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Batman: The Telltale Series Review (Episodes 1 & 2)

Batman: The Telltale Series is enjoyable because it’s about Bruce Wayne instead of Batman. That might sound counterintuitive – aren’t Batman stories supposed to be about Bruce Wayne and Batman? – but it offers an unexpected reprieve from the grim tediousness that has saddled the character in recent years. The Telltale Series flips the ordinary balance of power, giving players a better look at the man behind the mask rather than the vigilante wearing it.

It arrives at the perfect time considering that Batman has never been more exhausting. From Christopher Nolan to the Arkham series to Zack Snyder, the latest adaptations of Batman have increasingly focused on Batman to the exclusion of Bruce Wayne. The preeminent version of the caped crusader is presented as a philosophical symbol that should command our utmost severity and respect. While efforts like Arkham Asylum and The Dark Knight have been excellent, others have asked the audience to do a lot of intellectual heavy lifting that the character is too lazy to do himself. Dawn of Justice wasn’t a metaphor for anything heroic as much as it was a weary showcase for a billionaire solving problems with aggression.

On the surface, the M-Rated Telltale Series seems to be a continuation of that dark vision. The story features an unusual amount of blood and murder, and there’s no question that we’re supposed to take it seriously. Fortunately, it’s less incongruous here than it is in any of the Arkham games, primarily because much of the violence happens in the periphery. The game’s goriest moment is a crime scene that Batman is investigating after the fact. Though the fistfights are brutal, Batman is not always the instigator, and his actions feel proportionate to the threats presented.

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It makes the violence feel like an existing characteristic of Gotham rather than an extension of Batman himself, and the game is engaging because it allows you to choose how you want to respond to that violence. The dynamic also complements Telltale’s decision-based gameplay. Telltale’s Bruce Wayne is still trying to figure out how Batman fits with the rest of the Gotham landscape. The violence becomes a backdrop for that decision, and the story is flexible enough to allow for multiple interpretations.

Is the Dark Knight a lawless vigilante who will break a thug’s arm just because he feels like it? Or is he restrained enough to let Bruce Wayne handle issues with diplomacy and tact?

That wouldn’t have worked as well with an older, more experienced Batman, but The Telltale Series features a younger version of the character so the decisions still have some weight. The game is set shortly after Batman’s debut in Gotham. He’s been around long enough to become a fixture of the local news cycle, but he’s still enough of an unknown that he’s yet to earn Lieutenant Gordon’s trust and characters like Catwoman (and Selina Kyle) are strangers when they first show up. The plot in the first two episodes – the second of which debuted last week – revolves around Harvey Dent’s pre-Two-Face campaign for Mayor, an effort undertaken with considerable financial backing from his close friend Bruce Wayne.

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The premise proves to be a surprisingly good fit for Telltale’s signature format. Like the studio’s previous efforts, Batman plays out as a collection of conversations, investigations, and quick time events, and for the most part the mechanics are simple yet effective. I could do without some of the quick-time events, but fight scenes are a necessity in a Batman game and the variety is ultimately to the game’s benefit. The Telltale Series is exceptionally well paced and the linear fight scenes make Batman feel more tactical than he usually is in video games.

In any case, the game’s substance comes from conversations with rich donors, political figures, and criminal underlings. Many of the toughest decisions are about managing Bruce Wayne’s public image rather than beating up bad guys. Can you afford to be seen talking to a mob boss during a fundraiser? Will giving a quote to a reporter mitigate the media damage in the middle of a scandal? They’re questions that are seldom asked in the Batman mythos, and the novelty alone is enough to make The Telltale Series worthwhile.

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However, it’s the willingness to remix the Batman mythology that makes the game truly fascinating. In most tellings, Bruce Wayne’s parents are paragons of virtue, the only beacons of hope in a city on the decline. Telltale begins to deconstruct that legacy in the first two episodes of Batman, suggesting that Thomas Wayne came to prominence alongside Gotham’s most notorious gangsters. So far, it doesn’t seem to be a misdirection. The game strongly suggests that Thomas Wayne was complicit in some extremely shady behavior, standing as the smiling public face that helped legitimize a massive underground operation.

The unexpected twist shakes the foundation of the entire franchise. Too often, Batman’s back alley backstory is a lazy escape clause, a bit of familiar exposition that suggests that Batman has a motivation without bothering to explain what that motivation is. Telltale denies itself that easy out, and in the process it forces the game and the player to delve deeper into the psyche of the character. When the Wayne’s benevolence comes into question, Bruce is forced to reevaluate what it is that drives him to be Batman. Not only must he determine his role in the present, but he must also grapple with his family’s past. Can he stand for the people of Gotham when the inheritance that makes it possible may have been illegally acquired?

The result is an astonishingly nuanced image of Bruce Wayne. Batman’s legacy in The Telltale Series is more interesting than any we’ve seen on film, to the point that you almost wish it could become the canonical origin story for the character.

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In fact, the game’s only real problem is that it’s never fully able to shed Batman’s long publication history. Though The Telltale Series wants to build a new character from the ground up, doing so can be difficult when classic characters like Selina Kyle or Harvey Dent are present. It often felt like my choices were based on my knowledge of who those characters will grow to be rather than who they are to Bruce Wayne at that moment, though I don’t think there’s a way around that. The Telltale Series gives players the opportunity to select one of the many different and sometimes contradictory Batmen that have existed over the years, and it’s impossible to forget about that lineage while playing the game.

Fortunately, it doesn’t diminish the impact of the series. Too many adaptations assume that Batman is more interesting than his alter ego. The Telltale Series recognizes that an understanding of Bruce Wayne is vital if you want to understand Batman, and that makes it one of the most intriguing takes on the character in years. I look forward to finding out more when the next few episodes are released in the months ahead.

 

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