We’re living in an age of Batman oversaturation (over-Bat-suration?), whether on the big screen thanks to Batman v Superman and Ben Affleck’s Suicide Squad cameo as the Dark Knight (as well as the upcoming The Lego Batman Movie), or on the small one courtesy of the new R-rated Batman: The Killing Joke animated feature and the still-going-strong Batman: Arkham Knight videogame. Yet even with that glut of Caped Crusader titles, the hero’s latest outing finds a way to bring something new to the table—most intriguingly, by shifting its emphasis from the myth to the man.
For their newest venture, Telltale—the developer and publisher responsible for The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones games (among others)—have gone full-on DC Comics with Batman: The Telltale Series, a five-part saga whose first installment arrives on virtually every platform today. Like their prior efforts, it’s an interactive point-and-click animated film whose original scripted story requires periodic input from players, in the form of choosing dialogue options for conversations, and performing button-pushing sequences during combat. Think of it as an evolved digital version of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel, although given that it’s split into serialized episodes, it also feels like the next evolution of the 1960s Batman TV show, replete with cliffhangers.
Relative to its Telltale predecessors, Batman is immediately familiar in both feel and look, boasting striking cell-shaded graphics and a soaring orchestral score. Those aesthetics are employed in service of a tale that depicts Batman as an imposing figure of righteous vigilante justice—one who’s both an angry bruiser (in a smart touch, his growly voice is the byproduct of a vocal device) and the “world’s greatest detective.” That latter role is underlined by a clever investigative interlude in which you have to tie crime-scene clues together to decipher the who-what-why of a massacre. Besides suggesting that there are more famous adversaries to come (a madness-inducing toxin—did someone say ‘Scarecrow’?), this early gumshoe sequence lends the game a welcome diversity that keeps gameplay from growing stale.
Despite evoking various predecessors, Batman: The Telltale Series sets itself apart from its multimedia brethren by placing Bruce Wayne’s day-to-day dilemmas on an equal plane as Batman’s nocturnal activities. Here, Bruce Wayne isn’t just a playboy-philanthropist, but a politically and socially engaged titan intent on cleaning up Gotham by campaigning for the mayoral candidacy of superstar district attorney Harvey Dent (aka the future Two-Face). It’s a cause which inevitably gets him tangled up with crime boss Carmine Falcone, who wants to strong-arm Dent into taking up residence in his pocket alongside current crooked Mayor Hill. More importantly, it’s a narrative that stresses the fundamental importance of Bruce Wayne’s wealth and clout; rather than just a cover for his gadget-aided superhero activities, Wayne’s public persona is revealed to be a crucial weapon in his battle against metropolitan depravity and decay.
Batman: The Telltale Series’ bifurcated focus is apparent from its intro sequence, which cross-cuts between Batman foiling a City Hall heist perpetrated by mercenaries—and also Catwoman—and his later recuperation at Wayne Manor, where loyal butler Alfred dispenses cautious words of wisdom. It’s a sterling opening salvo that highlights the game’s strengths, necessitating timed user keystrokes and maneuvers during Batman’s protracted showdown with Catwoman, even as it repeatedly pauses that anxiety-inducing clash for well-scripted staged drama. That balance is the lifeblood of Telltale’s titles, and it’s in full effect throughout this first chapter, which over the course of its (approximately) two hours intertwines multiple storylines with deftness, all while keeping players on their toes by potentially demanding input—a verbal response here, a sudden act of derring-do there—at any moment.
By concentrating on Bruce Wayne as much as his alter-ego, Batman feels more like Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins than Rocksteady’s best-selling, perpetually costumed Arkham videogames. If that remains the game’s defining departure, however, it’s far from the only instance in which Telltale gives familiar elements a makeover. Wayne teams with Harvey Dent to both rid Gotham of corruption and to help push through a project to tear down Arkham Asylum (home to the city’s worst villains) in favor of a new mental-health facility. The problem is that this edition of Dent has an ego (and hunger for power) as big as his muscles. And when Falcone crashes a Wayne fundraiser, the D.A. shows a willingness to compromise his morals in order to get ahead—thereby besmirching the character’s usual spotless nobility, and complicating Wayne’s efforts to turn him into a symbol of by-the-books heroism.
Just as this Batman’s Dent takes unique form, so too does Oswald Cobblepot (i.e. the Penguin), here reimagined as a childhood friend of Wayne’s who has succumbed to a life of crime as his own estimable family legacy (epitomized by a public park named after them) has gone to seed. By creating a lifelong bond between Batman and the Penguin, and then by setting them on opposite sides of a great economic divide, Telltale’s game—in a reunion scene that finds Cobblepot warning that a “revolution” is coming, and that tycoon Wayne and his vast array of financial holdings will be its victims—casts the duo’s forthcoming conflict in both personal and political terms. It’s a brewing battle between the haves and the have-nots, and the fact that Cobblepot’s comments carry a faint whiff of certain sentiments bandied about by the Bernie Sanders left only further energizes this nascent plot thread.
Still, of its many alterations to the Batman canon, none are as drastic as its late, stunning development—namely, the suggestion that Wayne’s murdered-in-an-alleyway parents, Thomas and Martha, were in league with the criminal forces they supposedly sought to eradicate. That bombshell throws Wayne’s entire purpose for becoming Batman into question, and it further infuses Batman with an air of distrust, panic, and fear that’s in tune with its more brutal elements, such as the how-heroic-is-he? sight of Batman punching Catwoman square in the eye. Telltale’s protagonist is a man forced to keep his cool in the spotlight, and free to express his fury while donning a cape and cowl, and that dichotomy lends the game its electric tension. At least in its promising first chapter, it recognizes that there are two sides to DC’s icon, and that what happens to him during the day inevitably has ramifications during the night—and vice versa.