Release Date: August 8th, 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
As cannot be said enough, thank you to TellTale Games for providing a review copy of this game!
Tonality and direction are pivotal when setting up a story’s delivery of theme or message, especially games that emphasize a power narrative as the focal point. Every aspect of the game develops the tone into a cohesive, balanced experience; the art style, color palette, sound design, and writing. Sure, tonality sounds like a basic concept, but it can also be one of the hardest components in game development. As a franchise, Batman is usually a balance of contrasting elements. Most, if not all stories venture into dark, gritty themes with certain restrictions; death was often implied, but the gruesome details were rarely shown. Most importantly, hardly any villains end up dying. That’s because Batman is always a story of being able to overcome demons to become someone greater. Inevitably, justice is always determined by the law and society, not by a lone man.
With Batman: A TellTale Series, TellTale had the impossible task of imbuing Batman with their own concepts without compromising the foundation longtime fans embrace. The season successfully showed TellTale was willing to go places with their iteration of Batman, but the plot was held back by playing safe with their retelling of his origin. Regardless, from a storytelling perspective Season 1 showed glimpses of a promising, fulfilling Batman experience waiting in the wings for players willing to come back for a second season. TellTale can begin painting their own story on a brand new canvas.
Batman: The Enemy Within is promising a fully realized, TellTale interpretation of Batman delivering a far more cohesive vision with a few stumbling points. The season opener The Enigma shows a developer no longer pulling back punches to deliver an unflinching, raw story fitting into the Batman universe. Choices players make end up feeling like they linger and have far reaching consequences on both Batman and his relationships.The various sub stories are able to shine in the spotlight without sacrificing the main overarching story. The character drama feels far more organic and alive, providing the necessary tension to make the story compelling. In fact, The Enigma succeeds more on the the tension bubbling with the cast and less on the narrative.
On a superficial level, the central conflict between the Riddler and Batman succeeds in creating momentarily tense moments. Showdowns between the two feel chaotic and dreadful thanks to the time constraints for solving puzzles. Particularly effective is the lack of a timer to provide players an idea of how much time they have left to find a solution. There are some game mechanic indicators like the screen turning red, but it’s just enough information to know time is winding down and not how much is left. Quick-time events also feel excitingly frenetic and fast, making the sequences feel far more fulfilling than previous TellTale Games. However, when taking a step back from the game to examine it from a critical standpoint, a lot of it feels empty.
My biggest example of this is within the characterization of the Riddler. On the surface, the Riddler comes off as one of the most formidable foes Batman has had to face and fits perfectly as a season opener for The Enemy Within. The puzzles he places his victims in feel equal parts depraved and clever, placing Batman in continuous Catch-22 like settings. Mentally, the puzzles are meant to shatter Batman and make him come to terms with a coldheart fact: the concept of Batman is just as bad as the villains that wreak Gotham. The man behind the cowl is no longer a step away from becoming the very thing he is battling: he already crossed that line. Plus, the Riddler is unafraid to murder in cold blood, using his scythe-like cane to cut into a few necks during the episode. Add in his ultimate flaw of narcissism and self-aggrandizing his influence, and it is easy to see how TellTale feels they have nailed the Riddler in The Enigma.
However, upon reflecting on the game a few hours after playing, it becomes clear that the gameplay execution betrays the conceptualization of The Riddler. Puzzles end up feeling superficial in their clever design, and the “impossible moral choice” situations Batman is placed in feel forced and lack the bite needed to have a deep impact. As a villain, the Riddler seems clever to a fault, his designs are sound but they lack a punch. Part of this could be the amount of times the Riddler keeps repeating his intentions behind his actions, part of it could be that the game does not give enough time to actually enjoying the process of solving riddles. Either way, somewhere along the time of developing the story the moral consequences feel lost and lack the lingering impact.
I am also a little on the fence about the inclusion of gore while telling a Batman story because it feels like a shallow addition bearing little meaningfulness. On the surface, the violence is meant to display the depravity and lengths the Riddler is willing to go through to achieve his goals. Yet, like his puzzles, the violence has more of a shock value and do not carry the weight intended. Sometimes, depriving information and context and providing just enough of a sensory cue (i.e. the sound of the action) carries far more weight and has a deeper effect. For example, the death of a prominent cast member in Batman’s group was far more effective because players do not see it happen. Instead, the camera cuts away just before it can be seen, and all players are left to see is the aftermath.
Where The Enigma succeeds is in painting a clear picture of the consequences from my choices in Season 1. Seeing Alfred suffering PTSD from the big, climactic showdown with Lady Arkham is completely altering my dialogue choices with him. Whereas my usual dialogue choices were often more logic over emotion in season one, The Enemy Within has me focusing far more on empathy and emotion. I feel at fault for his condition, making it very apparent that the dynamic between my Bruce Wayne/Batman and Alfred is irreparable. The singular moment I tried reverting back to the usual dynamic left me feeling like I reopened the wound of his trauma. Ultimately, the conversations are always going to be bathed in trepidation.
Another story arc lingering from Season 1 looking to become a big component of The Enemy Within is John Doe’s eventual transformation into Joker. Everyone could tell based off of his appearance alone what his eventual fate was going to be, but The Enigma provides us a glimpse into the personality change. His appearances in game paint a man increasingly becoming erratic in his behavior, and his obsession with themes like friendship and trust leave players unsettled. Though he provides Batman some vital information to help take down the Riddler, it becomes clear his presence is also part of the central conflict within The Enigma. Not to mention, throughout the episode, John Doe consistently insists that Bruce Wayne owes him a favor for helping him break out of Arkham Asylum. The favor? Meet a group of his friends, the request providing enough foreshadowing for players to anticipate what is to come during The Enemy Within.
The other part that The Enigma delivers is on the tumultuous relationship between Amanda Waller, Batman, and Jim Gordon. Jim is the embodiment of everything Batman’s purpose stands for; the clean, proper route towards justice. Inversely, Amanda Waller is the type to do whatever it takes regardless of legality. As The Enigma’s story continues, and the situation becomes dire, players are forced to come up with a choice; adopt Amanda’s mentality to stop the Riddler, or continue on Gordon’s path? Ultimately, choosing either path has both an immediate and long term effect on the dynamic between the three. It still feels like players are forced into making a choice, but it is equally effective in providing solid tension.
Who truly steals the spotlight in The Enigma is Lucius Fox and his daughter, Tiffany. Lucius always plays a vital part in the Batman franchise in any medium. In the case of TellTale’s series, his value is unmeasurable with his technology and friendship. His daughter, Tiffany, is every bit as much as her father Lucius as her mother. It will be interesting to see what role Tiffany will be playing in the story as it continues to develop.
Overall, where Batman: The TellTale Series (Season 1) was trying to find the balance of TellTale telling their own interpretation of Batman’s origin story without compromising the core details, The Enemy Within is shaping up to be TellTale’s sole vision. As it stands, Episode 1: The Enigma serves as a solid entry into a promising story. While the main story conflict stumbles, seeing the consequences from Season 1 and their impact, as well as the tensions between the cast, make The Enemy Within feel promising. Without letting my bias as a Batman fan shine through, I believe The Enigma is worth picking up and starting if you played the previous season.