Review: Batman – The Telltale Series Episode 1: Realm of Shadows

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We all know the origin story behind Batman at this point, right? Spoiler alert: Bruce Wayne’s mommy and daddy are murdered right in front of him as a child, inspiring him later on as an adult to become the Batman, and give Gotham City’s criminal element someone to fear. One of the things I appreciate most about Realm of Shadows, the first episode in Telltale’s story-driven adventure starring the Caped Crusader, is the way it handles the origin story, using ambient imagery and clever narrative devices to reveal Bruce’s tragic past. The events of his childhood are as strong a driving force as ever without dwelling on the past for too long or directly going through his retreaded backstory beat by beat.

Instead, Realm of Shadows jumps right in with Bruce Wayne having already established his presence in Gotham as Batman but still before his rogues gallery of iconic villains have risen to infamy. The story splits time fairly evenly between fighting crime and being the world’s greatest detective as Batman, and playing the billionaire playboy role of Bruce Wayne, laying the groundwork for relationships with key characters like Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Harvey Dent, Vicki Vale, Oswald Cobblepot, Alfred, James Gordon, and Carmine Falcone. In this first episode, the storyline centers on Mr. Wayne as he becomes embroiled in the shadowy underbelly of Gotham politics while supporting Dent’s campaign for Mayor, leading to a scandal that threatens to tarnish the sterling reputation of the Wayne family.

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Violent and gritty to the tune of an ‘M’ for Mature ESRB rating, Telltale’s take on the Batman mythos is rooted in the comics, but is not a direct adaptation of any previous work. This means character dynamics and story beats are familiar while also introducing different wrinkles that change things up enough so that this doesn’t feel like a retread of the same old Batman tale. The relationship developing between Bruce/Batman and Selena Kyle/Catwoman in particular is my favorite story thread so far, as there’s already a really strong flirty, rivalrous chemistry between the characters that has me eager to see more. Fittingly, the voice-overs by Troy Baker and Laura Bailey in those respective roles are the standout performances so far–though the acting across the board is top shelf.

Per Telltale tradition, choices and consequences serve as the branching narrative’s backbone. Key moments and conversations are accompanied by a list of dialogue or action choices that must be quickly considered and made before a countdown bar runs out. As Batman, you’re mostly making choices that dictate how aggressive he pushes his morality when dealing with baddies, while decisions made in the role of Bruce fall more into personal relationship building, choosing when to be confrontational, who to trust, or how flamboyant or arrogant to make him seem to the public. You’ll know when you’ve made a choice with future ramifications by a text prompt that will appear with vague statements along the lines of “Harvey Dent will remember that” or “James Gordon took notice.” At the end of the episode, a chart recaps the key choices and graphs your decisions against those of other players in a percentage comparison. This is also the first of Telltale’s games to introduce a “multiplayer” component called Crowd Play, which lets other players with supported mobile devices watch and vote on decisions. I haven’t tried this yet and it’s not a feature that interests me as a preferred solo gamer, but for communal players I can see how it might be interesting to watch along and help influence the outcome.

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As well told as the story is so far, I have encountered a number of glaring incongruences between choices and resulting reactions. For example, at one point Batman interrogates a criminal. I went through the interrogation only intimidating the bad guy, choosing not to hit or injure him in any way. Gordon even acknowledged my nonviolent approach, and yet in a subsequent scene I watched confusingly as Alfred scolded Bruce for taking things too far and beating the man half to death. Huh? That never happened. Another smaller inconsistency involved an interview with Vicki Vale, in which I decided to give her a quote for her story only to later read an updated entry in the codex under Vale’s profile that said she prodded me for a quote but I said no deal. That doesn’t line up at all. Hopefully in the long run the cause and effect balance improves.

In terms of direct interaction, the game has a mix of traditional adventure exploration and hotspot clicking to go along with various quick time event action sequences. Surprisingly, the QTE sequences, which involve pressing keys/buttons, movement directions, or scrolling a targeting cursor into a larger reticle as the prompts appear, are mostly fun and do a solid job of capturing Batman’s use of gadgets as well as his kinetic fighting style. Now there are some insta-fail moments, but for the most part the QTEs are lenient as far as being able to miss multiple prompts without immediate failure. A meter in the shape of a Bat-Signal depletes with missed prompts and refills with successful presses, so there is some leeway. Then again, I’ve always liked QTEs more than most players seem to, so maybe I’m the wrong person to ask here. If you’re not a fan of QTEs in general, this game’s probably not going to change your mind.

