Batman: The Telltale Series – Episode One, ‘Realm of Shadows’ Review [PC]
Telltale Games' fresh approach to the world of the Dark Knight makes the first episode of Batman: The Telltale Series an mostly worthwhile escapade into the life of Bruce Wayne. Taking a radically different path from the likes of Rocksteady Studios in telling a Batman story not only gave some much needed perspective into the other half of Batman's life, but allowed Telltale to play to its strengths in narrative and dialogue. It's unfortunate then that the PC version of Batman: The Telltale Series is so marred by performance issues that it's a real drag to play, and a challenge to enjoy.
Set in its own pocked DC Comics Universe, Telltale's Batman takes place early on in Bruce's career as Gotham's vigilante defender. The world is slightly different from the one you might know from comics, though it features all the major players you have come to know over Batman's 75-year history. While Bruce Wayne is still trying to find out how being Batman can best honor his parents' legacy, Harvey Dent is running for mayor, James Gordon is battling GCPD corruption and Gotham's increasing crime rate, Selina Kyle has just arrived to town to stir up some trouble, and Alfred is still the loyal butler in charge of Wayne Manor and all its secrets. The foundations of this Gotham may be recognizable, but the developer isn't afraid to alter that world for the sake of its story.
Without delving too deeply into the first episode's plot, "Realm of Shadows" follows Batman's plight to uncover the truth about gangster Carmine Falcone's involvement in a string of crimes around the city, while also following Bruce's path in making Gotham a better place through more natural channels --- such as backing Harvey for mayor, or working to open a new hospital for citizens with mental health problems.
Telltale's game leans heavily on Bruce's exploits early on, letting players get a glimpse into the true work/life balance he has to deal with every day as Batman. It also plays greatly to Telltale's strengths in dialogue and choice, as Bruce is a much more public-facing persona and has a lot more to say to people like Vicki Vale or Harvey Dent than Batman does. That's not to say you won't get some time in the suit, but action has never been the true focus of Telltale's adventure games. Character interaction, and your decisions in how people react to one another, is the real driving force. It all works rather well, and there are several different ways to play Bruce throughout, whether you want him to be aloof or forgetful of the persona he's trying to hide.
For the most part, all of these moments work tremendously well, and there are some sections --- like an afternoon meeting with Selina Kyle --- that Telltale just nails. The tension is palpable, and the writing team does an admirable job with all the available dialogue options to create some terrific double-speak for the characters having two conversations with each other while seemingly having only one to anyone else listening. That kind of interaction is challenging enough to do when there's only one real path of conversing, but with all the options you have to react, the balancing act could have flopped. Fortunately, this moment and many others succeed, and drive the core of this game.
As strong as all the writing is, it's not quite impressive enough to overcome the myriad of technical issues currently plaguing the PC version of Batman: The Telltale Series. If you can actually manage to get the game to play without any finagling, you'll be faced with an adventure with a frame rate choppier than the most violent of seas. It's not a massive problem when interacting with people as Bruce, though it's not without its detriments why trying to mouse over dialogue options. However, the moment you don the suit, the frame rate issues all but ruin the immersion of being Batman. Missed quick-time even cues are frequent, and end in "Game Over" screens more often than not. Additionally these stuttering problems don't allow you to enjoy the new combat elements in the least.
Alongside some new combo attacks and (what we imagine to be) great combat choreography, Batman has a little power-up meter in the lower corner that fills with every successful attack or defense you're able to pull off. When it's filled, you get an option to execute a finishing move. During our playthrough, we were only able to fill the meter fully once, and heard far more failure indicators than we had in any previous Telltale game. Depending on your set up, the reasoning for these issues varies, but the issues persist nonetheless. Additionally, it's worth pointing out that playing the game in full-screen turns into a jaggy mess on top of frame rate issues, and you'll more than likely be forced into playing windowed to even be able to enjoy the game at all.
It's a shame too as Batman: The Telltale Series looks splendid when not in motion. The upgrades to Telltale's game engine are terrific, and Gotham and its denizens look great in this new style. There's still a decidedly comic book feel to the world, but there's a lot more depth to each character model, and the lighting is among the best we've ever seen in a Telltale game. It needs to be for a game that follows Batman around, and in the brief moments where everything is working as intended, Telltale's work here is commendable. That just isn't the case for very long or very often.
There's so much to like about the way Telltale has envisioned this world and these characters. It's no small miracle to create a story worthy of Batman's lineage that takes place early in his career so soon after the successes of "Zero Year" or in the same breath as seminal stories like "Year One." What Telltale has been able to do from strictly a narrative standpoint is up to the company's usual high standards. Enjoying those moments is an absolute challenge though, as so much of the rest of the game just doesn't work properly. Telltale has earned our trust to eventually rectify these qualms, but Batman's adventure is still off to one of the roughest starts we've seen from the developer.
This review was completed using a download code for Batman: The Telltale Series - Episode One, "Realm of Shadows" provided by the publisher for PC.