions of the story a bit more action-packed and intense than you might expect from such a summary. The caped superhero has plenty of ways to break up an otherwise dialogue heavy experience with a fair bit of action, although admittedly, almost all the fights in the game boil down to buttons appearing on the screen that you have to press at the right time to execute attacks. The punishment for not pressing the buttons does not seem too great though. It’s sometimes hard to tell if you hit the button in time during these cutscene battles, although it did seem Batman often got hurt when I thought I failed, and one time, he did actually die due to my failure. They aren’t that hard, the game usually giving you a decent window to spot the button you need to press and knowing how long to delay for the more complex requests like moving a cursor into a reticle. The fights are certainly more about spectacle than interaction though, but the game does occasionally do something incredibly interesting in that you get to survey the area Batman is about to enter and plan your attack beforehand, linking potential enemies up with ways to take them down in the environment.
The other form of more involved gameplay also ties into that linking mechanic. Batman is a detective; he is from Detective Comics after all! So they do integrate that side of him into the game at times, Batman arriving after a crime has been committed and trying to unravel what happened with the use of his tools and smarts. Just like the fights, the detective work isn’t too hard, and you’ll usually be able to piece together what happened before you even finish doing so in the game itself. At worst, you can brute force it if you want to waste a lot of time, but it felt like most things had an obvious link once you had all the clues available.
At its core though, despite these diversions into combat and detective work, Batman: The Telltale Series is all about conversations. You play as Bruce Wayne. It’s tempting to say you play as Batman, but through most of the game and during some of its most important moments, you are his civilian identity, and I think that really makes this game far more interesting than a lot of takes I’ve seen on Batman.
You see, a game that hinges so much on its conversation mechanics and story requires a well-written story to be engaging. The fighting and detective work aren’t going to carry the game certainly, but with the storyline, Batman manages to create a gaming experience that really is worth your attention. Set in a modern repositioning of the Batman story, we are given a really early glimpse into Bruce Wayne’s role as both a businessman and his superhero identity of Batman. None of his famous enemies exist at the start of the game yet and the game requires you to know none of the backstory of its franchise to get invested in the tale it tells. Batman is quick to establish its backstory in a natural way before it manages to build on it in a way that I’ve never seen a comic or movie pull off quite as well. Perhaps being spread over the longform medium of a video game let it breathe a lot more, but Batman: The Telltale Series manages to take a better look at most of its characters than I’ve ever seen before in previous Batman media, as well as giving some of them the most interesting takes on them I’ve ever seen.
The story focuses on Bruce Wayne’s family. While investigating a major mob boss, Bruce discovers that his family legacy is much darker than he thought and the city and his friends begin to turn against him. A group known as the Children of Arkham are spreading chaos throughout the city and Bruce is forced to try and stop their crime wave while also trying to not only find out the truth about his family, but deal with the emotional toll it is having on him as it strains his identity to the core. This, I feel, is how you write a good superhero story. The superhero side of things serves to provide action-packed moments, but they aren’t there for no reason. Something is affecting the hero outside of just fighting bad guys, and each battle will draw him closer to more personal changes and revelations. Superhero stories are still about the characters, and this game does an excellent job making one out of Bruce Wayne. Your choices can also color how he deals with the revelations and how he reacts to emotional gut punches. This might be the most interesting look at the character I can think of, and it certainly doesn’t lean on the memetic power of the Batman character as its selling point. Bruce is vulnerable, makes mistakes, and fails at times, even in the Batman suit. There are people he can’t save, and in a game where your choices can affect that, you can feel the same way he does in that moment.
It’s worth noting too that there is a pretty excellent supporting cast backing him up. The most interesting take I’ve seen on the Penguin character is in this game, positioning him more as a rival to Bruce Wayne rather than a foe Batman takes down by giving him some character and backstory that helps make him more complex. Characters like Catwoman and Harvey Dent get some great character exploration as well, with good voice actors backing up the emotional weight of their arcs. There’s even a certain super famous Batman character who puts in a delightfully subdued appearance considering your expectations, and really, your expectations don’t need to be anywhere to enjoy this game. You can be a Batman fan or have no knowledge. The game remains self-contained, having cameos for die-hard fans that would still make complete sense for those who somehow know nothing about the Caped Crusader. The story itself is a roller-coaster, with twists and surprises that kept me going throughout with a consistent need to see what’s coming next.
