For years now, Telltale Games has masterfully exploited our fear of making the wrong decision. Its games tell you every action you take has a consequence, then light a fuse and watch as you stumble over impossible decisions. But when you're Batman--the world's most cool, calm and collected detective--Telltale's emotional manipulation shouldn't be as effective. Decision paralysis holds no power over the Dark Knight.
Therein lies the challenge: How do you make a character known for being decisive and infallible falter? Telltale's solution is to shift the focus away from Batman and dig into Bruce Wayne instead, a decision that proves to be the right one. Episode One, Realm of Shadows, effectively makes the man more important than the hero, and provides a strong start to the series.
With Harvey Dent running for mayor and Bruce as his most vocal backer, Gotham City is on the verge of changing for the better. Together they threaten the status quo, where corrupt city officials are in the pocket of criminals. The citizens of Gotham may not be sold on Dent, but they hold the Wayne reputation and word in high-regard. This dynamic is what Telltale plays with to create tension.
Many of the choices in Episode One aren't matters of life and death, but they still weigh heavy. You're forced to choose between what you personally think is right, what you think Bruce Wayne would do, and what you believe will help Harvey's campaign. Do you shake Carmine Falcone's hand to secure his support, potentially tarnishing your own reputation? Or do you turn him away, knowing those same hands are drowning Gotham in crime?
The situations are often understated, but always dramatic. The nagging knowledge that choices and actions have profound consequences pull you in different directions and make you second-guess. They also lay the foundation for something far more intriguing. Like all good Batman stories, catching a criminal leads to a larger mystery, one that challenges the moral foundations guiding Bruce and, by extension, Batman.
Since it's a self-contained story, Telltale can take creative liberties with characters and canon. For the most part, the faces are familiar. Alfred is keeping Bruce from being consumed by his crusade, Harvey Dent is the hand reaching into the darkness to pull Gotham out, and Selina Kyle is a selfish thief with hints of good in her. But there are elements of these characters that are reimagined in subtle ways. For some it's their personalities, for others it's relationships. One notable character is completely reinvented and will play a pivotal role in the story, but it's ominously unclear how.
Bruce, meanwhile, is early in his career as Batman and more emotionally unsettled. As a result dialogue responses can be used to craft the version of him you want. You can be the aloof victim of tragedy, the self-centered billionaire playboy, the hopeful friend, or the silent brooder. Since Telltale's excellent writing has a way of making it difficult to roleplay a single type, you're more likely to get a mixture of all of them. The emotional variety paints a Bruce that hasn't hardened and isn't hiding behind the mask yet. Instead he feels human and genuine. It's an interesting take on the character that extends into his crime-fighting alter ego.
This may be a Bruce Wayne story, but when the going gets tough, the tough put on a Batman suit. Some of the episode's standout moments involve Batman because Telltale has built gameplay around conducting investigations and solving puzzles. This aspect of Batman's character is core to his identity, but has been sorely underexplored in games.
Like other Telltale Games, players can interact with elements of their surroundings. In this case, it's all evidence used to piece together what happened. What transpires in Episode One isn't a simple case of cops versus robbers: there are chemicals, tire tracks, shrapnel, and other pieces to the puzzle. Players physically walk between these and draw a holographic line connecting the relevant evidence together. Although Batman's lethargic walk speed can make it time consuming, a recreation of the event courtesy of the Cowl's holographic interface is a fitting reward for solving the conundrum.
Another set-piece involves fighting through a room full of thugs by inspecting them and linking them to nearby objects, just like with connecting pieces of evidence. Once again, the Cowl's holographic interface runs a simulation, so you can choose whether you prefer to slam a guard into a concrete pillar or launch him into a screen door; to tackle another thug or throw a priceless art-piece at his head (tip: do this one). Once an attack plan is formulated, there's the execution phase. This works exactly like action sequences in other Telltale games, with a series of timed button presses and analog stick swipes to punch, kick, dodge, and move.
In designing combat this way, Telltale has keenly honed in on another kernel of the Batman character: methodical preparation and tactical prowess. However, this comes at the cost of feeling his raw power and ferociousness. Somewhere between pressing a button and watching Batman tear through goons, the energy dissipates. The disconnect deepens when you stop pressing buttons altogether and notice that Batman continues to lay waste to his enemies with little to no change in his performance. The only time you're punished for missing your cues is if it's the final blow, which needs to land to progress onto the next scene. Otherwise, you're just losing out on filling a meter used for a special cinematic attack.
While not as distinct as the neon noir of The Wolf Among Us, Telltale’s Batman has a gritty visual identity in keeping with the property. Thick marker-like lines accentuate finer details in characters, and ambient lighting brings some vibrancy to the game. A wall of screens fills the Batcave with a futuristic blue hue, and in the Wayne Manor a roaring fire brings warmth to the dark corners the living room. Moonlight coats Batman's suit, cutting that iconic silhouette into the Gotham sky, and dim street lamps create an air of danger on the seedy streets.
Batman’s outfit is particularly cool, with the stubby ears of Frank Miller’s incarnation paying homage to his legacy, and Greg Capullo’s streamlined biker suit style representing the more modern design. His glowing white eyes give him an imposing presence, making his victims look like deer caught headlights as he bears down on them.
While many fixate on breaking the Batman, Telltale wants to bring down Bruce Wayne, and it demonstrates an understanding that people and relationships are the key to this. Episode one begins the process of unravelling him, and sets the stage to lay him bare. Impressively, by sticking to its strengths, Telltale also delivers on the experience of being Batman. Realm of Shadows establishes a compelling Bruce Wayne narrative and is an exciting start to the series.