Release Date: August 2, 2016
Developer: TellTale Games
Publisher: TellTale Games
Genre: Third Person Shooter, Platformer, Action-Adventure
System: Xbox One (Reviewed), Xbox 360, Playstation 4, Playstation 3, PC, Mac, Android, iPhone
Before I begin the review, I’d like to thank TellTale for the review code for the Season Pass of their newest series Batman: A TellTale Series.
Batman is not a hero, and even if he is a vigilante he doesn’t deserve the moniker. If anything, he is someone selfish enough to push themselves into “protecting the city” by a selfish reason that motivates him every time he downs the cowl. In truth, Batman’s motivation are often times the reason for the cracks in his heroic façade, a reason why fans and viewers have seen him fight against momentary human weakness. There are times where it looks like he’s going to break that thief’s arm, or even take the life of any one of his famous villains. It’s these moments that I feel draw the reader, viewer, or player in closer: could this be the moment Batman breaks away from the very thing that separates him from his enemies? Inevitably, everyone knows how it will end. Whether or not that’s because of how it has to end doesn’t matter, it’s the fact that readers/viewers/players will know how any story within canon will end long before it begins.
However, when it’s non-canon, there’s always a chance to take the risk of pushing fans to the breaking point. It’s a time to explore how fragile the line is between vigilante or villain for Batman. Non-canon allows risks to be taken not only exploring Batman, but the mythos of Bruce Wayne as well. Arguably, it’s a clean slate to do whatever you want with a franchise that has seen almost any kind of tale imagined for the Caped Crusader. Honestly, it seems like the perfect opportunity for a writer to flex their wings with a well-known property.
Enter TellTale a company known for their storytelling driven approach to video games. Out of the many things I love about their games is their drive to push players to make morally complex, often vague decisions that have their own benefits, solid reasons, and consequences. Almost every character has some sort of moment, a chance to grow and flesh out to the point where they’re neither good nor bad; they an amalgamation of both. In essence, a lot of their stories end up feeling human and provide a reason to be invested.
At the same time, there’s a lot of things TellTale has repeatedly has issue with when it comes to their games. Most of these issues involve their game engines being unable to handle the things like Quick-Time Events, or Cinematic Moments. From screen-tearing, to sputtering frame rate, or even frozen screens, moments like these would take me out of the game. Worse yet, these have been consistent problems that TellTale has yet to address in any of their games since the Walking Dead: Season 1. At first, it was easy to overlook these faults because of the quality of the story being told. However, as each game has been released, these have to be have more weight when reviewing their games because studios should be held accountable for not addressing these issues with their engine. When I saw TellTale was making a Batman series, I was both excited and worried. Excited because I felt the studio would push the envelope with fans of the stalwart franchise. There could be new twists and turns that would take familiar source material into something refreshingly new, but familiar. However, I was afraid they would continue to have the issues that have plagued their games since The Walking Dead: Season 1.
Suffice to say, Episode 1: Realm of Shadows became a breaking point in my tolerance of TellTale issues.
Episode 1: Realm of Shadows – Release Date: August 2, 2016
How do you start the story of a man that has been told time and time again? Everyone knows the story of how Batman came to be, and how fractured his psyche is. While tough on the inside, it’s very apparent how frayed and fragile Bruce Wayne’s ego is, to the point where Batman walks the line between vigilante and villain. There is a darkness he is constantly at battle with ,and whether or not he keeps true to his code is what makes the stories feel captivating. Even more titillating? Giving Batman the chance of falling into the darkest corners of his mind.
Episode 1: Realm of Shadows, the first of 5 episodes in TellTale’s Batman: Series tries to do that in many ways, but it falls apart once it’s executed. The moments that could potentially shock you feel do on initial impact, but lack the lingering feeling that lasts long after. Maybe that’s because it’s because of the episodic storytelling style, and maybe it’ll reverberate when the story fully closes. That’s the best way to summarize this story; it’s hard to gauge how this new foray into exploring what’s behind the cowl is going to resonate. Right now, the story feels safe and hits all the proper beats to establish a long story arc with a pretty good twist that allows TellTale plenty of room to take creative choices. That said, TellTale’s longstanding technical issues become even more pronounced with the inclusion of many Quick Time Events. The technical difficulties inevitably make this a hard game to get through. It makes the journey more of a chore, and takes away from what could be a pretty good story.
Putting a Dent in Crime, or in the Pain of the Past
Tonight, Gotham City Hall is being robbed by a bunch of masked goons. As police begin to storm the building, Batman quickly takes them out. However, upon getting the door open, Batman is met by Catwoman. The two duke it out over a data drive she was stealing from the office. Although not without injury, Batman is able to recover the data drive and begins decrypting it back in the Batcave. Enter Bruce Wayne, the always sociable philanthropist, late to his fundraising party being thrown in support of Harvey Dent for Mayor of Gotham. For Bruce/Batman, Dent is the perfect candidate; the near pristine record, arrest rate, and overall good man that stands out from the murk of a once prospering city.
