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Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Batman: The Telltale Series E1: Realm of Shadows

Batman: The Telltale Series
Episode 1:
Realm of Shadows.

In the interests of full disclosure: I watched this game rather than playing it, predominantly because I couldn't play it - it became very apparent about thirty seconds into my attempt at playing it that the game was broken, running at a measly framerate of all of four frames per second, making it more or less unplayable, especially given that this is a game that requires you to do timed button presses and make decisions in a short period of time.

Set in the early stages of Bruce Wayne's career as Batman, Batman: The Telltale Series sees Bruce's life upended, as he encounters a dangerous thief named Catwoman; reunites with an old friend, Oswald Cobblepot, with plans for a violent revolution; attempts to help district attorney Harvey Dent with his mayoral campaign; and comes under fire after rumours that the Waynes were involved in Carmine Falcone's mob empire. After an incident with a deadly neurotoxin reveals evidence that will allow Falcone to be arrested, Bruce sets out to bring him in.

Whenever I review a Telltale Games' game, I hit this point of difficulty where it's completely impossible to talk about the gameplay, because they all have identical gameplay, occasionally with one or two small variations. In this case, the variation is that you get a short crime scene investigation section, where you have to link pieces of evidence so that Bruce can induce a conclusion. In practice, it's really not that different from the regular point-and-click gameplay that turns up in a lot of Telltale's stuff, but points for effort, I guess.

Batman and Catwoman.

So, it's the standard Telltale stuff. Choices that don't really have any kind of meaningful consequences, quicktime events, point-and-click sections. We all know the drill by now, and I think we have to accept that Telltale is never going to change that formula. Why would they? It's a formula that clearly works, since we all keep buying their games.

Which leads us onto the story. It's oddly jarring to see an early days Batman, before most of the iconic characters have become who they're going to be. Seeing Harvey Dent as a genial if edging-towards-being-corrupt district attorney was nice, but weird, and the implication that none of Batman's rogues gallery have really showed up yet (as Catwoman is described as being a new kind of criminal) is a little strange as well. Not bad, necessarily, but it took some getting used to: The Batman status quo, after all, is what we're all accustomed to by now.

(We do get some hints at the Court of Owls, though, which is nice, because I do quite like the Court as a concept.)

Oddest, though, is the re-imagining of the Penguin. A childhood friend of Bruce's, he's framed as an ex-soldier and illegal prizefighter, who when he turns up is tall, slender, fairly good looking, and wanting to launch a revolution to return Gotham to the proles -- all of which is about the most un-Penguin-y thing I can think of. It was a really strange moment, especially as there are plenty of Batman rogues who could slip into that role a lot more easily. 

The Penguin, apparently.

The story progresses in predictable fashion, as Bruce gets hit by rumours of his family being corrupt and immediately dismisses them, instead setting about investigating a crime scene involving the theft of some chemicals (a psychoactive chemical, specifically, that made a man tear off someone else's face - so I'm expecting to see the Scarecrow around at some point), only to discover upon arresting Falcone that his parents were involved in crime, or at least friends with Falcone, in what might be the least shocking plot twist in video games this year.

Because of course his parents were going to be involved in Falcone's crime empire - there is a staggering number of writers who haven't been able to resist the allure of having the Waynes be secretly wrong'uns, so the moment that plot point was introduced, it was startlingly obvious where it would end up.

In terms of graphics, this game is being panned by critics as the most low resolution title of the year - it's certainly true that it automatically started in the lowest possible resolution for me - but that's not necessarily a problem. I certainly didn't feel shortchanged by the graphics, during either the stuttery framerate mess that was my attempt to play it, or when I was watching other people play it.

Bruce and Alfred.

The voice acting is also generally fine. Troy Baker, by now almost as much of an old hat at playing Batman as Kevin Conroy, did a fine job in the lead role; Enn Reitel makes a great Alfred; and Laura Bailey makes as good a Catwoman as she has a Poison Ivy in other pieces of Batman media. It's not exactly daring casting, but Batman fans have always wanted voice actors they know and recognise, so it's playing to its audience pretty well there.

All in all, this is an okay opening episode. It's not brilliant, but it's fine, massive technical issues that made it unplayable on release day for anyone with an integrated graphics card notwithstanding.

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