I approached the idea of Telltale Games making a Batman series with some reluctance. I’m by no means a fanatic of the Caped Crusader, but I’ve consumed enough Batman media to be able to hold the first episode – Realm of Shadows – under some measure of scrutiny. I’ve only read Year One, The Long Halloween, The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns in terms of comics but I grew up with Batman – The Animated Series, enjoyed almost every film and played through Arkham Asylum and Arkham City more than once. So while my knowledge isn’t encyclopedic, I have more than a cursory knowledge of the characters and setting. I’ve seen the concept pass across media through many talented hands (Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan, Paul Dini, Frank Miller, Alan Moore) and Joel Schumacher’s, so I’m at least educated enough concerning the subject to give it a thorough analysis and judge whether it’s been treated fairly.
Batman – The Telltale Series Episode 1 Realm of Shadows: Windows PC [Reviewed], Mac OS X, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Android, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, iOS
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Release Date: 2 August 2016
Price: 22,99€ [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Publisher]
In the Realm of Shadows
The stage is set, as it often is, with a robbery. Masked goons are preparing to break into a reinforced room inside Gotham City Hall and speaking about a certain someone that injured some people last week. One of them scoffs at the idea as a shadowy figure drops on top of the roof across the street. One grappling hook shot later the masked figure is hurtling toward the window in slow motion as the thug stares in disbelief. An on-screen prompt tells you to press a button to smash through the glass and take the criminal down. As the rest of his crew scramble to see what happens, another prompt shows you a direction. Batman darts through the foreground from cover to cover as the others look for him.
The game of cat and mouse lasts for a while, the player prompted at key points to stealthily take out the thugs. As their numbers wane, they become more frantic and a head-on confrontation seems inevitable. This is where the more time-sensitive quick time events start popping up. Realm of Shadows addresses one of my complaints leveled against the Telltale style, voiced most recently in my coverage of The Walking Dead: Michonne series, namely the stale nature of the button prompts.
Appropriately for a seasoned combatant such as the Dark Knight, the game allows you to feel like you’re planning each blow with surgical precision as time slows down to a crawl while you press a variety of buttons, rather than just mashing the same one incessantly like in the past. There are also many instances where you’ll have to press a direction and an action button simultaneously, which somewhat seem to match the situation: down to slam someone’s head into a desk, left or right to dodge and counter and so on. Each successful hit will fill up a meter that once full allows you to execute a finishing move and usually ends the encounter. This, however, seemed mostly cosmetic and scripted to me and after some experimenting, I couldn’t say whether filling up the meter faster will make the combat encounter shorter.
The opening fight is cleverly woven together with Alfred tending to his employer’s wounds while scolding him for his night-time job. This immediately hints to the action of Realm of Shadows taking place some time towards the beginning of Batman’s career, reinforced by the police’s reluctant attitude during the previous scene. As you take control of Bruce Wayne it is revealed that the D.A. Harvey Dent is running for Mayor of Gotham City, and Bruce is funding his campaign. One of the things I liked a lot about Realm of Shadows was how much it let the players delve into the high society lifestyle of Bruce Wayne. There is plenty of Batman to go around, but I know Batman. The man behind the mask, not so much.
It was interesting seeing some of the day-to-day social dynamics and politics he has to deal with before dressing up and pummeling through crime at night. Of particular interest to me was a reimagined Oswald Cobblepot whose identity I won’t ruin for the laymen (although some of you might know already who he’s supposed to be). This time around he’s a former childhood friend of Bruce’s whose family has lost their fortune and lived a life of crime as a consequence. He seems to be concerned with equity and hinted at something resembling a 99% revolution at some point in the future. I suppose we’ll see.
As Batman you get to engage with various Caped Crusader activities. I already mentioned the fights, but there is also detective work to be done and there are bad guys to interrogate. At one point I had to analyze clues at a crime scene using my Batechnology (I’m so sorry) and link various pieces of evidence together to eventually puzzle out what had happened using Augmented Reality gadgets such as what we saw in the Arkham games. At another point I was given a vantage point and a clear view into a criminal base of operations and allowed to plan an entire action sequence ahead, with several fun variations to choose from. Yet another welcome break from the tired Telltale formula which kept my interest piqued all the way through.
Atop The Gotham Skyline
I don’t know if it’s something with the engine or just the way the light works in Realm of Shadows but I thought it looked a lot better than any recent Telltale series. There have been titles before that had dynamic lighting but most tried to hold on to the comic book aesthetic and thus the light mostly contributed to the cel-shading effect. This time, in addition to what I think are softer contour lines for the character models, the lighting is much smoother and it makes a world of a difference. The streets of Gotham, or at least the bits we get to explore display a lot of attention to detail, with signs and graffiti decorating the walls and campaign posters reminding one of the greater workings of the city.
Of course, the engine still hasn’t changed and it has its handful of problems, although less egregious than the last time it and I have met. Many players have had abysmal frame rates on launch, prior to a patch expediently delivered by Telltale. Apparently, what happened is that the game used the machine’s on-board graphics card instead of the dedicated one, leading to poor performance. This is by no means a new problem (my girlfriend encountered the same with Game of Thrones) and I hope it’s the last we see of it. The animation could do with some improvement as well, but I think I’m in the minority that’s not too bothered by it. On the bright side, I had no problems playing it with my Xbox One controller this time.
I’ve had some minor issues with sound as well: there were one or two scenes where I seemed to lose the sound effects for punches and smashes and all that good stuff. If it was a stylistic choice it was a poor one. On the topic of music, I can’t say I have any complaints, but it was not exactly a memorable soundtrack either. All I could tell you, a few days after playing Realm of Shadows is that it leans more towards Hans Zimmer than Danny Elfman. Voice acting, on the other hand, is great as always, on par with the rest of Telltale’s body of work. And while I’d hate to speak against the one and only true Bat, Kevin Conroy, seasoned voice talent Troy Baker does a fantastic job playing the two sides of the protagonist.
The choices are a bit thin, however. Previous licenses that Telltale has worked with were very accommodating, thematically, to volatile group dynamics and questionable morals, but most of what makes Batman is so cut and dry that it’s tough to make narratively meaningful choices. We’ll have to wait and see in a few months what exactly I get to reap from what I’ve sown. The combat, while blissfully dynamic as I’ve said earlier does seem to lack consequence. I did a trial run where I stood there ignoring all the prompts and Batman still reacted, without taking a single punch, to all of his attackers. The only difference was that his finishing move meter didn’t charge as often, but there were enough instances where failing a prompt meant a game over that it always seemed to be full by the time I needed it.
I wish I could talk more about the group play functionality but I haven’t had a chance to try it out. Essentially you gather up some friends to watch you play with their millennial gadgets like smartphones or tablets and they can connect to your session and vote on any choices you have to do. It definitely sounds interesting for a second play-through, and a fun idea for a movie night. I might give it a try some time before the series finale.
It may be just my Batman bias talking, but I thoroughly enjoyed Realm of Shadows. It’s a slow start, but very densely populated with interesting characters and varied gameplay mechanics. It tackles some things about the character that the gaming medium hasn’t thus far and it shakes up the usual Telltale formula as well, in spite of some forgivable flaws. Polished, good-looking and thrilling, it’s a welcome breath of fresh air from Telltale Games and the Dark Knight as well. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.