Release Date: September 20, 2016
Developer: TellTale Games
Publisher: TellTale Games
Genre: Third Person Perspective, Platformer, Action-Adventure
System: Xbox One (Reviewed), Xbox 360, Playstation 4, Playstation 3, PC, Mac, Android, iPhone
Before beginning this review, I would like to thank TellTale again for providing a review code for the whole season of Batman: A Telltale Series.
My review of Batman: A TellTale Series Episode 1: Realm of Shadows was the first time I couldn’t recommend a TellTale game to play. The game was a technical mess ranging from mild-to-severe screen tears, glitches within cutscenes, and freezing during major action sequences. The storyline was a standard Batman origin story, which was a disappointment. The only thing I found redeeming was the shocking revelation at the end indicating a change of pace for the second episode. In the end, it didn’t genuinely warrant a purchase.
Episode 2: Children of Arkham is a vast improvement from Realm of Shadows both in technical and storytelling perspective. The stories of Bruce Wayne and Batman become much more pronounced and dependent on one another; their relationships with other characters are scrutinized, and the stakes are rising. Like all Batman stories, the sins and ghosts of the past are coming back to haunt Batman while he’s trying to deal with the the present. Ultimately, while still treading the tightrope of familiar story beats and elements fans of the franchise have come to know, there are enough unique twists and turns indicating TellTale is getting comfortable with taking risks. Like a fine mixture of Christopher Nolan’s Batman and Batman: The Animated Series, Children of Arkham feels much more nuanced and mature in its storytelling.
Overall, Episode 2: Children of Arkham redeems some of the issues with episode 1, but not enough for purchasing the series. That said, it’s a strong start to what could be a very interesting story.
A Revolution is Growing in Gotham
After the stunning revelations at the end of Epsiode 1: Ream of Shadows, Epsiode 2: Children of Arkham opens with Bruce standing in “Crime Alley” looking at the spot of the parents’ deaths. Moments later Alfred arrives at the scene, striking a conversation between him and Bruce examining their relationship in wake of the recent revelations. This discussion also veers into night the of Bruce’s parents’ murder, triggering a nagging feeling about the memory: What if it wasn’t a robbery, but an actual assassination ? Players are taken into a flashback of that infamous night, and in this moment, Alfred asks a question that feels pivotal to understanding the themes of the episode:
What would Batman do if the killer was right in front of him?
This dialogue is pivotal to the story because it signifies what TellTale is emphasizing in these two episodes: Bruce Wayne and Batman are not separate identities. They’re the same person. Will Bruce choose the standard Batman route and take him to jail? Or will he allow himself to give in to the anger and get his revenge? Or will we see that, deep inside, Bruce Wayne just wants to understand why they had to die? This is a pivotal moment for Bruce and the viewer to truly understand who Batman is, what he was born from, and how broken Bruce truly is. This iconic memory, and the ghost of the Wayne family’s past, become the focal point of Episode 2: Children of Gotham.
As Bruce begins unraveling the truth about that night and its ties to his family legacy, the threat of the stolen toxins from Episode 1: Realm of Shadows begins to rear its ugly head. Players also learn what the toxin is capable of doing; it releases a person from all inhibitions, leaving them very open to manipulation. After talking to the first victim of the toxin, one word begins to ring the silent bell of foreshadowing: Revolution.
There’s only one person that Bruce knows that’s used that word around him: Oswald Cobblepot, aka Penguin. Question is, who is the master pulling the strings of this operation? However, as the stakes continue to escalate for both Batman and Bruce, it becomes quite clear that the Penguin couldn’t be the main puppeteer behind this operation. Once the veil is removed, and we see the new villain introduced, the question remains: Who are they, and what is their purpose?
Episode 2: Children of Arkham is a solid, smart, strong entry into the series and vastly improves upon what Episode 1: Realm of Shadows tries to do. Whereas Epsiode 1: Realm of Shadows tried focusing more on world and character building over the story, Episode 2: Children of Arkham allows the story to take precedent with the world and characters building around it. Switching the prioritization creates an engaging story. Characters also feel like they’re given more organic reaction options to choose from rather than feeling contrived. In essence, it feels like the balance has shifted, but for the better.
More importantly, there’s a lot of character and relationship growth in this episode that players can see will impact the rest of the story, especially the relationship between Bruce Wayne/Batman and Selina Kyle/Catwoman. While it’s obvious in the series both Batman and Catwoman know each other’s identities, it’s never blatantly apparent or out in the open between the two. Having the two well aware of each other adds an extra element to their dynamic, turning the tension between the two into both a strength and a weakness. Their relationship and dynamic will be put the test by the end of the episode.
