Telltale Games has put their own narrative spin on a variety of popular franchises like The Walking Dead, Borderlands and even Game of Thrones. Each of these games released as an episodic experience, rolling out new chapters every few weeks. The same can be said for their latest release, Batman: The Telltale Series – Episode One: Realm of Shadows. While the few hours you’ll spend on the first chapter is intriguing and sets up the following four episodes with some excellent characters and storytelling, the game has an immense amount of technical shortcomings due to an engine that is extremely outdated and in need of a massive upgrade.
Telltale’s Batman is crafted from various aspects of the character’s almost 80 year run, picking and choosing certain parts here and there while also bringing in some new concepts, like the relationship of Bruce Wayne and Oswald Cobblepott, to this iteration. While the game plays itself fairly safe in this first installment, I can just imagine how great the consequences to my actions will be felt further down the road. You’ll make and break allegiances, pick sides and put your trust in a variety of characters. Do I give the evidence to reporter Vicki Vale, or put my trust in James Gordon? You’ll make this choice and have to deal with the fallout.
The plot starts out simple; Bruce Wayne is throwing a campaign party to endorse Harvey Dent in his run for mayor. Eventually, certain aspects of Thomas and Martha Wayne’s past comes to light that attempts to break down and ruin the Wayne name, and subsequently, Bruce himself. While the story itself will stay very close to that part of the narrative, characters and storylines will come to surface and intertwine themselves based upon your choices as both Batman and Bruce Wayne.
Unlike other Batman games in recent years, or rather, ever, you’ll play a large portion of this game unmasked as Bruce Wayne. I would say the ratio of Bruce to Batman is nearly 50/50 with each character having different mechanics at their disposal. As Bruce, you’ll deal more in conversation and choice, while as Batman you will fight, investigate and interact with various Batman villains.
Bruce’s interactions are what will shape the narrative going forward as well as show us public perception into the dealings of Wayne Enterprises and the criminal element. Do you shake Carmine Falcone’s hand or ignore his reach, both choices have dire consequences, many of which probably won’t be felt until later episodes.
As Batman, you’ll have a few mechanics to learn: Fighting, Investigation and Planning. Much like every Telltale game that has some sort of fighting aspect to it, you’ll use analog stick and face button prompts to perform feats of combat that are situationally relevant to what is going on on-screen. Someone tries to leg sweep you, you’ll flick the analog stick up when the arrow prompts you, and if you need to duck, a down arrow will appear on-screen. The combat is fluid, fun and well directed during every encounter. The opening section of the episode has Batman in the shadows taking down mercenaries one-by-one, before the fantastic encounter with Catwoman.
Investigation takes a more point and click approach as you’ll move the cursor around to find and gather evidence. You’ll be able to link these sections of evidence in the area together to get a better grasp of what went on. I am hoping that putting together these clues becomes far more involving and with varied consequences in the following episodes as it plays it extremely linear here for a game that is usually about choice. Planning revolves around scouting out your surroundings with a drone, spotting various threats and picking options on how to deal with them. If you mess up with the planning stage, it’s possible for Batman to die.
Having just played Tales from the Borderlands a few short months ago, Something about the voice talent in this game just felt far too familiar as both main actors from that series are back here again in the main spotlight. Troy Baker is here voicing Batman and Bruce Wayne, while Laura Bailey is both Selina Kyle and Catwoman. While I love each of these two actors, it’s just an easy cop-out for Telltale to take these two and put them front and center again, and so soon. Troy and Laura are great here, don’t get me wrong, but it feels as though Telltale took the easy route in casting their lead characters.
The remainder of the cast is fairly serviceable here with Travis Willingham as Harvey Dent, Erin Yvette as Vicki Vale and Richard Mcgonagle, from Uncharted fame, as Carmine Falcone. Other characters like Gordon, Alfred and Oswald are ok, but didn’t stand out enough for me.
Most conversations will play out differently for most people as most reactions and responses are choice driven, so your mileage may vary on the level of acting and delivery. I found the dialogue to be stiff and stuttered in most ways, like each sentence wasn’t meant to follow the next. This is very apparent early on during Harvey Dent’s speech and a discussion with family friends of Thomas and Martha Wayne.
There are aspects of Episode One: Realm of Shadows that look fantastic, but it’s so few and far between. Batman, Catwoman and anything regarding the both of them can look anywhere from good to great to fantastic depending on the scene. Take the costumes away and that is where the game falters. Regular clothes don’t quite hold up to the same cel-shading excellence that the costumes do. Faces are typical of what you’ve seen in the past few games from Telltale, but for some reason Selina Kyle’s facial expressions border on awful to just not good. Certain parts of the cel-shading don’t hold up, especially when characters are moving their arm’s to cross them or raise them above their head.
The game also has issues with fine detail, causing “jaggies” to pollute the game in nearly every scene. Jaggies appear as a stair-stepping effect when the game can’t render smooth surfaces. I also laugh at the lack of variety in each character’s clothing. Harvey Dent wears the same outfit that is depicted on his campaign photo’s and Vicki Vale’s press photo is the same outfit she wears when not at the campaign party at Wayne Manor. It’s a trivial nuisance, but one that is extremely noticeable and just comes off as lazy. The clothes themselves are low resolution and some details are just oddly blurry, another issue I chalk up to the aging game engine.
The engine used in the game must also impact how much can be shown on screen as it must be the reason behind the bare bones crowds the game offers. Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne host a press conference regarding the future of Arkham Asylum, in which maybe a dozen or less characters are there in attendance, it just makes the world feel really small.
Animations for a simple thing like walking are just awful. When Bruce is walking around his environment it is as though he is imitating a robot. It’s like the entire walk is a loop of four to five frames on repeat. Most character’s have a stiffness to them that once you see, it’s hard to un-see.
Character designs are pretty decent except for Harvey Dent and James Gordon, who both look like they’ve been hitting the gym far too often. Harvey Dent is built like a bus when he doesn’t need to be and looks incredibly out of place here when compared to Bruce Wayne. Other characters like Selina Kyle/Catwoman, and Vicki Vale look pretty decent, aside from some facial animations, and are par for the course for a Telltale game, but It’s Alfred’s design that leaves a bit to be desired here and is probably the worst in the game so far.
While the story, characters, combat and mechanics do manage to be enjoyable, it is the technical parts of the game that sadly muddle with the overall enjoyment this title should bring. The engine these adventure games are built upon has aged far too poorly and only small parts of this title manage to visually impress. It’s also possible that the games visuals on current generation consoles and PC have been limited to create visual parity between them and android and iOS devices, which would be a shame if true.
I like where the story and characters seem to be going and look forward to the release of Episode two. It’s just a shame that we didn’t get a freshly made experience here and instead something that feels more like Telltale adventure hand-me-downs.