Review: ‘Batman - The Telltale Series’ (2016) | Pop Culture Crossing

            As the title indicates, Batman - The Telltale Series is Telltale’s adaptation of the DC Comic’s Dark Knight. Set in an episodic framework, the game allows players to make key choices that will impact certain story beats. In addition to this agency, the game features comic book art-styled visuals and not only focuses on Batman, but allows players to portray Bruce Wayne. The game was released in 2016 and is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, and mobile devices. This review does not examine each episode but assesses the first season as a whole.

            The game’s story is unique in several aspects. The choice-based approach and ability to make choices as Bruce Wayne and Batman result in an interesting take on the character and his lore. As such, the story features two plot threads, one for Wayne and Batman, respectively, that weave together to create the larger narrative. Crime-related problems test Batman when a new sinister organization, the Children of Arkham, and its maniacal leader is revealed.

Image Courtesy of Telltale | DC Comics

Image Courtesy of Telltale | DC Comics

            Simultaneously, Bruce Wayne faces challenges as negative revelations regarding his family and their legacy are publicized. Wayne must attempt to manage the matter as he endeavors to maintain control of Wayne Enterprises and serves as the primary financier for Harvey Dent’s mayoral campaign. All of these affairs add layers of complexity.

            Players should be made aware that the story here deviates significantly from the traditional Batman continuity. Those who are not privy to this and are expecting a story that aligns with the main Batman mythos will likely be shocked (and maybe upset) by the story changes. It is best to treat this game as an Elseworlds one-shot or miniseries, one that is separate from the Batman canon.[1]

            I generally prefer the conventional Batman continuity, but Telltale’s story is pretty unique. Despite the deviance, similarities to Batman: The Animated Series, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and Batman Begins can be seen. However, mature elements preclude the game from being accessible to a wider cross-section of gamers and Batman fans.

            The game and story are presented in five episodes. In general, the pacing is pretty good. Once Bruce is faced with the new account of his family and the Children of Arkham make themselves known, the story really becomes mysterious and intriguing.

Image Courtesy of Telltale | DC Comics

Image Courtesy of Telltale | DC Comics

            Being my first Telltale game, I had anecdotally heard that Telltale video games have problems and are made in a purportedly outdated engine. During my playthrough, drawbacks were evident. In the first one to two episodes, I thought they were relatively minor, but they persisted until the end of the final installment.

            For example, choppy editing made for awkward scenes and transitions. After issuing a response, the reaction or follow-up could be rough. Fortunately, this did not occur in every scene, but was prevalent enough to be mentioned. More editing and refinement was needed to correct these problems.

            There were a few instances when it seemed as though the choices I made were not registering with other characters. In reality, it is likely that I did not realize the degree of the reactions, but it still was odd. When I did not opt for the most violent choice, I would later be chided by other characters for utilizing over-the-top violence. The in-game media even insinuated that I was a crony of a well-known criminal, though the accompanying video footage clearly showed Bruce Wayne giving the man in question a very chilled reception. These cases were perplexing and rather irksome and hampered the pace.

            Tonally, Batman - The Telltale Series revolves around revenge, perception versus reality, corruption, and the effects of public opinion. Being a Batman story, it should be no surprise that the story deals with crime and corruption. However, the story is perhaps at its strongest when it explores the depths of the corruption and how one’s perception of others or a legacy can be challenged when faced with a competing reality or standpoint. Generally, these elements were well done. Although Batman stories can be dark, images of grisly, close-up violence and other disturbing material came off as vulgar and unnecessary.

Image Courtesy of Telltale | DC Comics

Image Courtesy of Telltale | DC Comics

            The gameplay is heavily narrative-based. Choices, often with a time limit, are given that make players react with little time to fully analyze the situation and choices. This ties into the pacing in that it makes conversations flow quite naturally, unless interrupted by the uneven editing or dropped audio. The amount of freedom and agency provided is notable, however.

            Players can decide to be passive, in some instances even ignoring others’ comments, benevolent, neutral, or pragmatic. The gameplay and story strikes a balance as it forces players to consider situations both Bruce Wayne’s and Batman’s perspectives. Given that player choices will shape not only relationships but may directly impact other characters, it really feels as though every decision is important and substantial.

Image Courtesy of Telltale | DC Comics

Image Courtesy of Telltale | DC Comics

            Though this framework does afford agency, the game still very much aligns with Telltale’s story. Some characters will still act the way they do because it follows the narrative. People often talk about crafting their own experience in Telltale games; that may be true, but only to an extent. Because players may have this mentality, the more linear portions of the story may feel shoehorned or forced. It would befit first-time gamers to temper their expectations.

            Combat is well-presented as quick time events or button prompts. It was entertaining to have the ability to seamlessly chain combos together without button mashing. It would have been nice, however, to have a controller option to adjust the analog stick sensitivity. Some parts felt more unruly than needed as they required a cursor to be placed in a designated area.