Another major relationship coming to a head is between Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent. The scandal surrounding Bruce and his family is having a negative impact on Harvey Dent’s campaign, straining the relationship to a boiling point. How the player handles the conversations between the two will have major repercussions that are both immediate and long standing.
Additionally, Episode 2: Children of Arkham displays TellTale’s willingness to take risks. Killing off characters that seemed prime to take the spotlight as antagonists, ones that are especially prominent in Batman lore, in order to create a deeper, intricate story is a gamble that pays off. Allowing TellTale the ability to make these choices allows the story to blossom, which is rewarding for both the players and TellTale.
Not to mention, choices in this episode seem to matter far more than in the previous one and had consequences that equally felt immediate and longstanding. Whereas in Episode 1: Realm of Shadows I felt like the choices had little to no impact, Epsiode 2: Children of Arkham decided to turn up the volume to 11. Quite often, I found myself either making a decision just before running out of time or having to pause to take more time to do so. In fact, the endgame decision players are forced to make as Batman was a decision I was able to make in the blink of an eye, but only because I knew what Batman would do. However, the cost of the decision is going to reverberate through what looks like the rest of the game.
Yet, the biggest strength Episode 2: Children of Arkham displays is its ability to weave through Bruce Wayne and Batman’s story, and emphasizing how they are inseparable from one another. Normally, it seems stressed in comics, movies and television series surrounding Batman stress both identities are distinctly separate from one another. Eventually it comes to light that the two can only do that for so long, even if there’s still a disconnect between them. In the case of TellTale’s story, Batman and Bruce Wayne’s stories collide head on, allowing no room for separating the two from one another. Allowing them both equal time to be in game is a smart move to make the experience feel like a refreshing Batman experience.
However, my biggest problem with this episode is that the antagonists are given very little time to become compelling characters. At face value, TellTale’s version of Cobblepot feels like he has depth and complexity based on his past and motivations expressed in Episode 1: Realm of Shadows. That said, his character building is completed slashed in Episode 2: Realm of Shadows with him becoming the standard, run-of-the-mill, villain. And while it’s always fun to have a new villain introduced into the game, they weren’t as compelling or gripping as one might hope.
Ultimately, Episode 2: Children of Arkham is the product of TellTale when they’re focused and concentrated on the story they want to tell. It’s a story that is slowly starting to add depth in many major facets like character and relationship development, world and lore building, and the stakes of the main story. While the main antagonists seem to have taken a backseat in terms of development, there’s enough to build off of to make a far more compelling villain.
Nimble Moving Amidst the Hiccups
From a technical perspective, the major technical problems that plagued the first episode seem to have nearly dissipated in this episode. In my playthrough in the Xbox One version, I experienced no freezing, screen tears, or glitches. More importantly, none of these issues occurred during the fight sequences. With how much the fight sequences rely on Quick-Time Events (QTEs), it’s nice to see the game handle these smoothly. But these glitches should never happen in the first place, so it’s disappointing to actually have to praise fluid gameplay.
That said, one of my favorite things about these games is the linking mechanic that is used for both solving crime scenes and for some action sequences. It’s like stepping into the mind of Batman and how he views a combat situation. What tool should he use to take out the henchman on the left, then to get to the one on the right? In the case of the combat sequence, the linking mechanism allows the player to choose a henchman, and what item they’d use to take them down. This then provides a few static sequences showing how it will look. Once players are satisfied with the choice, they confirm it and move on to the next one. When all the choices are made, players are rewarded to watching the sequences in action. Some may argue this takes away from the game, but I found it fun and exciting.
Overall, the game’s performance is phenomenally better than its predecessor, which is disappointing when you consider Episode 2: Children of Arkham’s performance is expected when a final product is released.
The Mystery Deepens
Episode 2: Children of Arkham is a solid improvement over its predecessor, injecting life into a game that felt like it could have been a run-of-the-mill typical Batman story. The surprising revelation at the end of Episode 1: Realm of Shadows has impacted the game in a solid way, providing a new twist to the Batman lore that not only creates a rich, engaging story, but provides the room for both the characters to grow and the world to be fleshed out. The choices also feel like they matter a lot more given the stakes and circumstances. Most importantly, the technical issues that thoroughly destroyed the experience in the previous episode seem to have completely disappeared in this episode. Everything runs smoothly and leaves the player immersed in the story.
Does it change my stance on whether or not people should buy the game? No, not yet. A big turnaround like this doesn’t mean people should have to trudge through the murk of problems the previous episode was. That said, if the series continues in the same vein as Children of Arkham the game might eventually become a must-buy experience.