Batman: Episode 1 - Realm of Shadows

I never expected to see a Batman adventure game come out of Telltale. Considering their ability to work within the strictures of a licensed product, I probably should have, but then again, given the bar set by Rocksteady with their Arkham series, wanting to dip back into the adventures of the Caped Crusader felt like a fool’s errand. However, with Episode 1 of their series, titled Realm of Shadows, they prove as fearless as the Dark Knight himself, showing a deft hand in dealing with both the hero and his playboy persona.

Realm of Shadows takes place somewhere in the nebulous beginning period of Batman’s career. The game opens on a heist perpetrated by a group of hooded thugs invading city hall and the office of the mayor himself, Hamilton Hill. As they trip an alarm, talk naturally moves on to whether or not they’ll see “him,” some masked wacko who left some friends of theirs broken, and others in “body bags.” Shifting perspectives show “him,” Batman, spying on the thugs from across street, because of course he is.

Building on the engine improvements I noted in my Walking Dead: Michonne reviews, Batman immediately gets to work, crashing through the window and taking out the thug in a series of quick button prompts. The crashing glass alerts the others, who move in to check on their friend, only to find him missing. A few button prompts later, and Batman is in clear control, gathering the majority of thugs to the center of the room, where some work with a smoke bomb and some clever grapple work ends with 4 baddies hanging from the ceiling. The final two, the group’s leader and the one assigned to open the alarm triggered barricade on the mayor’s door, are all that is left. Batman swoops in, and begins the most intense action sequence Telltale has tried to pull off so far.

Playing primarily with a keyboard and mouse, I was a bit surprised with some of the button prompts. Michonne saw them master button placement, and their work continues in Batman, with arrows and prompts matching up with Batman’s swinging fists and agile body. And then they added in the shift button to the mix, and I kind of threw my hands up. I am on record as railing against their use of the Q key, especially with the kind of beatings they expected me to give it in the Walking Dead games. This is not as bad, but it required a bit of thought on my part, as, while I am proficient as a typist, moving your hand with speed to try and one hand the shift + Q sequence is a bit awkward. This turns out to be a bit easier with a controller, as these end up being nothing more than a direction and a face button, but using one of those, which I tried about halfway through this scene, proved problematic when it refused to recognize my Xbox controller’s right trigger.

Regardless, all this fighting, both through stealth and the direct punchy method with the boss man, built up a Bat meter in the lower left hand side of the screen. Once it started glowing, and upon reaching a certain point in the melee, I was prompted to perform a finisher, which had Bats completely wreck this dude’s face and throw him through Mayor Hill’s door. How that scene plays out if you don’t fill up the meter is a mystery, but because of the controller malfunction, I do know that failing the finisher gets Batman thrown threw the door and a game over message. It’s at this point, though, where a direct play by play of the action will stop, as there are a few choice reveals that allow Telltale to separate out their Batman tale from that of the mainstream, including the reveal of some of the more famous rogues in gallery.

Playing as Batman though is not the only way you spend your time though. A majority of the first episode is spent as Bruce Wayne, doing Bruce Wayne things like throwing a party, having a small scandal in the media erupt around him, and disappointing Alfred. Troy Baker, the voice of just about every video game protagonist in the last 3 years, and I think the only man who has actually played both Batman and the Joker (he voiced the Clown Prince of Crime in 2013’s Arkham Origins), does a great job embodying both sides of Batman’s personality. He provides an easy going, yet slightly dark take on Bruce Wayne, one that clearly shows he still is, in some ways, forever trapped in the alley where he lost his parents. His Batman is also on point, though they make a point early on to show that, at least in character, a vocoder is used to provide the “scary” portion of the Batman voice, the one that Nolan’s Batman took all the way to the point of parody.

There’s also a fair amount of investigating, with Batman walking a crime scene to try and link pieces of evidence. The idea is a sound one, as it allows you to see what Batman is thinking through a simulated reconstruction as you put the pieces together correctly, eventually leading to full playback of the scene in question. It is also far more awkward than it needed to be, as the method of linking, the quite literal dragging of a line between two pieces of evidence, required me to walk Batman across the scene with the keyboard while following right along with the mouse. I don’t quite know if that was the effect they were going for, but the second time the link system returns is done far, far better, as the options to link are fairly close together.

In fact, the scene I am referencing is one of the best I have seen in a Telltale game. While I won’t spoil the details, the link system is used by Batman to develop a “plan of action,” spelling out exactly how he plans to bust into the room and eliminate the armed threats. It felt really great going through all the choices presented, and even better seeing them played out, through button prompts of course, to see how you did.

While I have a ton of praise for the action scenes, the writing during portions of the game leaves a lot of be desired. There are times as Batman when the options for verbal sparring with your opponent result in the most stilled and hokey dialog I’ve seen this side of Adam West, while other characters seem to suffer the same fate when confronted by the press. I’m not naming names here, because again, I would prefer not to spoil things, but some of the interactions, between Bruce and an old friend, as well as his talks with the person currently running for mayor, feel stilted and inconsistent. The only ones that remain constant in both flow and strength of writing are the interactions between Alfred and Bruce in the Batcave. It’s clear how much Alfred cares about Bruce, with the opposite also being true, and it was nice being able to choose interactions that highlighted this, rather than being forced into the more solitary, loaner mode Batman/Bruce combo. Alfred has always been one of the only characters Bruce could be himself with, and it would have been a pity to lose that.

New to any of the Telltale games is a small multiplayer component. Ok, multiplayer feels like the wrong word for it, as really it's more of a participation enabler, allowing more then just you to have a say in what choices get made. As of this writing, this feature is not yet live, and it really has no impact on whether or not the game is good, so I have no problem scoring it, but it's inclusion, especially when placed in the light of things like streaming and let's plays, is something that will have to be watched closely.

I was also a bit surprised as to the level of Telltale-ness that seemed missing from Batman. There were still choices to be made, some timed, others not so much, but rather than these awful shades of crimson presented in properties like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, there was no overall sense of dread associated with these. It was kind of liberating knowing that, as this is a Batman game, no hidden deaths awaited me because I didn’t kiss enough Bolton ass, or I chose to be merciful to a wandering derelict rather than rob him and leave him for the undead. The choices also made sense, with an equal case able to be made for both options in most cases. With cameras rolling on him, do you want to brutalise this person, further spreading the seeds of fear in both Gotham’s darkness and its citizenry, or simply hang this person up for the cops to find, showing a bit of mercy physically while also, possibly, tipping your hand to those watching that you have a line you won’t cross?

Naturally, the true implications of many of these choices won’t be felt until we get further into the 5 episode series. With Episode 1, Realm of Shadows, clearly in the rearview now, and the revelations of its final moments playing over and over in my mind, I can say without hesitation that I want to see where this one goes. You could make the argument that it’s a Batman game, which means I’m in it for the duration anyway, and you wouldn’t be wrong, at all, but I am actually genuinely interested to see where this goes outside of that. And because it’s Batman. For their first steps in the Dark Knight’s boots, they made one heck of an entrance.

Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!