When regarding the Dark Knight mythos, Batman: The Telltale Series expertly manages to fuse together the old and the new, taking existing characters and portraying them in a new, sometimes startling, light – the characters repeatedly upset expectations, while the strengths of these preexisting characters are supplemented by a whole suite of new characters, whose presence results in a certain originality, inventiveness. As illustration of the old made new, consider Catwoman, that revered anti-hero of ambiguous motivations. Admittedly, her aesthetics are ripped almost exactly from the Arkham games, she donning a tight suit, a pair of prominent goggles protecting her gleaming eyes, while she is characterized by a certain litheness or gracefulness in her movements, her speech patterns reflecting a certain sultriness. Her visual design may be unremarkable and iterative, though she remains a compelling figure, and features prominently in the narrative, namely as Bruce Wayne’s potential love interest. He is protector and she is thief, though a compassionate, beating heart rests within her graceful breast. Confident and self-assured to the last, she is a figure of stolidity and strength, an anchor of sorts for the narrative, reflecting the interplay of light and dark which exist in all man – like conflicted Bruce Wayne, whom she acts upon, charming him one moment, repelling him the next in a rather profound, believable and grounded relationships – they may be endowed with a certain cunning, a certain intelligence and strength, but ultimately, they are human, with human desires and fears.
Harvey Dent also plays a crucial role within the narrative, as his purer, more human sides are emphasized – here is Dent before his descent into madness, before the scarring of his face and his adoption of the moniker Two-Face. Here, he is purehearted, rather naïve and idealistic despite his apparent intelligence and strength; the desire to aid and restore Gotham motivates all of his actions; the vices and evils which grip the city, which have longed gripped the city, must be destroyed and dismantled. From a design standpoint, meanwhile, outward displays of his strength are apparent, he possessing an overall towering, bulky frame, muscular and almost intimidating, suggesting a certain ferociousness as dwelling within. Existing alongside Harvey Dent is of course Jim Gordon, who adopts an almost noir-like aesthetic, a cigarette always dangling from his mouth, that cigarette producing a thick plume of stylized white smoke, winding and curling gracefully and beautifully in the air. His glasses and moustache, meanwhile, suggest a certain intelligence and masculinity – here is a strong individual, opposed to corruption and unafraid of resorting to violence or whatever need be employed to destroy that corruption; at the opening, his relationship with Batman is one of turbulence, though it seems on the verge of reaching a certain stability; their interests align, so naturally Gordon should gravitate to Batman. No new ground is paved in their relationship or characterizations, but the dynamic existing between these two characters is profound and compelling.
Alongside these three central secondary characters – Jim Gordon, Harvey Dent, and Catwoman – a handful of other characters make consistent narrative contributions, the most notable such character being one entirely original – Lady Arkham, who ultimately morphs into the narrative’s central antagonist. A character of depth and warring motivations, characterized by a certain intrigue, showing also persistent displays of power and ferociousness, she drives the narrative, ultimately saves it from destruction; in such story-driven games as this, some central antagonist or menace must be present, to provide agency, to court and maintain player interest. If such a figure is absent, all agency is destroyed. With Lady Arkham, the narrative avoids this tragic failing – it moves at a brisk pace, sustained by her profundities. Only increasing her depth is a revelation which occurs a fair ways into the narrative, which mustn’t be spoiled as it would detract from these narrative strengths. Either way, alongside this revelation are communications of Lady Arkham’s motivations; once they are revealed and processed by the player, she loses certain of her despicable, antagonistic attributes, instead becoming a creature worthy of sympathy – Lady Arkham, for all her acts of violence and murder, is indeed a tragic, sorrowful character.