Image Courtesy of Telltale | DC Comics

Image Courtesy of Telltale | DC Comics

            It would have also been nice to have the option to restart an episode from certain save points. If you make a wrong choice and want to correct it, the only way this could seemingly be done was to quit before another save point engaged, or if the player missed that opportunity, the chapter had to be finished and immediately replayed. This could be cumbersome as the episodes are not short but typically last over an hour. Having to finish a chapter when you know you are immediately going to replay it, and with the desired choices, nullifies the story’s novelty.

            Batman - The Telltale Series uses the Telltale animated art style. The visuals complement this particular game because Batman launched as a comic book property. Overall, the comic book, cartoon style looks great. Sadly, it is uneven and inconsistent. Fire and smoke effects are more photo-realistic and look out of place as they do not match the style and aesthetic. In some scenes the characters and environments looked layered and defined, giving an impressive amount of depth. Yet in others, the art appeared to be flat and incomplete. During one sequence, the textures did not display properly as large portions of the screen were occupied by flickering black shapes.

Image Courtesy of Telltale | DC Comics

Image Courtesy of Telltale | DC Comics

            Similarly, some of the sound design and audio matched the irregular visuals. Audio was dropped in several scenes and transitions. When this was coupled with the flat visuals or rough editing, it made the game feel incomplete and unpolished. It is unclear if the audio in a flashback scene with Harvey Dent was intentionally echoing, perhaps for an expositional effect, but when the audio echoed for the majority of the coda, it was quite disappointing.

            Another minor critique revolves around several characters being inaudible when wearing face masks and using voice changers. This was a particular shame since they are common superhero tools. By and large, the voice and audio effects sound good, but when there are numerous hitches, they become increasingly noticeable.

            Musically, this game is remarkable. Jared Emerson-Johnson’s orchestral compositions nicely capture the gritty, dire, and heroic atmosphere. The music’s high-quality enriches the experience and is a highlight.

Image Courtesy of Telltale | DC Comics

Image Courtesy of Telltale | DC Comics

            In conclusion, Batman - The Telltale Series is a good, entertaining experience. Having played it over the course of a weekend, it was nice to have little interruption between episodes. Thus the overall pacing and story is well executed, though others will prefer the original, drawn-out release schedule.

            As previously mentioned, gamers should know that the story is an Elseworld adventure. Despite the lurid and irregular nature of the violence, some story beats, and gameplay, I thought the game had a good conclusion. Nevertheless, I am curious to see what Telltale has in store for the future of Batman and Bruce Wayne. If you are an age-appropriate gamer and a Batman fan who is open to an Elseworld tale, you will likely appreciate what this game has to offer.

Back Matter:

Publisher: Telltale Games; Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment[2]

Developer: Telltale Games; Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment[3]

Version Reviewed: PlayStation 4

Initial Release Date: August 1, 2016 (Xbox One)[4]; August 2, 2016 (PlayStation 4 and PC)[5]; September 14, 2016 (Xbox 360)[6]; September 20, 2016 (iOS)[7]; October 26, 2016 (Android)[8]

Platform: Xbox One; Xbox 360; PC; PlayStation 4; PlayStation 3; iOS; Android

Copyright Holder: Telltale, Inc.; DC Comics[9]

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Rating: M; Descriptors: Blood and gore, language, violence, season; Blood and gore, language, violence, Episode 1: Realm of Shadows; Violence, blood and gore, language, Episode 2: Children of Arkham; Violence, blood, sexual themes, language, use of drugs, Episode 3: New World Order; Violence, blood and gore, language, use of drugs, Episode 4: Guardian of Gotham; Violence, blood and gore, language, Episode 5: City of Light[10]

Bibliography: 

[1] Booker, M. Keith, ed. Comics through Time: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas. 4 vols. (Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2014), 1469.

[2] https://www.giantbomb.com/batman-the-telltale-series/3030-51726/; https://www.warnerbros.com/studio/news/warner-bros-interactive-entertainment-and-telltale-games-enter-worldwide-retail.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/store/p/batman-the-telltale-series-the-complete-season-episodes-1-5/bq2zz6wtzzjz.

[5] https://store.playstation.com/#!/en-us/games/addons/batman-the-telltale-series-season-pass/cid=UP2026-CUSA05332_00-BATM000000000000?emcid=ps-se-717&utm_medium=Paid_Search&utm_campaign=Playstation&utm_source=Google&utm_term=ps-se-717&utm_content=Brand; http://store.steampowered.com/app/498240/Batman__The_Telltale_Series/.

[6] http://marketplace.xbox.com/en-US/Product/Batman-The-Telltale-Series/66acd000-77fe-1000-9115-d802584114bb#.

[7] https://www.igdb.com/games/batman-the-telltale-series.

[8] Ibid.

[9] https://telltale.com/series/batman/.

[10] http://www.esrb.org/ratings/search.aspx?from=home&titleOrPublisher=Batman%3A%20the%20telltale%20series.