What a difference an episode can make. The first installment of Telltale’s Batman series, Realm of Shadows, was a solid, occasionally dull, introduction to a re-imagined Dark Knight. Children of Arkham improves upon its predecessor in nearly every way, delivering a thrilling second act chock full of shocking revelations, genuine surprises, and excellent pacing. If Episode 1 was designed to get players on the rollercoaster, Episode 2 straps them in and launches them full speed on an incredibly fun ride.
The conclusion of Realm of Shadows saw Bruce Wayne in dire straits. His parents, hailed as beacons of virtue in the otherwise baleful Gotham City, have been accused of having alleged ties with the mob, tarnishing the Wayne’s reputation as well as endangering the election of Bruce’s friend, Harvey Dent. That left a huge dangling carrot: was Thomas Wayne associated with organized crime? Children of Arkham wastes no time clearing that fog, and the sinister truth surrounding the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne is a genuine eyebrow raiser that sets the bar for more big surprises throughout the episode.
One major improvement is the pacing. The story unfolds at a satisfyingly brisk tempo, with scenes delivering information concisely without meandering, a weakness in the prior installment. As a result, a whole lot more goes down in the story, but it never feels like developments are being rushed or crammed in. This also makes Episode 2 fly by compared to Episode 1. Like watching a gripping episode of your favorite TV show, you’ll be surprised (and disappointed) at how quickly the credits seem to arrive.
The higher stakes add urgency and weight to decision-making. Telltale casts a large spotlight on how players choose to cultivate Bruce Wayne’s complicated (and potentially strained) relationships with Catwoman and Harvey Dent, as well as the fallout from how Batman chose to deal with Falcone in Episode 1. Thankfully, these decisions actually do result in wildly different outcomes that are poised to affect both Batman and Bruce Wayne, either positively or adversely, for the rest of the series. Two particular forks in the road caused me to pause the game and seriously consider my selection, one of which is a Sophie’s Choice-style final decision that creates the most significant ripple effect of the series so far. After witnessing both endings, I’m excited to see how each paths play out.
I’m enjoying how characters are handled thus far, especially Bruce and Catwoman. Particular praise goes to Telltale’s re-imagining of Penguin, whose gritty makeover as a revolution-obsessed fanatic feels like something Christopher Nolan would have done if he ever got his hands on the character. The take is different enough to give this story its own identity, but Cobblepot retains enough classic Penguin traits (he’s still a crime lord and despises the Wayne family) to keep him from becoming completely unrecognizable. Harvey Dent remains a total tool bag and, surprisingly, the weakest character of the series, but at least Children of Arkham’s more urgent tone forces a more serious, tolerable performance.
Gameplay takes more of a backseat role this time and, honestly, I didn’t mind at all. With a story this engaging, I’m perfectly fine with gameplay being short and sweet if it means keeping the narrative rolling. Detective work takes the bench this round, and activities like scanning a city map for the source of a signal require such minimal effort that it feels more like obligatory busywork than anything creative or exciting. Combat remains one-note, and the finisher meter feels even more like a needless afterthought. If nothing else, a slickly choreographed fight sequence involving Batman and Catwoman provides a neat combat showpiece. A few technical hiccups, such as sound effects randomly cutting and occasional slow-down, rear their ugly heads now and again and can greatly detract from the experience when they do.
Children of Arkham picks up the pace and raises the stakes. Lighter gameplay means you’ll be watching more than participating (and when you are interacting, it’s nothing exhilarating) but the tumultuous events that unfold compensate by seizing your attention and never letting go. That’s a trade-off I can accept in a narrative-focused adventure. While the first episode merely piqued my interest by the end, this follow-up has me flashing a bat signal telling Telltale to deliver Episode 3 ASAP.
Telltale's Batman Episode 2: Children of Arkham 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.