With this strong, exhaustive cast of compelling characters, it follows that the narrative was predisposed to success, and it absolutely achieves that success – highly ambitious, it is engaging on both a cerebral level and an emotional one. In much Batman fiction, Thomas Wayne is an object of total reverence, known for his philanthropy and repeated acts of kindness – he is like an idol worshiped by all Gothamites, the beneficiaries of his acts of kindness; Thomas Wayne, seemingly, had a hand to play in all matters of the city, and his actions were characterized solely by justness. But in this title, all of that reverence is boldly discarded, Thomas Wayne actually portrayed in a villainous light – here is no altruism, but here instead is greed, hedonism. It is an immensely impactful, totally novel characterization, as it is even revealed that Thomas was aligned with Carmine Falcone, a brutal mobster embroiled in the city’s more sordid affairs, himself motivated by greed and a possible love of violence. Rounding out this cast of corruption is Mayor Hill, who casts in his lot with the pair, these individuals eventually forming a triumvirate of sorts. The disclosing of this information truly sets the narrative in motion, and this knowledge is communicated as early as the second episode – almost from the first, then, the narrative is characterized by a certain focus and deliberateness; here is no wandering or meandering, but here instead is purpose, as Bruce Wayne is forced to pushback against these rumors, which have destroyed his reputation, his father’s greedy actions influencing perceptions of his son – they are inescapable, and in the figure of Bruce Wayne, the high is brought low. It is easy to imagine the nature of Bruce’s internal struggle, forced to grapple this darkness, to reconcile himself to his father’s corruption.
In the greatest display of their corruption, the triumvirate wrongfully commits countless individuals to the dreary, oppressive Arkham Asylum, even as they are devoid of insanity or instability; anyone who might be considered a threat, or anyone who was viewed with great hatred, could find themselves thrown into the asylum’s walls on the instant. Antiquated in construction and in practice, it follows that life in that asylum would be a brutal, unhappy one. And still Thomas acted, and still the mayor acted – no one is above potential corruption, the narrative seems to be saying. While Thomas has been long dead by the narrative’s opening, he is outright attacked by the figure who eventually morphs into Lady Arkham, her machinations again propelling the narrative onwards; seeking to fight back against corruption, or to revenge herself on Bruce Wayne, she is the figure who discloses Thomas’s corruption, desperate to bring it to an end, desperate to liberate those wrongfully relegated to Arkham’s frightful walls. But rather than lobbying for change with her words, realizing the achievability of those changes to be slight, she makes outright attacks, empowered by a certain chemical substance which places all of Gotham under threat, in that this substance can destroy their sanity, morphing them into violent, unthinking brutes – Batman must intervene, and he is ultimately subjected to that same chemical substance, altering his physiology, precipitating his decline. Of course, good triumphs over evil in the expected manner, but the narrative still benefits from Lady Arkham’s presence, her irregular portrayal; it is rather unique to have a villain whose total motivations are known, and it is rarer still for an antagonist to have compelling, understandable motivations. But Lady Arkham, even with her villainy, does possess believable, sympathetic ambitions, her own parents wrongfully committed to Arkham, direct victims of Thomas’s wanton, unthinking corruption.
Considerable attention has been lavished upon the narrative, but that is solely because the gameplay is lacking in any real depth, is totally subservient to the narrative; nothing engaging or novel is present here. As Gotham’s protector and vigilante, it follows that Batman would often grapple with his foes major and minor – combat is central to his existence, just as much as investigation. Sometimes common foes, devoid of strength and thusly devoid of any real threat, are combatted, Batman often challenging them in search of information, which he promptly receives after sometimes violent interrogations. Other times, stronger foes are fought – Lady Arkham, of course, but also the Penguin, Oswald Cobblepot, who is another major antagonist. But whether fighting some petty thug or the narrative’s ultimate antagonist, these combat encounters are almost embarrassingly mundane and basic – they are inoffensive, but very dull, being comprised almost exclusively by lazy quick-time-events; no direct control is given to the player. Admittedly, the animation quality for these encounters is superb, seeing Batman leap this way and that, punching and kicking, displaying gracefulness and a commanding strength. Combat is suitably visceral, bones shattered, bested enemies collapsing to the ground spectacularly, Batman often giving himself over to his more violent inclinations. The cinematic tone which characterizes the narrative, then, directly transfers over to these combat scenarios, with the excellent animation quality. Still, it would be just as easy – perhaps even better – to simply watch these combat engagements in a more traditional cutscene. But understandably, the developers had to inject some gameplay, and elected to do so through these QTE’s. Rather enjoyable despite their basicness, these situations serve the vital role of breaking up the narrative, marking a temporary reprieve from its sometimes overwhelming, distressing nature.
