“So, what are we thinking: modern art or hanging light fixture?” I’m asking two friends about which way we should severely concuss a man. We spent the last five minutes curating Batman’s not-so-subtle entrance into Falcone’s skyscraper headquarters using a drone, and every method involves tossing people into (sometimes through) solid surfaces. Afterwards, in typical Telltale A-or-B fashion, we get the moral choice to brutalize an important character or not. I hardly know what it even means anymore, but no matter, this is Batman’s secret vocabulary, and Telltale’s interpretation of the character is as hazy as ever. You position Bruce Wayne through dialogue choices and pivotal decisions against the same inconsistent moral question Batman has always faced: how far should vigilante justice go? It must at least go into and through modern art, I suppose.
Unfortunately, episode one of Telltale’s story-driven adventure game—where dialogue choices and quicktime punching sequences make up the bulk of the action—doesn’t have time to address Batman or Bruce Wayne’s character in full, shifting most of the focus onto setting up a story that digs into Wayne’s origins—and no, I’m not talking about his parents’ murder. They go deeper. The result is a domestic comic book story that does little to change the Telltale formula, but might change Batman’s. You’ll see no crocodile men here, just gangsters and politicians and quick time events.
The setup is is fairly simple: Harvey Dent is running for Mayor, and Bruce Wayne is backing him. Notorious crime lord Carmine Falcone arrives at their fundraising party as a public supporter of Dent, and Bruce can choose to take umbrage with that or not. We kicked his ass to the curb, worried that keeping close ties to a notorious criminal might tarnish Dent’s and Wayne’s reputation. Meanwhile, in an earlier scuffle with Catwoman, Batman recovered some supposedly valuable data that’s taking a while to decrypt. Several parties, a few unknown, are fighting for control of the data, because a harrowing truth hides within. One that may change how Wayne thinks about himself, his duty and limits as Batman, and those he formerly considered enemies—the revelation (and my attention) just comes right at the tail end of the episode.
As expected, there are a few tough decisions Bruce has to make: who to take valuable information to first—the media or the police? And the classic Batman conundrum: do I bash this goon’s face in or just threaten him to obtain valuable information? Does your Batman endorse torture? Mine does. A lot. Building your own twisted or rule-abiding version of such a popular character is fun, but what effect your decisions have remains to be seen. Our Wayne swung wildly between being a stern, steadfast jerk and crying about the death of his parents whenever we could—he was especially unhinged, and we chose to reflect that in Batman’s violent behavior. Even though a casual punch from Batman sounds like a semi truck hitting a meat fridge, I enjoyed the pressure of having to choose between alarmingly brutal and efficient methods versus playing a safer Batman with a (slightly) softer touch.
But the Bruce half of Batman doesn’t come off as a fully-formed person. Troy Baker’s delivery sounds like vanilla Troy Baker, a bit too everyman to make this version of Wayne stand out, particularly when delivering dialogue meant to rattle. Lines like “Sometimes… you need a monster” sound a bit too gallant, and hardly honest. The big reveal at the end will surely be a chance to showcase and test who Bruce is, but for most of Realm of Shadows, he just serves as an envoy between primary characters and the player. He’s our perspective into Falcone, Dent, Gordon, and others, but by the end, all we get is the outline of Telltale’s Wayne served through dependable but familiar Telltale dialogue choices and quick time events.
Action sequences get rid of Telltale’s usual button-mashing prompts in favor of complex button combinations. Instead of slamming E to slam a henchman’s face on a desk, you press Shift and E at the same time. I’m no fan of mashing buttons, so I prefer the fast work my brain has to do to press more buttons under pressure instead of slamming the same one. There are also a few playful uses of action prompts, like pressing a direction to make Batman flash through the foreground while stalking goons, but subverting quicktime event expectations is a sign that Telltale’s quicktime events themselves are routine. While the action sequences are well choreographed and tense, pressing buttons to see them along has been losing its appeal for a while now.
Which is my primary issue with Telltale’s Batman: no matter the quality of writing and action, it’s held back by Telltale’s design trappings. Animation is stiff and awkward, undermining performances and art with a lethal dose of the uncanny, a continual disappointment, especially for a series whose first intent is to tell a cinematic, performance driven story. It’s possible to enjoy Realm of Shadows—I recommend playing with friends—but it’s hard to look beyond the shortcomings when we had Alyx-Vance-tier character animation on PC way back in 2004.
Realm of Shadows is an enjoyable, routine introductory episode to what might be a unique Batman story, framed in Telltale’s dependable, but tired quicktime-dialogue framework. It suffers from the time spent setting up pieces for a substantial narrative hook, so my hope is that it fundamentally changes and challenges Wayne throughout the remaining episodes. I want to see him disempowered and tested: what would Batman look like if Wayne had no wealth? Is it justice if your suit isn’t shiny? But at this point, it’s worth waiting until the next episode or two to get an idea for where the story is headed now that the pieces are in place.