Release Date: October 3rd, 2017
Rated: M for Mature
Developer: TellTale Games
Producer: TellTale Games
Genre: Point and Click, Narrative Focus
Platform: Xbox One (played and reviewed), Playstation 4, PC
Inevitably, every series ends up having an episode cramming in tons of exposition to set up the hooks necessary for the narrative. It is easy arguing that the pilot episode should be shouldering the majority of the slack because it has the responsibility of defining the protagonist, antagonist, and relationships between characters. Yet, without failure, pilot episodes often result in serving little bits of exposition in order to build up mystery surrounding the plot to entice players to keep playing. As a result, the next several episodes begin shouldering the responsibility of the exposition dump, with writers having the impossible task of balancing the exposition dump with forward narrative movement. Specifically for TellTale video games, consisting of five short episodes, the second and third episodes are the ones pulling the slack.
Therefore, it’s really no surprise that Episode 2: The Pact does a lot of stumbling while also remaining a solid entry into Batman: An Enemy Within. The pacing of this episode feels very disjointed, with some places stalling in narrative movement and others throttling full speed ahead. As a result, the writing begins feeling like it loses steam, providing some awkward dialogue sequences and choices. A lot of the tension that’s built examining the dynamic between Amanda Waller, Batman/Bruce Wayne, and Jim Gordon also begins losing steam in the back and forth pull as a result of the big revelation at the end of Episode 1: The Enigma. With the shift of perspective focusing more on Bruce Wayne and less of Batman, there’s a sense of inconsistency and unease with handling his character. There’s parts Batman: The Animated Series and parts TellTale that are not meshing as well as intended. All of it surrounds a very simple reason.
Episode 2: The Pact suffers from identity loss because the writing is requiring it to be the exposition dump. Episode 1: The Enigma could sense its purpose, following through with a solid (if shallow) introduction into a darker, more inspired TellTale interpretation of the famed Caped Crusader. On one end, it is trying to turn the story into an all-star Batman caliber story by introducing four villains into the story that each deserve their own standalone entry: Harley Quinn, Bane, Mr. Freeze, and Joker (err…I am sorry, John Doe). Every character receives a nominal amount of time for character development that feels rushed and dichotomous in nature. For example, Harley Quinn’s characterization seems to go from impulsively dangerous to diabolical rational sanity. Bane goes from being the tough guy that is intuitive and all about loyalty…but when Bruce Wayne is taking down Agency members in front of him to preserve their lives Bane does not question the motive. It diminishes the building up of Bane as a character due to the rush in characterization and the dichotomous writing.
In fact, a lot of the characters that are both introduced in The Enigma and being introduced in the Pact end up feeling dichotomous in nature. Depending on player choices in The Pact, the nature of the relationship between Jim Gordon and Batman can end so tenuously that it has a lot of explorative potential. However, players can completely eradicate this with a simple dialogue choice that feels like the opposite of Batman. While the voice acting of both Gordon and Batman remain consistent, the continued exploration of that relationship feels underwritten and awkward. The decisions made at the end of Episode 1 deserves having stronger impacts on Episode 2: The Pact instead of having the choices surmounting to nothing.
However, the worst offense to this is the unbelievability of the situation. Having an episode utilizing more Bruce Wayne, and less Batman, is refreshing as an experience. Players are being forced to think in a different frame of mind in resolving situations. However, given the short amount of time the episode has in setting up its premise, the concept of “Bruce gone bad” feels odd and awkwardly written. One of the sequences in the game especially feels awkwardly written and out of place involving Harley Quinn, John Doe, Bruce Wayne and one of Wayne’s associate at his workplace. From the sequence of events, to the dialogue choices, everything feels wrong and odd and completely pushes the player out of the experience. Everything culminates into some subpar writing from TellTale standards.