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The cool part is when you get to use Bat-tech to surveil a location and plan out a sequence of attacks by linking enemies to different objects in the environment. The proceeding QTE sequence will then unfold with different actions based on how you set things up. Does Batman throw a thug through a folding screen divider or slam his head into a nearby table? Does he toss a Batarang to cut an overhanging light fixture into falling on a foe or grab a piece of statue art and smash him with that instead?

A similar object linking mechanism is used for crime scene investigation. After walking around and inspecting for various clue hotspots, correlating pieces of evidence need to be linked in order to piece together what occurred. Once everything’s properly linked, Batman activates a ghosted reconstruction of the scene to further progress the story. I liked this part a lot and look forward to hopefully seeing more complicated crime scene reconstruction puzzles in future episodes.

As is becoming an unfortunate pattern with Telltale launches, poor optimization is the game’s main weakness at the moment, primarily with the PC version. The stuttering framerate has already been well documented, and it is a serious flaw because it severely impacts response timing with cursor movement and QTE recognition, in addition to causing aesthetical blemishes like slowdown and delayed lip synching that mar the otherwise sharp graphic novel visuals. Updating drivers may correct the problem for some players, while the introduction of a graphics setting in a post-launch update to select between High Performance or High Quality textures may help for others. But there definitely still seems to be an underlying lack of engine optimization at the root cause, because even after updates there’s no rime or reason behind when the slowdown occurs. Sometimes I’ll start a scene and it’ll stutter along like a slideshow, but then I’ll quit out and reload the checkpoint, which usually allows me to proceed through the same exact scene without a hitch.

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Bugs are a concern, too. Playing with a gamepad, I’ve encountered a completely broken QTE in the opening portion of the game where it prompts me to press RT and A together to do a finishing blow, however pushing those buttons (or a combination of any other buttons–I’ve tried them all to no avail) doesn’t do anything. It’s one of the QTEs that must be pressed successfully or Batman dies, so I’m literally stuck in a failure loop with no way to advance. (Fortunately, I had already played through the game with mouse and keyboard before testing out the gamepad control scheme.) Elsewhere, I’ve had the codex computer terminal get stuck while in the Batcave, forcing me to quit and reload from the start of the chapter, remembering to ignore the codex on the next attempt. In another instance, I encountered a QTE sequence where a couple of the icons failed to correctly overlay on top of the characters, so I had to guess which key it was asking for (at least the only single-key options are Q or E). There also currently seems to be something out of sync between the game and the Steam network, as the game doesn’t appear in my profile, I can’t look up achievements (even though they do work), and uploaded screenshots don’t appear in my activity feed. All of these things add up to a general lack of polish.

Realm of Shadows has some glaring issues indeed, but the funny thing is the game itself, when it’s not stuttering or succumbing to other bugs and inconsistencies, is pretty damn fantastic. In fact, I’m already optimistic about the series’ potential to be my favorite Telltale adventure yet. I like the direction the story is headed, and I’m eager to see where my decisions lead Bruce Wayne and Batman over the long haul. The action and detective sections are very well done, certainly more of a highlight than I anticipated going in. All that said, I do have concerns about some early gaffs regarding choices and the resulting consequences or reactions not being simpatico. If decisions I’m making now aren’t going to line up with long-term consequences in future installments, that will hurt the totality of the experience when all is said and done. Telltale’s debut with the Dark Knight is off to a somewhat bumpy yet overall strong and promising start, but I’m not completely sold yet so for now I’m taking a wait-and-see approach, hoping that some of the early warts get removed as the series progresses. I’ll report back with a full season in review down the road to render a final verdict.

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Pros:
+ Well written story
+ Strong characterization and voice acting
+ Interesting crime scene reconstruction element
+ Solid Batman QTE action scenes

Cons:
– Bugs and performance issues
– Some glaring inconsistencies with choices/consequences not lining up

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also on PS4 and Xbox One (PS3, Xbox 360, and mobile still to come)
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: 8/2/2016
Genre: Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by publisher

Buy From: Buy the season pass for $24.99 on Steam, Telltale Online Store, GOG.com, PlayStation Store, and Xbox Games Store. Boxed copies of the console versions are available to pre-order for $29.99 at Amazon.com.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!