Over the past seven years we’ve been treated to three very good Batman games thanks to the good people at Rocksteady (*cough* …and Arkham Origins courtesy of WB Montreal *cough*). Whether you’re swooping majestically from the sky to obliterate a group of thugs, or stealthily stalking armed targets as you silently infiltrate a heavily guarded area, these action adventure games have really captured what it felt like to be Batman! Now it’s the turn of Telltale Games to pick up The Bat and step up to the plate.
The game starts with a bang, in an action packed first chapter where Batman must foil a heist in progress at Gotham City Hall. After a dramatic entrance and a game of cat and mouse with the goons, it soon becomes a game of cat and bat above the streets of Gotham. During these action sequences the QTEs come thick and fast, but the game is forgiving of fat thumbed button presses and there are only a handful of events that will result in game over; the game features a bat symbol meter in the bottom left of the screen, which when filled through well timed button presses allows the use of a dramatic finishing move. So far so good; the action is thrilling and intense, but it definitely feels like an interactive story with the free-flowing QTEs being so lenient.
Chapter two however, is where the game starts to show true promise, as Bruce Wayne removes the cowl and cape to host a fundraiser for a mayoral candidate. The game devotes a lot of time to Gotham’s billionaire bachelor and it’s this that sets it apart from the games that have come before. Making polite conversation and playing politic would rightly ruin the flow of a Rocksteady title;, but taking the time to flesh out the Batman’s alter-ego fits perfectly with the ‘choose-your-own adventure’ style of the series. My Bruce is a white knight who stands against corruption and believes in a better, brighter future for Gotham. I am certain that through my actions I could have made him a petulant playboy, who’s more than happy to cosy up to the mob to achieve his political goals. The majority of the first episode is played as Bruce; it’s refreshing that it’s really his story thus far, though the game introduces a number of well known characters as well as subtly hinting at a few more, and it’s clear that Telltale have their own take on a few of them.
Thankfully playing as Bats isn’t all about smashing goons and chasing feline felons. Later in the game we get to flex his biggest muscle (don’t cheapen this) and test his prowess as the world’s greatest detective. After investigating a dockside warehouse, Batman stumbles upon a horrific crime scene and has to identify and inspect all the pieces of evidence; he then has to make links between the various bits of evidence in order to piece together what happened. It’s a new and interesting way to frame the narrative, telling the story through the detective’s deductions. Sadly it feels a little bit on rails, as links between pieces of evidence that are incorrect are simply dismissed. It would have been more fun if you had the added risk that making inaccurate deductions or wild speculations would impact the story later.
If narrative driven gameplay and decision making isn’t really your thing (arguably, why are you playing this?), then Telltale have introduced ‘Crowd Play’ to ease your burden. This new feature allows additional people to influence your decisions using their mobile devices or PC. When you start a Crowd Play session, a code is displayed on your screen that allows them to join your game and vote on the choices you make. There are two ways to play, with the first being that the player’s choice is final and will overrule the crowd; the second option being that the game will always pick the majority decision, with the player casting the deciding vote in the event of a tie-break. Telltale say that this mode is optimal for 6-12 people playing together locally, and that it currently isn’t suitable for streaming because latency introduced by streaming services means not all players will see choices simultaneously.
The game is let down by low resolution on both PS4 and Xbox One with Xbox One being the poor cousin. However, better anti-aliasing on the Xbox means that there’s not much in it between the two versions visually; the cel-shaded style is pretty forgiving, so it shouldn’t be too distracting for the average gamer. More annoying is that the frame rate goes up and down like a bride’s nightie, which results in juddery motion and detracts particularly from the free-flowing combat sections. It doesn’t spoil your game or affect the QTEs, but in an interactive story you could easily get away with a slower locked framerate for a more cinematic feel. The game certainly sounds better than it looks though, thanks to a great voice cast including Laura Bailey, Richard McGonagle and the ubiquitous Troy Baker, who does a convincing turn as Wayne/Batman.
Technical niggles aside, it’s a good start to the series. The resolution issue isn’t going to be obvious to most people, unless you’re playing on a massive screen or an inch from the telly. In fact it plays into the hands of the cel-shaded style and emphasises the comic book look as far as I’m concerned. The framerate issues can be irritating if you focus on them, but honestly they don’t detract from the story driven gameplay much, so it’s hard to be too harsh about it. Yes, a smoother experience would be nice, but we’ve seen worse versions of other Telltale games and the story carried those too. Speaking of the story, it’s certainly got it’s hooks into me after the first episode, and the obligatory cliffhanger has left me excited to play the next. Here’s hoping that it continues to flesh out the man behind the mask.
An Xbox One review copy of the game was provided for this review by Telltale’s PR team, and Batman – the Telltale Series: Realm of Shadows is available now on PC, Mac, Xbox One and PS4.