Friday, 13 January 2017

Batman: The Telltale Series - Review

Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Platforms: Android, iOS, PC, Mac, PS3, PS4 (version played), 360, Xbox One 

Batman: The Telltale Series is something of a misnomer in many respects. It’s a game about Batman, for certain, but primarily it’s one that focuses on Bruce Wayne; his relationships, and the things that drive him.

Telltale’s got something of a difficult job with Batman. As with Game of Thrones last year, it’s tough to navigate a series which already has so much established lore. Worse still, there’s already been three great Batman games (well, two and a half, Arkham Knight is very much the odd one out in that trilogy), that have established Batman in video games. It’s difficult to know where to go from there.

The decision to focus on Bruce, rather than Batman, is an inspired one, and by far the most intriguing aspect of the game’s storyline, separating the game from previous takes on the masked vigilante. Telltale games are at their best when they are tugging on your morality; it’s not always about giving the player multiple distinct choices to make but rather pitting intriguing moral questions at the player. When it’s done right the consequence of your choice is sometimes less important than why you made that particular decision in the first place.

The first two episodes of Batman handle this pretty well. The major players are introduced; Harvey Dent, Oswald Cobblepot, Lieutenant Gordon and Vicki Vale, amongst others. Whilst Batman might be the brute force solution to many of Gotham’s problems, Bruce Wayne is portrayed as the manipulator, pushing Harvey Dent in the right direction (what’s “right” is entirely up to you) as he backs his campaign for mayor, whilst also having to manoeuvre around both the Gotham police force and the media.

Each character has their grievances, not to mention their own angle. Game of Thrones did this well enough last year, expanding the inter-group squabbles of The Walking Dead to instead encompass  a swathe of characters all with their own agendas.

Batman does something similar. Vicki Vale wants a scoop on what’s going on, Cobblepot wants his family’s wealth back, Selina Kyle is looking out for number one, and Gordon...Gordon just wants to put the bad guys away.

It’s far from perfect, and one of the biggest criticisms of Batman’s plot is that some characters lack suitable motivation. It’s difficult to set up any question of a characters loyalty when some of these characters are defined by the fact that they are clean-cut and all above board. You don’t have to be a fan of the comics to know that Gordon is probably the kind of guy you can trust, whilst the Penguin is absolutely the opposite.

Which is where Telltale’s take on Batman begins to get bogged down by what’s come before. It doesn’t help that the writers bite off far more than they can chew. Between Harvey Dent, the Penguin and Lady Arkham, that’s far too many villains for a five episode series and it quickly shows. What starts as a tightly crafted story around Bruce and Dent’s friendship and Dent’s subsequent transformation into Two Face, quickly gets sidetracked by the myriad of side stories, drowning out the most interesting dynamics that Telltale bring to their game.

The Penguin in particular is a character that’s both poorly written and sticks around for far too long. A spoilt rich kid now devoid of his wealth, the early episodes pitch him as some kind of class warrior gone bad. He talks about “revolution”, one that conveniently allows him to get back the wealth that his family lost. There’s a whiff of Heath Ledger’s Joker about him between the unhinged performance and the nods to class warfare.

It’s initially interesting. So much of Batman: The Telltale Series is about its central character balancing his two identities; the man and the mask. Even more so is the interesting notion that whilst people might appreciate the Batman, Bruce Wayne is just another rich asshole, and that the real source of Gotham’s problems might be its super-rich upper-class. The early episodes of the series have a stab at this, and the subsequent revelation that the Wayne family is responsible for a lot of what is wrong about Gotham is an interesting premise.

Like so much of the series however, any initial interest quickly begins to wane. Around the halfway mark, the Penguin’s importance to the central story is all but spent. Rather than solely focus on Harvey Dent however, the game instead throws in yet another villain with the shoehorned Lady Arkham, and then decides to throw in a Joker cameo to boot, teasing future series even when it’s not done with this one.

The latter episodes, particularly the final one, “Child of Light”, suffer from increasingly sloppy writing. Two Face’s storyline; ostensibly the initial focus of the entire series, is concluded in around two scenes, with the emotional payoff being blunted by the bloated cast and rushed scenarios. Even the choices that the player has to make seem less interesting or indeed relevant as the game progresses. It doesn’t help when the game seems to outright ignore them. After witnessing Wayne Manor get burned down at the beginning of the final episode, Bruce returns to speak to Alfred later on only to find the place miraculously restored and spotlessly clean. Alfred is damn good at his job it seems…

Stepping away from the story for a moment, the changes to the basic point-and-click gameplay are also underwhelming. There’s a few moments where Batman is left to piece together clues in the environment. Now, it’s understandable that Telltale want to keep these sections relatively simple; their style of game definitely benefits from a brisker pace and doesn’t want to get bogged down by adventure game minutiae. Yet, these sequences are so laughably simplistic that they undermine Batman’s identity as a super-smart detective. Literally linking a nearby murder weapon to a pool of blood is hardly an incredible feat of deduction and is arguably simpler than the “puzzles” featured in other Telltale fare.

The biggest complaint however, goes to the technical aspects once again. Telltale games have never played all that well, which is rather baffling when you consider they are not that resource intensive. Things were improving however, and from what I remember, Game of Thrones ran substantially smoother than, say, the first season of The Walking Dead.

Batman is the first time Telltale have worked with a new and improved engine, and let’s just say it’s not all that improved. The usual bugbears are in attendance, most notably the awkward judders and stalls between scene transitions, along with awkward pauses mid-scene as the game shifts camera angles. Stiff character models plague the game, and worst of all are combined with poor lip-syncing, with entire lines in some cases becoming out of sync with the character models. It’s baffling that this in particular should be an issue in a game where the major focus is on characters talking to one another.

All of these problems could have potentially been fixed had the developers taken more time between episodes. Given the fairly fast release time (an episode a month), at least by Telltale standards, Batman is clearly a game that suffered from its developers attempts to get the episodes out on time to meet their schedule.

All of these criticisms might give the impression that Batman simply isn’t worth it, but it’s frustrating to criticise a game like this because there’s genuine potential had the story been given some more work. The first couple of episodes definitely hint at something more interesting than where the game ends up; the question of “what makes a hero” being replaced by more and more bland QTE fight sequences.

As it stands, Batman is definitely somewhere alongside Game of Thrones as one of Telltale’s more recent, weaker attempts. Had they taken more time with this, it would have made for an interesting take on the caped crusader, one that, curiously, chose to focus more on the fun to be had playing as Bruce Wayne, rather than his brooding alter-ego.


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