The final moments of Batman - The Telltale Series: Episode One posed an interesting question: What happens to Bruce Wayne when the core beliefs that guide him are undermined? Episode Two: Children of Arkham feints at answering this, but shifts its focus to establishing a villain instead. It’s an episode that has some unexpected moments, but ultimately feels less ambitious with its narrative than its predecessor.
Although Bruce and his crime-fighting alter ego might get the most screen time, Oswald Cobblepot is the focal point of this episode. Oz was a childhood friend of Bruce’s, but his family fell on hard times, so he fled Gotham and turned to a life of crime. Upon his return he spoke of an impending revolution. The sparks of that revolution ignite in episode two.
Telltale does a good job of presenting Oswald as a complicated character. His actions are undoubtedly villainous--which shouldn't come as a surprise, given he is the Penguin--but revelations about the downfall of the Cobblepots begets Oz some well-deserved sympathy. You’ll never quite root for him over Batman, but when his justifications are revealed it becomes easier to understand what’s driving him. Despite this, Penguin isn’t charismatic as a villain. He schemes and grandstands, but it’s never in a way that’s thrilling to watch. Thankfully, episode two alludes to there being a bigger, badder villain behind the scenes.
Episode two is also about Bruce Wayne's father, Thomas Wayne, whose deepest, darkest secrets are laid bare for all to see. What you learn about him would be more shocking if TV show Gotham hadn’t just used a very similar plot, so in that respect Telltale’s series isn’t treading new ground, but it does place Bruce in a much harsher light. As a result, the dynamics of some of his relationships change. For Harvey Dent, who was banking on the wholesome Wayne name to propel his mayoral campaign, his friendship with Bruce becomes a liability. There’s a growing tension between the two characters, which Telltale effectively harnesses when asking you to make decisions. It creates situations where lashing out at Harvey would be understandable, but knowing it could have big consequences going forward may stay your hand.
The shift in Bruce’s relationship with Alfred, meanwhile, is more subtle. In episode one, Alfred is the voice of dissent. He repeatedly warns Bruce about being Batman and dissuades him from his vigilante activities. However, after some hard truths about Alfred are exposed, he changes his tune slightly. He’s more supportive, even telling Bruce that the city “needs” Batman.
This could simply be because he needs to show faith in Batman so Bruce can deal with the dangers facing Gotham. But given what Bruce learns about him, it also feels like Alfred is trying to recover some lost respect. Or perhaps he’s seeing the Wayne identity being corroded and is pushing Bruce into seeking solace in a new persona. For the most part Telltale’s Alfred embodies the faithful butler archetype, but there are shades of something more there which I hope are explored further.
Unfortunately, there [aren't many] memorable moments that make you feel like the World's Greatest Detective
The results of your decisions in episode one also start to reveal themselves in Children of Arkham, but none are significant. It’s mostly whether you’re friendly with Vicki Vale or Jim Gordon, based on who you turned the evidence over to in the last episode. Or what Gotham thinks of Batman after the confrontation with Carmine Falcone. If Telltale’s previous games are any indications, these are all part of larger web of consequences the studio is spinning, and episode two adds a few more threads: do you interrogate a prominent Gothamite as Batman, which is the path of least resistance, but could turn the city against you. Or do you use Bruce Wayne’s guile, which is tougher but will keep Jim Gordon on your side.
Both of these will no doubt have a knock-on effects, but they’re not decisions to fret over. In fact, there’s really only one moment in episode two that will give you pause. I played through the game twice and the first time around the result of my choice in that moment felt inconsequential. The second time, however, the impact of my decision was profound, so I'd recommend switching to another save slot and experiencing both branches of the story. Other than this moment, episode two is made up of a series of small choices that, while bereft of weight in the moment, also feel like dominoes being stacked next to each other.
While Children of Arkham pushes the story forward, it takes a step back in gameplay. The crime-scene investigation which was key to making Telltale’s game feel like a well-rounded Batman experience is missing from episode two. This time around, there’s no mystery to unravel, as all the investigations are simply a matter of clicking a series of interaction points.
At the start of the episode Bruce returns to Crime Alley to find a new angle on the murder of his parents. Given our experience picking apart a simulated crime scene in the past, the fact that there’s no puzzle to solve here is a real wasted opportunity. Instead we get yet another straight retelling of the Wayne murder with some commentary from Bruce.
The closest episode two gets to making you feel like a detective is when you have to triangulate a phone signal, which involves moving a drone around a map until an on-screen indicator goes green--hardly detective work. Unfortunately, there are no other memorable moments that’ll make you feel like the World's Greatest Detective. This is a shame, because the crime scene investigation in episode one was a satisfying way of mixing the tropes of a point-and-click adventure game while staying true to Batman as a character.
The puzzle-like combat sequence from episode one makes a return. During a debate between Harvey Dent and incumbent mayor Hamilton Hill, Batman and Catwoman team up to bring down a squad of armed thugs. You have to study your targets, identify potential weapons in your environment, and execute a series of attacks. This is still a clever way to represent Batman’s foresight and battle prowess, but without the crime scene investigation--and amongst all the QTE sections--it also serves to highlight the lack of gameplay variety in episode two.
Anyone expecting Telltale to continue deconstructing Bruce Wayne and his alter ego will come away from Children of Arkham unsatisfied. It effectively lays the groundwork for future events with the help of a few unexpected twists, but in leaving out meaningful detective work, it falls short of the series' first episode.