There’s a reason not many superhero games place players in the average shoes of the hero’s normal alter ego. How many people are itching to transcribe interviews as Clark Kent or partake in science projects as Peter Parker when they could be performing superhuman feats as Superman and Spider-Man, respectively? Telltale Games tackles this challenge in their episodic Batman game by attempting to make the events of Bruce Wayne’s life as important and exciting as the Dark Knight taking on the crooks of Gotham. While acting out the role of the brooding billionaire doesn’t always get the blood pumping, some promising narrative set-ups and tense decision-making keeps the Bruce Wayne experience from being the drag it easily could have been.
Realm of Shadows begins on a high note. A break-in at the mayor’s office leads to a showdown between the Bat and armed mercenaries. Batman’s full display of combat prowess during this sequence translates to Telltale’s signature style with mostly successful results.
Quick-time events consist of fast-paced button prompts and analog swipes to capture some of the rush of hand-to-hand combat. It’s a more engaging gameplay experience than in previous Telltale titles, and while I wouldn’t call any of the prompts difficult, they’re a solid test of your reflexes that demand your attention. Batman’s arsenal of high-tech gadgetry is also on display and sport unique mechanics, such as moving a reticle inside the center of a circle to fire the grapple hook.
Nailing a QTE provides some level of satisfaction, but players can blow every prompt and scenes still proceed largely as planned with insignificant differences and only handful of hard fail states sprinkled about. It’s like getting a trophy for participation: you still win even if you don’t try. A new finishing maneuver attempts to counter this by offering a small incentive for getting things right. Successful button inputs fill a meter that when activated, unleashes a stylish - and often brutal - conclusion to confrontations, such as Batman violently smashing a thug’s face in.
Finishers are a good idea in theory, but the lack of freedom in using them takes much of the fun out as Telltale clearly pushes players to activate the move during specific moments. In one encounter, I purposefully failed every prompt to see if I could complete the scene without triggering my finisher so that I could save it for another fight. The result was a fatal gunshot and a game over screen. There’s little satisfaction in working towards a mandatory reward. Maybe this hand-holding only occurs in this pilot episode. I hope so, otherwise you could easily do away with the meter altogether and present these maneuvers like any standard button prompt.
Outside of fisticuffs, players also dabble in detective work. This boils down to inspecting points of interest and literally connecting the dots to see if clues add up, such as linking a bullet hole with a headshot victim. Since these are introductory puzzles, don’t expect your deductive skills to be pushed to their limits, but the design shows potential and fits nicely within Telltale’s framework. I hope to see these puzzles grow in complexity in future episodes, but the offerings presented here are acceptable as an appetizer. The same dot connecting feature mechanic extends to planning an assault against a group of enemies. Unfortunately, with only a handful of options (do you hurl a guy against some stairs or smash his head into a column?) and the lack of ill-advised choices you don’t feel smart or clever here because you're just choosing variants of the same cutscene.
That leads to my big issue with the Batman side of things in this episode: choices don’t feature much consequence. Either you die outright and have to start over or a missing a prompt means nothing. There’s great opportunities here to make decisions have some weight via combat. In one scene, I dodged gunfire from a gangster only to take him down soon after. Failing to dodge the gunfire in the scenario results in Batman taking a bullet, but it’s irrelevant because everything proceeds as planned anyway as if Batman wasn’t shot at all. Make it so that getting wounded leads to altered scenes/gameplay where an injured Batman has to cope and produces tougher gameplay - anything to make me care that I messed up a sequence.
Decision-making is more substantial in the lengthy Bruce Wayne segments. Batman’s narrative centers Harvey Dent’s mayoral campaign, which Bruce supports morally and financially. The success of Dent’s campaign hinges on which characters Bruce chooses to interact with and he how he behaves doing so. Whether it’s mingling with an influential family to gain their support or addressing the media during a crucial press conference, your actions paint Bruce in either a favorable or less savory light that reflects on Dent’s image.
The focus is very much on Bruce in this episode with his various dilemmas serving as the foundation for a majority of the narrative. It sounds boring on paper but, thankfully, most of the choices you confront feel important and aren’t so much about right and wrong but rather different methods of approaching situations. Are you confrontational towards a mob boss’ thinly veiled threats or do you play along and project the appearance of submissiveness? Is it more effective to release crucial evidence publicly through Vicki Vale and the media or to trust Jim Gordon and the police to perform their duties? Unlike Batman’s combat, which needs clearer punishments, the shades of grey for Bruce Wayne is appropriate. I like how decisions feel more like choosing a preferred method instead of just simply doing the objectively right thing, and the consequences have enough weight (or at least hint that they will) to make them matter.
Realm of Shadows does a commendable job of planting intriguing narrative seeds set to bloom in future episodes. Chief among them: A dark secret that could irreparably damage the reputation of the Wayne family. The most surprising twist occurs when Batman’s world bleeds over into Bruce’s normal life during a moment I won’t spoil here. Toss in the mysterious re-emergence of Bruce’s childhood friend, and upcoming installments are already brimming with storytelling potential.
Realm of Shadows is a solid introduction that thus far delivers on its promise of making the decisions of Bruce Wayne feel as important and engaging as Batman’s. The narrative shows promise as do gameplay elements such as crime scene investigations, but the lack of player freedom and consequence in combat leaves that aspect feeling somewhat flat. All in all, this is very much another Telltale adventure game and that extends to their increasingly dated graphics engine. There’s plenty of narrative intrigue and affection shown for the property to make Realm of Shadows a surefire recommendation for Batman fans. Anyone else, especially those burned out on the Telltale experience, need to ask themselves if the license alone is enough to carry them into another episodic adventure series.
Batman: The Telltale Series Episode 1 was reviewed on PlayStation 4 and is now available for Xbox One and PC. It’s also coming soon to PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, iOS and Android