The story is incredibly engaging, there are interesting characters with good arcs… it almost seems like this game’s on its way to being Fantastic, isn’t it? Well, it’s still got a few faults. Besides the earlier mentioned simplicity of combat, it’s got a few issues most people who have played a Telltale game will recognize. Character models sometimes jerk around strangely or have issues with positioning and facial expression. They’re usually minor and easy to ignore, but for a story based game, it’s a bit glaring and can take you out of a moment or make for some unintentional comedy. The game also had an issue where it froze after I completed the first few episodes, requiring only a restart with no progress lost thankfully, but it’s not the first glitch I’ve experienced with a Telltale game. Thankfully, nothing like the kind I experienced in Wolf Among Us where I became unable to do anything and lost progress on a reset occurred. You can also see a few typical story beats present in other Telltale games, especially how they handle big episode cliffhangers.
Speaking of the other Telltale games, familiarity with them will also make you expect a few tropes this game sinks into. It’s sometimes difficult to tell how much your choices really matter, and there are points where it’s more a pretense of choice than a real one. I’d usually contend with this criticism that the same could be said of some things in real life, but the game does try to emphasize the story changes based on your choices. Late in the game you’ll usually see the biggest effects whereas most things are given only subtle nods, but you’ll certainly see how much choices matter if you replay the game. However, because of its heavy story focus, I don’t feel Batman: The Telltale Series is a game made to be replayed like that. It is intriguing to know how things would change, yes, but it can’t recapture the appeal of the first go through the story, where the changes mattered more since that was your first experience with it rather than you picking an answer just to see a result. I won’t dismiss the idea of replaying the game, but I feel it strange to hold it against the game as a fault.
Thankfully, other issues I’ve had with Telltale games don’t seem to be here. Walking Dead had some obtuse puzzles and some other Telltale games give you little time to react. Batman is paced well, giving you time to mull over certain dialogue choices without the game hounding you by saying “you’re pretty quiet” or “take your time” while also not leaving a hanging silence. You don’t have infinite time to respond save for the biggest of choices of course, but some breathing room makes me consider my reply more than racing a timer and just picking one or being forced to be silent. Incidentally, I found many more times where I thought choosing the always present silent option more interesting in the situation than I did in other Telltale games, since there were moments where it felt actually appropriate.
Still, even considering its similarity to its kin, Telltale’s Batman game isn’t really dragged down by them too much. It simply has a few of the same freckles you see in the other games while still bringing one of the best storytelling experiences from a company already well-known for telling good interactive stories.
THE VERDICT: It’s really hard to step back from a story that got you heavily invested and try to put it on a scale. The immediate afterglow tends to place it extremely high, and just like I always try to do, I went and looked around for other opinions on the game before deciding on my rank. Batman: The Telltale Series has one of the best Batman stories ever told and is simultaneously a fun and interesting experience I think people who don’t normally play Batman would enjoy. Focusing on the character of Bruce Wayne primarily gives it an interesting angle, and its sheds the baggage of the series to try and create a self-contained plot where its characters can grow, change, and go down different paths than they’d be required to if they were in a comic book.
And so, I give Batman: The Telltale Series for the Playstation 4…
A GREAT rating. If you want to play a game with an excellently told story, Batman will certainly deliver on that, and I feel its important to always judge a game on what it’s trying to do, rather than asking “Why doesn’t Batman punch more?” It’s not a story about Batman punching nor is it a game about punching in general. It’s a game about the story being told and how you interact with it. While I definitely appreciated the characters and their interactions, I feel like there could have been more done with the other aspects. More interesting detective scenes, combat that relies more on wits like the planned attacks rather than button presses, and more meaningful fights overall. Perhaps a bit more difficulty could have made the combat and detective scenes just as compelling as the difficult choices you have to make elsewhere in the game. The story could have propelled this all the way to the Fantastic rating with a bit more support, and you could certainly enjoy it as a Fantastic movie or series of episodes even if you didn’t control the dialogue options. I’d also say there could be more clear moments where choices matter. I stole something at one point in the game, thinking it might effect things later… and it only gets a line of mention later that didn’t seem to effect the tone of the conversation at all!
Episode 1 is free to try, so you could certainly see if it’s your kind of game before you take the plunge. With that being said, I hope you will one day enjoy this great tale of Bruce Wayne, and the game he’s in called Batman.