The other end of the identity crisis stems from the controlled, tight pacing the narrative demands. If players look closely, Episode 1: The Enigma seems to take place a little over a week though the game does not provide much information of a timeline. As a result, the narrative feels tightly woven and flows at a fast, frenetic pace. Episode 2: The Pact tries emanating the same pacing…but has far too much going on to capture the same feeling. The exposition ends up creating disjointed sequences for pacing inconsistencies that make the episode feel throttling in tonality. The tonal and pacing inconsistencies of The Pact makes me wonder whether or not TellTale should have taken a chance with creating a longer series for providing more room for balance. While it would require more time and dedicating resources to a singular project, I think their iteration of Batman could use the extra episodes to allow the story to grow organically. Aside from these major stumbling points, Episode 2: The Pact does far more good to make it a solid experience.
TellTale has what I will refer to as the God Dialogue — the line that players see implicating that the choices the player is currently making will have a lasting impact. For example, after a player chooses one of the 4 options they have for dialogue, the God Dialogue will pop up saying “[insert character] will remember this,”. TellTale has been improving this formula, and like its predecessor with Episode 1: The Enigma we’re notified of how significant a choice’s impact is going to be. Now, dialogue choices can have immediate ramifications on relationships between characters impacting the conversations between Bruce Wayne and characters. The relationship dynamic changes can also be seen in facial expressions, vocal tones, and body language.
Conversations between Alfred and I are the best examples of this. Since my choices from Episode 1: The Enigma and from the first season, it is very evident that Alfred is suffering from trauma. Seeing the indications of trauma continue to alter my dialogue choices whenever I chat with him. Towards the middle of Episode 2: The Pact, Alfred and I had a particularly terse discussion surrounding current circumstances. My dialogue choices with Alfred caused his body to slouch, his voice sounding tired, and his face looking weathered and far older than before. It’s becoming clear what his role as part of Batman’s family is doing to him, and it’s equally painful seeing what looks to be hopelessness being stuck in the work.
Episode 2: The Pact also contains one of TellTale’s smoothest experiences to date as well as satisfying combat. In particular Batman: The Enemy Within has learned to blend the Quick Time Events with Quick Decision making. Instead of Batman’s combat trajectory completely planned out, there are breaks in the moment requiring players to make a choice on what action they will take next. Will the player decide to use a batarang to knock the gun out of a villain’s hand, or choose to sneak up behind them to knock them out? Or will players choose to pull a villain in with the bat hook, or charge them with a running jump kick? Sure, this does not add anything substantively, but it is enough to provide a little extra player agency that is fun.
Also, TellTale throws the perfect homage to one of the most iconic moments in Batman history. I will not spoil it, but let us just say it involves Batman and Bane.
Episode 2: The Pact is also a quiet, subtle episode with no definitively solid ending. Some people are finding this a problem, I found it perfectly fitting. After all, the episode is serving more as a set up with the amount of exposition and characterization it is throwing at players. As a result, a lot of the events have weight that will be felt in the long run rather than in the immediate. Therefore, it only makes sense that the ending was less conclusive and more a sign of things to come. From a writing perspective, this ending is particularly justified and suiting.
Finally, I think it will be safe to say that the cast surrounding Batman is the heart that drives Batman: The Enemy Within. I have been noticing that my attention is more engaged when in discussion with characters than it is with combat or detective mode. In particular, I am enjoying the inclusion of Lucius Fox’s daughter, Tiffany, into the series. Being the ever insightful, intuitive person she is, her story arc of unraveling the clues behind her father’s work is shaping into what should be an interesting confrontation between herself and Bruce Wayne.
Overall, Episode 2: The Pact is a mixed bag containing more good than bad. From a writing standpoint, a lot of it feels forced and dichotomous in nature. The characterization of characters in the episode betrays the characters because of the rushed feeling given the introduction of five essential Batman villains as drivers of this season’s story. If anything, The Pact is an indication of the constraint a five-episode season contains, and leads to wondering if TellTale’s iteration of Batman is better served in a 10 episode series. However, the smooth combat system, the improved God Dialogue system, and supporting cast make this episode a solid entry. The ending, while not conclusive, shows that the best is yet to come. I’m looking forward to it.