Batman games have always focused on the legend, but never the man. That is to say that in pretty much every game about the Caped Crusader you spend almost all of your time playing as Bats and rarely as Bruce. The experience is one of empowerment; of being the unstoppable Dark Knight, although the Arkham series did explore Batman’s twisted relationships with the super villains he puts behind bars. None have really looked at the duality of being Bruce Wayne being Batman. We see the superhero, but not the deeply troubled socialite that feels the need to take the law into his own hands.
That’s why Telltale’s new Batman series is a refreshing change of pace. Although you still rough up your fair share of goons as the Caped Crusader, it humanises the legend of the Batman by having players spend just as much time playing as the man behind the mask, as the scourge of Gotham’s criminal underbelly, and is all the better for it.
Presented with a young Bruce who has only recently taken up the mantle of the Dark Knight, Telltale’s series strikes a similar tone to Batman: Year One, though visually it looks like a mash up of Rocksteady’s Arkham series and Warner’s classic animated series from the 90s.
Harvey Dent is running for mayor and Bruce Wayne is his biggest backer, but after mob boss Carmine Falcone crashes a fund raiser at Wayne Manor, questions begin to be asked about the Wayne family’s possible links to organised crime. While his family name is dragged through the mud in the press and the GCPD come knocking looking for answers, Batman is in the middle of decrypting some sensitive information found on a flash drive recovered from Catwoman, lifted from a safe in the Mayor’s Office.
In a way never explored in a video game before, Realm of Shadows explores Wayne’s duplicitous nature as Bruce Wayne uses his influence to gain information to help his investigation as Batman and vice versa, showing in more ways than one that money and influence are just as useful as super powers in Gotham City.
Despite long-time fans being able to predict exactly where the plot is heading (especially where Harvey is concerned), Telltale have thrown one curveball into the mix by introducing a very different take on Oswald Cobblepot, AKA Penguin – who in this iteration is a childhood friend of Bruce Wayne, and after squandering his family’s fortune, returns to Gotham in order to start a revolution against the rich and powerful. Where it will go is anyone’s guess, but Telltale are always at their best when they enhance a mythos in some way rather than merely emulate it, so this change is welcome because Penguin, is well, boring.
Though the choices will probably not change the over arching narrative a great deal in the end, like The Wolf Among Us, Telltale’s Batman series presents us with an opportunity to delve into the psyche of the character and decide what kind of Dark Knight you want to become. Do you break a goons arm to get information out of him, or merely scare him? Do you give the dossier of info to the press or the Police? Do you let Falcone use his influence to help Harvey win the election? Or throw the bastard out on his arse? (guess which one I went for).
That’s not to say there isn’t any action; it opens with Batman foiling a heist at city hall and a roof top battle with Catwoman. The game also features Bats taking out a room full of mobsters in what can best be described as a QTE re-imagining of the predator sections from the Arkham games. These also feel far more responsive and a part of the action than before, with quick flicks of the left analogue stick and well timed button presses helping the action to flow nicely.
This being a Telltale game, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the voice acting, especially seeing as Troy Barker can now claim to be the only actor to play both the Joker and Batman. To be honest, I preferred his Joker, though he’s still on fine form as the tortured billionaire turned vigilante. Richard Mognagle (better known as Victor ‘Goddamn’ Sullivan in the Uncharted series) steals every scene as mob boss Carmine Falcone, while both Erin Eyvette (Tales from the Borderlands) and Laura Bailey (Uncharted 4) turn in fantastic performances as Vicki Vale and Catwoman respectively.
It’s also worth mentioning that Telltale have finally got round to updating their engine, and though it uses the same distinct cel-shaded stylings of Telltale’s other games, it just flows a hell of a lot better with improved lighting and a better poly count that make the visuals really pop. It also runs a really well on consoles (something the original, least until the PS4 and XBOne came along, did not.)
In all Telltale’s Batman series gets off to great start. Realm of Shadows gives players enough intrigue to mull over, and asks some pretty big questions to keep you hooked and looking forward to the next episode, while providing a rare take on Batman that sees the character of Bruce/Batman in its totality rather than as two distinct personalities merely existing within the same body. Its greatest achievement though is to make me care just as much about the fate of Bruce Wayne as I do about what villain is going to pose a new threat to the Bat.