Batman: The Telltale Series

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For 12 year old chezkevin, before there were comic books, there was video games. I've always enjoyed video games, and one of my first console games was Activision's Spider-Man for the Nintendo GameCube, based on the Sam Raimi movie series. I had the whole strategy guide for it, which even included a dope movie-style poster. Besides Super Mario 64, it was one of my first 3-dimensional video game experiences, having mainly had 2D platforming experiences on my GameBoy as a kid. I initially didn't get very far in that game -- I got stuck in the subway tunnels trying to chase down the Shocker. I didn't pick it up again until a few years later to discover that I merely had to web zip in between train lanes to get to him. The game was a breeze after that. Since then, I've played an assortment of games like Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, Resident Evil 4, and most recently Metroid Dread.

Winter break gave me some time to get reacquainted with my Nintendo Switch game system. Metroid Dread is a masterpiece and it was so gratifying to see the conclusion of the Metroid storyline, a story over 20 years in the making. I looked for what else my Switch could offer me, and I saw Batman: The Telltale Series on sale for only $5. I'm a sucker for Batman, a sucker for games, and a sucker for deals. A holy trinity!

Batman: The Telltale Series (2016)

Telltale Games, Inc. entered the games industry in 2012, with an episodic adventure game for The Walking Dead. I remember reading rave reviews about this new style of game, beyond just a "point and click" choose-your-own-adventure game focused on storytelling. You had to make difficult choices in the story that had profound consequences later on. I could imagine having to make a choice to save my wife or to save my child from a zombie attack, and shuddered at the thought!

I've played Batman games before. The whole reason I purchased a PS3 in college was so I could play the Arkham series -- a series that truly catapulted superhero games into the modern era of video games. I get a rush out of remembering the epic takedowns I did from the shadows, as well as using detective vision to find clues and gliding through the skyline of Gotham City. That made me feel like Batman in ways I hadn't before, and The Telltale Series does the same thing -- but in a completely different manner.

The home screen of Batman: The Telltale Series shifts between a brooding Batman in the nighttime, and a hopeful Bruce Wayne staring at a horizon, amidst some generic dramatic movie-style score. Immediately you see that Bruce Wayne has an equal part in this game, if not moreso than his persona of the Batman. The game throws you in the middle of Gotham's mayoral election, for whom you're funding the fresh face Harvey Dent, amidst the rise of the terrorist organization the Children of Arkham. You and Harvey are close friends in your shared goals of a better Gotham, not a tough stretch to make. The tough stretches start when you realize in episode 2 that Harvey Dent's girlfriend is Selina Kyle!

I was a little incredulous of some of the plot elements, even the first hint in Episode 1 that Bruce Wayne's father, Thomas, might not have been the benevolent philanthropist that we always thought he was. However, as time went on, I saw that these stretches weren't just plot conveniences for contrived drama. These were critical parts of the story that define how you will make the choices that you do. I had to shed off some of my Bat-fan prior knowledge, to accept that even though this world looked familiar to me, with familiar characters, it was still its own universe with its own differences from what I was used to. They're allowed to change the characters in this way. Because of this, Telltale sets itself apart from other Batman games by building a rich story that's all it's own.

In this game, you make choices of all sizes -- whether that's how to greet people at a fundraiser, or whether to save Harvey Dent or Catwoman from a terrorist attack, and they all matter. At the end of every episode, the game gives you a summary of how you did, and compares you in aggregate to other players. I wasn't surprised that I and over 90% of other players chose to romance Selina Kyle in Episode 3. But I was later surprised to discover that, because of a choice that I had made in episode 1, I was able to prevent Harvey Dent from getting disfigured, and fully unleashing his persona "Big Bad Harv," AKA Two-Face. I also began to wonder just what other storylines I could "unlock," depending on my choices. I really felt that my choices mattered, and defined what kind of person I wanted to be. In that way, Telltale made me feel like Batman like never before. I literally did get to choose my own adventure, and I got to choose what kind of Batman/Bruce Wayne I wanted to be. For a $5 experience, I couldn't ask for anything more.

Some comments on the video game-y parts of this adventure: there's really only a handful of different game elements here. As Batman, you need to respond to quick time events to do things like dodge a punch or throw something at an opponent. I wasn't a fan of them, and at least for the most part they're not obtrusive. It does suck to miss a prompt on a part of the screen that you weren't paying attention to, and then Batman dies to a floor trap that you didn't see coming, but checkpoints are generous and you basically start right from where you left off, emphasizing that the gameplay is never about these quicktime events to begin with.

Most of the time QTEs actually kept me from enjoying the action. Rather than watching the satisfying crunch of Batman taking down a bad guy, I was on my toes scanning the screen for whatever next button or direction I had to punch in next.

The other game-y element of this series was the detective portions. These were pretty cool. This is probably the only portion of the game where you can actually explore a 3D environment. It's here that you have to investigate a crime scene, zoom in on a clue, or get information on a bad guy. It's up to you to link together pieces of evidence, or decide how to take down a person. When you do link those together, you get feedback from Bruce/Batman on whether it would work or not. I never felt punished for making a wrong link, and felt like I could really explore and develop a plan of attack or link the right pieces of evidence to find the right insight that would move the story along. I felt like I had agency in the plot.

Finally, a note on the graphics. They have a slick cel-shading effect immersing you into the comic book world of Telltale's Gotham City. The entirety of the scenes are procedurally generated from their game engine, seamlessly tying you into scenes where you have to make choices with scenes where you can just sit back and relax. However, it's also a crutch. A lot of times character models clipped into themselves while moving, breaking the immersion. Emotions are there and do what they need to do, but they're not exactly movie stars.

Random comments/spoilers below. Read at your own risk.
  1. What a twist! It was just heartbreaking to learn that my father, Thomas Wayne was maliciously committing people to Arkham Asylum for personal gain!
  2. I think it's so interesting that the first way I phrased that sentence, is in the first-person. I'm not saying that Bruce Wayne felt betrayed by his father. I'm saying that I was betrayed by the evil deeds of my father. This just goes to show you how immersive an experience this can be, when you are the one having to make the decisions, and choosing the words that you give to the world.
  3. The majority nighttime scenes, and low-stress gameplay make this an easy bedtime play. As a father of two now, bedtime tends to be the only time that I can have to myself. I could easily put my earbuds on, fire up the Switch on the lowest brightness and enter the world of Bruce Wayne. This was a good break after the intensity that is Shovel Knight New Game+
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