Telltale Games’s take on the Dark Knight is a much-needed step forward in terms of placing gamers in Batman’s boots. Thanks mostly to Rocksteady’s work with the Arkham series, there isn’t a whole lot of fertile ground left to cover as far as Batman-centered action games go, and Batman: The Telltale Series does a fine job proving that point, as its Dragon’s Lair-style QTE approach to combat feels woefully inadequate in providing the experience of being a predatory, bone-breaking vigilante that the action requires. However, Telltale’s particular storytelling skillset goes a long way toward giving players a Batman experience that we’ve never seen before—mostly by allowing players to indulge in the actual detective part of being the World’s Greatest Detective in addition to the experience of being Bruce Wayne.
The logical question is why would anyone want to be Bruce Wayne? The answer here is a fascinating one: Batman, in Telltale’s Gotham, is a mysterious symbol, a force that pushes back against an ever-encroaching darkness, whereas Bruce is real. He has tangible privilege and power that can be used for good. Gotham City still exists when the night is over, and more than any other iteration of the character in a moving medium, Telltale’s Bruce Wayne is shown fighting the good fight 24/7, not just when he puts on his batsuit.
When the game begins, Bruce is helping Harvey Dent with his campaign for mayor against Hamilton Hill, Gotham’s own version of Boss Tweed. Dent represents the kind of hope and change Gotham needs, so naturally, Hill decides to fight dirty, smearing both men in the press, taking every opportunity to discredit their chances, and using his mob buddy, Carmine Falcone, to muscle them out of the race. Bruce’s big choices all involve how best to use his privilege to get Dent to the mayor’s seat. And when he fails at figuring out who to sign the checks to and how best to utilize the press and police department to keep Gotham on the up and up during the day, it’s up to Batman to facilitate things during the night, investigating crime scenes, gathering evidence to hand over to the right people, squeezing information out of scumbags, and infiltrating gang hangouts.
The game is at its best when it’s subverting expectations. Much of the hallmarks of Batman’s universe have been reworked into much more subtle and intriguing human stories. The Penguin is an old childhood friend of Bruce’s whose family was laid low, and returns to Gotham to start an uprising. Once the game introduces Dent, his transformation into Two-Face seems inevitable, but a simple choice early on can keep him from being scarred for life, leaving the physical-trauma factor out of his slide into schizophrenia, which Travis Willingham’s voice performance conveys with terrifying nuance. The Joker is played like a human Pandora’s box, with unfathomable cruelty and gallows humor kept just barely in check while behind bars in Arkham Asylum. Most crucial, however, is a plot thread in which Bruce learns that his murdered parents weren’t exactly saints. The old saying “behind every great fortune is a great crime” has never been applied to Bruce as shockingly as it is here, but Telltale manages to wring a lot of material out of how Gotham treats Bruce in light of how his inherited fortune came about.
The gold at the center of it all, however, is Bruce/Batman’s relationship to Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Live-action comic adaptations could learn a lot from this game: Selina and Bruce learn of each others’ alter egos early on, and while it’s possible to play the staunch hero, on the other side of the line from Selina, it’s far more interesting to push them toward their own personal Thomas Crown-style affair, as two sides of the law sharing common ground and, surprisingly for a game of this sort, no small amount of well portrayed sexual chemistry. It’s Bruce interacting with Selina that tends to guide what kind of hero Batman turns out to be in crucial moments, and the temptation to become a creature of pure vindictive id is always within reach for him, and often justified. If there’s a persistent choice to be made, it’s to use Bruce’s experiences in the daytime to determine the hero Batman will be at night.
That, though, is a noble ambition that Telltale doesn’t quite know how to bring together into a cohesive narrative. After a major twist ends episode three, the game’s juggling act starts to fall apart, with major plot threads resolving with paltry fanfare. Batman’s exploits comes to feel considerably less expansive and city-encompassing than earlier on, leaving some quality subtext woefully unexplored. The worst example is a main plot point that, for much of the series, suggests a more confident, on-message iteration of Bane’s plan from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, but that plot utterly fizzles when it comes to time to delivering a climax in episode five, falling back on lazy tropes and the kind of cartoonish villainy that the series generally does a fine job at avoiding. The game’s frustrating factors aren’t helped by a plethora of technical issues, with the framerate struggling and stuttering in busy scenes throughout the game, even on the PS4 Pro. The latter third of the game shrugs at every given moment where it needs to be triumphant.
It’s still a worthy endeavor to play around within the Batman universe in the point-and-click-adventure-game format, and it’s clear that Telltale has a wonderful handle on the disparate elements that make all the best Batman stories worth watching or reading. It’s frustrating to see the game struggle to finish what it starts, but there’s more than enough here to suggest that, with some refinement, Telltale can easily get the story to take flight in the future.