It’s not who Telltale are underneath; it’s what they do that defines them.
Before I start complaining, let’s just get one thing straight. When Telltale Games brought us their interactive take on The Walking Dead series, I was as mesmerised by it as everyone else. This was how it should be done: nuanced, conflicted characters making difficult choices. Choices that we had a say in, and events that we could influence in what felt like meaningful ways. There was plenty wrong with it too, but the triumph of its storytelling overcame the distractions.
Now, with a list of major franchises trying to repeat the trick, and years of experience under Telltale’s collective belts, I’m finding it really hard not to notice those distractions. Batman is the latest big name to test the loyalty of Telltale’s fans, executing the old formula with an almost sloppy disinterest while adding little that’s new. It’s a sense of unearned legacy that catches my eye more than Batman’s problems in and of itself. If you’re content to receive more of the same, then my growing frustration – just to warn you – might come across as unduly harsh.
I kind of resent this game. I resent it in the same way I did LEGO Batman 3, which similarly tipped my scales towards a dislike of all LEGO games for their careless lack of progress in fixing their own template, despite any of their undeniable surface appeal. So it is with Telltale’s Batman; increasingly, I find it impossible to see past the glaring technical problems and clumsy gameplay design, even while acknowledging the well written story that is be found here.
This first episode, Realm of Shadows, is intelligently pre-occupied not just with Batman, but with Bruce Wayne, the man. More interested in exploring his relationships than his heroic exploits beneath the cowl, Telltale introduces a series of classic Gotham characters and sets up an intriguing detective story with Wayne and his family at the murky centre. His connections to Harvey Dent’s mayoral campaign are set against rumours of past and present mob affiliations. But who is spreading the rumours?
The supporting cast members are similarly imbued with a human depth: Selina Kyle and Oswald Cobblepot have more screen time as themselves than they do their alter egos Catwoman and Penguin (the latter gets no mention at all, in fact). And even though Carmine Falcone’s turn as underworld mobster is as cold and ruthless as you would expect, his motivations may be more complex than appearances betray.
The player’s involvement with these characters is all about choosing how Wayne deals with them (either alone, or voted on by a group via the excellent tablet-based Crowd Play feature). You might snub Falcone at Dent’s fund raiser and risk incurring his wrath, or save face with him at the expense of a hostile press looking for weakness. The choices here are often political, and their impact is felt in subtle ways, perhaps in a newspaper headline as it blows across the ruin of Cobblepot Park. Of course, it’s too early to tell how significantly these decisions will play out across the wider narrative arc.
Already though, there are signs that Telltale’s touch for weaving a convincing mirage of influence is faltering. When asked by reporter Vicky Vale for a quotation, my Bruce Wayne acquiesced. This didn’t stop the Batcave’s profiling computer from recording that he’d denied her an interview. When my Batman performed an interrogation just before Gotham PD showed up, Gordon acknowledged his non-violent approach. Back home, a dressing down from Alfred was apparently in order: “You beat that man half to death”, he blustered.
Even aside from these obvious mistakes, there are more fundamental questions about the role of an interactive story where the major beats are already established, and how much choice is really advisable with an established character such as Bruce Wayne. Defined by the loss of his parents, would it make sense to ask if he would petulantly destroy a memento of his parents’ final moments for no real reason? This game dares to ask that very question.
If Telltale can’t get this stuff right, the house of cards is close to toppling. Convincingly immersive storytelling is their perceived strength, and the ancillary elements of their games have been forgiven their weaknesses in turn. One such weakness is in the physical interactions of their characters, usually reduced to scripted quick time events in place of any real control. Not so terrible in principle given the focus of the game, but still Telltale’s engine stutters and stalls, serving to deny any impact the action scenes might have otherwise carried.
On current hardware, this is simply unforgivable. Though the graphical design delivers a convincing vision of Gotham and its denizens, the technical implementation should comfortably run on an Xbox 360. Yet it is regularly unable to keep up, most egregiously when more than two characters are in shot. When every scene is strictly prescribed without any player interference allowed, there seems little excuse for the engine to be taken by surprise as frequently as it is.
I should make it clear that there is an interesting story being told. More forgiving eyes will enjoy following this reimagined Batman through subsequent episodes. But it is time to stop forgiving the ramshackle way in which Telltale delivers its stories. Just as the costume is an integral part of the Batman mythos, so the storytelling medium is the fulcrum upon which a successful narrative can rest. Living up to the Wayne legacy is a matter of uncertainty for Bruce. Telltale should be asking themselves similar questions.
Batman was provided to us by Microsoft via a download code for Xbox One.