However, questions begin to arise when Carmine Falcone, a well-known crimelord in Gotham, walks in unannounced. Dent explains to Bruce that in order for him to win the election, Falcone has to be part of the picture. This leads to a discussion between Falcone and Bruce, and sets up an interesting turn; are the Wayne’s and Falcone empire connected? Time can only tell, as family secrets become unearthed. Add in Catwoman, an old family friend threatening to violently overthrow the richest of Gotham, and Falcone, the question becomes whether or not Batman can protect the city from himself. Will Batman, or Bruce Wayne, crack under the mounting pressure on both sides?
Episode 1: Realm of Shadows feels very familiar and like it hits all the beats it needs procedurally. As in, the story knows it has to hit these major beats, knows when it has to, and dutifully does so. The biggest one being Harvey Dent’s infamous storyline. In fact, the way the storyline feels almost identical to Batman: The Animated Series start of the Harvey Dent/Two-Face arc. While it does eventually deviate from being a flat out retelling, especially with the connection to Faclone, inevitably the story feels like it reverts to playing it safe than taking a creative risk.
That said, because of this, the moments that did deviate from the prototypical Batman story ended up shining. For example, the introduce of Oswald Cobblepot as a forlorn, exiled ex-billionaire son that was once a family friend of the Wayne’s adds a new dimension to his dynamic. The moment Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle meet, and realize each other’s alter ego, feels fresh, interesting, and is intriguing enough to leave players wondering if they’ll team up like the do on occasion, or if they’ll stay on opposite ends. Lastly, the lingering question of whether or not Falcone and the Wayne’s were connected to each other creates a tension between Alfred and Bruce that gives the shocking twist a powerful bite. The heart of the story feels more like it’s within exploring the characters and their relationships and less on the story itself. Whether or not this will contniue throughout the series, or there’ll be a middle ground for both characterization and plot to flourish is a question left to be seen.
Regardless, Episode 1: Realm of Shadows is a safe story interlaced with some intriguing elements to it. Yet, what really dampens the story isn’t how safe the story feels, but rather how bad the technical hiccups are.
Technical Hiccups as Reliable as Bruce Wayne in Social Gatherings
In any of my reviews for TellTale, I have pointed out that they’ve had the same, consistent technical issues in their games. This can also be seen in many other reviews that are out there (in fact, some are saying the game is unplayable on PC because of how bad the technical issues are). From consistent frame rate dips, to frozen screens, or skipped sequences, it’s as if the game engine has a hard time handling processing stuff going on in real time. Normally, they tend to be small and tolerable, barely drawing players out of the experience. The writing tends to overcome the technical shortcomings.
That said, if Episode 1: Realm of Shadows is a showcase that the engine is a mess when it’s being pushed harder than normal. Within the first few minutes of the game, there are an insane amount of Quick Time Events that happen due to the fight between the goons and Batman. Unfortunately, the Quick Time Events were hard to keep up with due to not only frame rate dipping, but the screen freezing or sequences being skipped outright. Worse of all, the cutscenes following these sequences would start becoming choppy, and even experience major moments of screen tear. I was already ready to throw in the towel at this point, simply because I feel like as consistent of an issue this has been for TellTale, they should have found some way to fix it by now. Character animations often tended to look unusually stiff because of these frame rate dips and screen tears. I had a hard time keeping invested in the story, finding myself taking breaks sheerly out of frustration.
The worst offense was when the game completely froze on me, saying that my save file had been empty. Batman: A TellTale Series then asked me if I wanted to continue without saving. If it wasn’t for my roommate saying to take a break and come back to it later, I was ready to uninstall the game and call it done. I got through it, and while I’m happy I did, I couldn’t feel anything else but outright anger.
Honestly, I want to focus on how fun the investigative/detective mini-game was, or how good the game looks, but the technical hiccups really overpower the experience. In detective mode, the goal is to link clues together to piece together what happened at the scene of the crime. It was a nice break from the usual dialogue-heavy gameplay TellTale games relies on. The clues and story were also creative and inventive, creating a genuinely nice bright spot out of the myriad of problematic gameplay.
My other biggest issue with this game is the lack of power within the major story changing decisions players are forced to make. The choices in this game feel flat, like as if the consequences pull their punch right when they should hit. Whether or not players will feel the reverberations in later episodes will only be told in due time. Right now, the game feels broken, to the point where it completely takes away from the experience.
A Game as Broken as Bruce’s Mental State
Episode 1: Realm of Shadows is the first TellTale Game I feel like I can’t recommend in good conscience. The graphical bugs are too egregious, and given how many games the studio has made with the exact same issues is problematic. Normally, dev studios are able to learn from their technical shortcomings and improve on the next experience. With Episode 1: Realm of Shadows it feels as if they haven’t listened at all, and have ridden the curtail of usually solid storywriting and gameplay.
Otherwise, if people are willing to brush away the technical issues, the game is a solid, if safe foray into the world of Batman/Bruce Wayne. With the game being considered non-canon, TellTale has a lot of room to take creative risks with Batman and company. With the change of dynamics between characters, and the plot twist at the end, it seems like TellTale is building towards something interesting. Hopefully Episode 2 comes with a patch to fix the technical issues.