At this point, even non-fans of DC’s caped crusader could probably give a rough play-by-play of the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, so iconic (and endlessly depicted in nearly every adaptation of the character) is the scene that sparks the birth of Batman. So it’s refreshing to see Telltale try and at least tweak the formula a little, having the memory play out rapidly in shadows on the wall behind an adult Bruce Wayne, even if you’re still left feeling like you’ve seen that story beat once too often. It’s a fitting allegory for the game: It’s hard to not feel like we’ve seen this all before, but the elements have been rejiggered just enough to create something fresh.
Batman—The Telltale Series continues the episodic storytelling structure of the company’s previous Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us games, and if you’ve played the latter of those two, you’ve got a good sense of how the designers decided to tackle a particularly thorny case for the Dark Knight. Someone has implicated the squeaky-clean name of the Wayne family in Gotham’s organized crime syndicate, thereby threatening to undo all the good work Bruce has done for the city, not to mention shatter the symbolic power and hope inspired by the Wayne legacy. Is it the corrupt Mayor Hill? Crime boss Carmine Falcone? Is it the mysterious thief, Catwoman? Or is someone inside Harvey Dent’s mayoral campaign—a campaign behind which Bruce has established himself as the driving financial and social force—sabotaging things from within?
In tackling such a well-established property, Telltale has discovered the common difficulty of trying to make a Batman story feel new. Being able to draw from a deep well of instantly recognizable characters and settings comes with the burden of differentiating them from what’s come before. The first episode, Realm Of Shadows, already gives us time with Harvey Dent, Selina Kyle (and her alter-ego Catwoman), Oswald Cobblepot, and Carmine Falcone, not to mention the expected presence of Alfred Pennyworth and Lieutenant James Gordon. And while some of these work better than others—Cobblepot is utilized the most inventively, here a childhood friend of Bruce’s who returns to warn him “a revolution is knocking on Gotham’s door”—it’s hard to make them come alive as much more than thinly drawn versions of folks we already know.
There’s more than a bit of The Wolf Among Us in the DNA of Telltale’s Batman, as the crime-laden mystery at the narrative’s heart evokes memories of that fantasy noir. It’s not just that Batman actually steps into the role of gumshoe, trying to create links between elements of a crime scene in order to make sense of the puzzle. It’s the overlap in play, where lengthy scenes of angsty character beats co-mingle with “who’s responsible for this?” interrogations of criminals and civilians alike. It can occasionally give the sense that players are more here to watch the situation unfold than take charge of it (and the methodical nature of exploring clues makes Batman come across a little slow on the uptake), but that’s part of the charm of these games.
And the primary mystery here, at least by the end of the first episode, promises to be more complicated and unusual than it initially appears. Again, the multiple-choice interactions with others are a minefield of potential wrong decisions, and each time the screen informs you another character will remember what you just said, it triggers a rash of uncertainty about repercussions down the road. While the choose-your-attitude conversations sometimes feel too compressed, like you’re being driven to one outcome whether you like it or not (my chat with Cobblepot pivoted from “warm-spirited reaffirmation of friendship” to “ominous warning” on an awkward dime), the game wisely keeps most character motivations close to the vest, the better to spring them on you in subsequent installments. (Telltale plans to unveil the remaining four episodes periodically throughout the rest of 2016.)
Once more, the action scenes provide much-needed goosings of adrenaline to break up the verbal gamesmanship. From an initial foiling of a robbery to the episode-ending assault on a crime den, the action maintains the company’s tried-and-true version of hyperactive Simon Says. And while players quick on the draw may find themselves unimpressed by the minimal demands made upon their reflexes, the simplicity of the controls ends up being unexpectedly satisfying, thanks in part to well-designed combat moves that unfold with the intensity of a fight scene from one of Nolan’s films. One of the best elements of the combat is also a sly meta nod to the straightforward nature of the A or B outcomes: The final fight requires Batman to plan out the entire attack in advance, literally determining who gets kicked how and thrown where ahead of time. This predestination of punches means the player essentially acts as director, setting up the entire fight sequence beforehand, and is then given the gratification of having it come together exactly as foreseen.
Telltale announced well before Batman’s release that the game would allow you the chance to choose whether to enter situations as Bruce Wayne or Batman, but in Realm Of Shadows, that opportunity doesn’t arrive. Instead, you get a lot of face time as Wayne—hosting a fundraiser for Harvey, debating the ethics of your vigilante crusade with Alfred, having a fraught conversation with Falcone—in which the choice of words becomes far more important. It’s an apt tactic for a story focused on the dual nature of Bruce Wayne’s struggle, showing the decisions he makes as the public face of wealth and power in Gotham have just as much impact on the struggle against evil as any punches thrown by Batman.
But when the advancement of a story is so central to a game, crackling dialogue and narrative delivered with directorial verve become the main appeal. Hard-boiled detective language can easily shade into cliché, and there are a few eye-rollers here, like Gordon’s clunky reflection, “Sometimes I think this whole city’s a crime scene.” But much of this first episode is just table-setting, and for all its familiar elements, by the final scene, Batman has effectively built an intriguing mystery—one that tackles the fundamental question of how someone can live a split life—without merely retreading classic tales of the caped crusader.