Player choice is central to the narrative, with four dialogue choices selectable for every choice presented the player, each response appropriately eliciting different reactions from character to character, some results angering and agitating them, others placating or even pleasing them; Bruce Wayne – Batman – is endowed with a certain power, his words capable of acting upon the discourser, influencing them, their actions. Great freedom is accordingly gifted the player, even as facets of that freedom are occasionally illusory – while one response may anger the NPC, and another, different response may please them, larger implications for these speech acts are traditionally lacking – the NPC’s response may be slightly different, but for the vast majority of the time, dialogue is inconsequential. But this is not always so, fortunately, as distributed throughout the narrative are choices actually abounding in consequence, the choice made here altering the narrative in fundamental ways. Accordingly, they were met with great joy, communicating the branching nature of the narrative, communicating also a certain sense of player strength, being able to influence the world in such a dramatic fashion. The game’s episodic nature, meanwhile, only bolsters the impactfulness of these choices, in that they – their repercussions – transfer between episodes. As those episodes progress, further and further branches emerge – here are the fullest displays of narrative ambition, the game seizing upon the potentials inherent to episodic structuring to great effect; the game is adaptive. But none of these narrative strengths, this adaptability, would be of consequence if the writing were bad or abysmal. Fortunately, this is not so, the writing oftentimes fairly clever, while great depth is present in almost every character of some import.
The game expertly captures what it would be like to don Batman’s cowl, the more relaxed, investigative sequences most strongly communicating this sensation. In these sequences, Batman’s skills as sleuth are employed to great effect, showing the duality of Batman’s identity – here is not solely some violent sadist, who willingly initiates visceral interrogations and seems to delight in that violence. But here instead is a more clam, intellectual individual – these sequences are very effective. Multiple times throughout the narrative, crime scenes are visited, explored traditionally after combat encounters have concluded, resulting in a certain juxtaposition, illustrating also the superiority of investigation over combat. The depth of these sequences is, expectantly, lacking, but the player is actually given direct control of Batman, marking these sections as distinct from the exclusively visual, cinematic nature which characterizes other gameplay sections, like the mundane, QTE heavy combat. But what might be revolutionary – the direct controlling of Batman – is ultimately nonrevolutionary, owing to the very limited nature of this control. Meanwhile, the animation quality for these sequences is very poor, almost janky and erratic, as Batman moves around stiffly, a certain cheapness implied in that stiffness. And it is basic: casual walking transpires; objects in the environment are engaged with; then links are made between those objects, often accompanied by clever cutscenes which recreate the nature of the crimes committed. Once every requirement has been met, one final cutscene plays, and the sequence promptly ends. Good and bad characterize these sequences, but again, they give a certain insight into Batman as character, which is furthered with the employment of his various gadgets, the existence of which both point towards Bruce’s inexhaustible wealth, and the vitalness of Lucius Fox, who helps develop those gadgets – here is a useful ally, embedded in Wayne Enterprises, who, with his intelligence, supplements Bruce’s own intellectual attainments, supplying him with useful forensic tools.
As an experience, Batman: The Telltale Series is short, all five episodes completable in a roughly six or seven hour span, an ideal length for such a narrative-heavy title. And the narrative is heavy, abounding in ambition, and easily represents the game’s greatest strength, abounding also in a certain novelty and originality, namely when considering Thomas Wayne, a hero brought low, a hero morphed into villain. Bruce is portrayed sympathetically, too, being a secondary victim of his father’s cruel machinations, while Batman, his alter-ego, is instilled with depth and readily observable strength and intellect. His compelling attributes are surrounded on all sides by many other characters possessive of their own compelling attributes, grounding the title, prompting player engagement, an engagement bolstered further still in the figure of Lady Arkham, possessive of motivations which could be seen as alternately despicable and justified. Highly cinematic and narratively engrossing, the title is seemingly a masterpiece. But it is not so, owing to the dull unrefinement of the gameplay, devoid of the depth present within the narrative – rarely engaging, it exists merely to break up the cutscenes which dominate. This cutscene heavy inclination also makes the experience an almost peaceful, tranquil one, the player permitted to sit back, watch cinematics, only occasionally participating in a QTE or moving about a pre-determined environment, in search of clues and of knowledge. While neither of these two central gameplay pillars – combat and investigation – are outright bad or offensive, they seem included merely out of the expectation that games need gameplay, an absolutely logical, sound expectation, but the gameplay present is ultimately very shallow. But the dialogue options, the branching narrative, the episodic nature of the title – these all mark considerable strengths, and the narrative broadly and its characters specifically compensate for gameplay failings, the end result being a cerebrally and emotionally engrossing title, but one which is far from greatness.