The Dark Knight debuts with Telltale but what lies within the Realm of Shadows?
What separates a man from a monster? Where do you end and the gaping abyss begins? Telltale Games wanted to explore what made a man like Bruce Wayne and how he separates the dual lives of rich, isolated billionaire and dark, brooding superhero in Batman: The Telltale Series. It’s a story we’ve heard plenty of times but how would it play out in an episodic games format, that too with the Telltale formula of decision making and reaction events? Episode 1: Realm of Shadows is here to give us our first taste.
Bruce Wayne is already Batman once it begins, foiling a bank heist and immediately contending with Alfred on his motivations as Gotham’s Dark Knight. From here, we meet familiar faces like Harvey Dent, running for Mayor of Gotham, and Catwoman/Selena Kyle who seems to be mixed up with your usual criminal riff-raff (and with Dent too as it turns out).
"One can only see Falcone as the smarmy, scummy gangster and Gordon as the self-righteous, grizzled cop so many times."
We won’t spoil too many details about the episode – especially since it’s roughly two hours long – but it’s interesting to see Telltale rearrange the pieces and characters of long-established Batman lore into something completely in keeping with the series. Oswald Cobblepot as Bruce’s childhood friend who’s family has now fallen into shambles and whose character bears more than a passing resemblance to the TV show Gotham? Hereto unknown details about the Wayne Family? There’s plenty of drama and intrigue even for the grizzled Batman veteran who’s seen it all.
If you’ve played a Telltale game before then you know what to expect with this one. From the get go, the action scenes are composed of lengthy sets of quick time events. It’s not all randomized however. You’ll quickly learn to rely on the arrow keys to dodge attacks, follow up blows or just lift bad guys up. Pressing Shift+Q or Shift+E will usually result in a game-changing attack while hitting both Left and Right (or A+D on the keyboard) will result in a finishing move of sorts. There are also times where you hover the mouse over a small dotted area to throw a Batarang or fire the grappling claw. It could just be the Batman license but the action here feels fast and fluid without becoming too much of a jumbled mess of Guitar Hero-like proportions. The beginning also does a great job of highlighting the transition between different sequences – one minute you’re ambushing thugs, the next you’re battling Catwoman on the rooftop.
Again, this is a Telltale game and that means making decisions. As Bruce Wayne, you’ll have to decide whether to shake Carmine Falcone’s hand and just how far you want to support Harvey Dent. Some dialogue choices lead to consequences fairly quickly for Bruce while others are chalked down for remembrance, perhaps to re-emerge in other episodes. Each character in the game has a well fleshed out personality and it’s easy to like them. Oswald Cobblepot is a particular favourite – he mixes cynicism, deep-seated anger and violence with an almost euphoric expectation for Gotham’s dark days. The others are written well but they’ll be incredibly familiar to fans at this point. One can only see Falcone as the smarmy, scummy gangster and Gordon as the self-righteous, grizzled cop so many times.
"Gotham City is highlighted in all of its metropolitan glory while areas like Cobblepot Park highlight the downtrodden areas of a once golden city."
Another key aspect of being Batman is the detective work and thanks to the new Linking system, it’s possible to explore crime scenes and link evidence together to recreate the incidents taking place. It’s an intriguing system, one that encourages logical thinking based on visual evidence rather than just randomly linking things together. The Linking system is also used for executing multi-takedowns though it’s more to help you decide which particular environmental object you want to bash a thug’s head into.
Art-wise, Telltale has done a great job with Realm of Shadows. Gotham City is highlighted in all of its metropolitan glory while areas like Cobblepot Park highlight the downtrodden areas of a once golden city. Likewise, despite resemblances to a certain Sterling agent, Bruce Wayne is every bit the suave businessman as Batman is the costumed wrecking machine. Suffice to say that you won’t have trouble telling characters like Selina Kyle or Vicki Vale apart. One key area that could have used a bit of improvement is the animation – sometimes the transition between actions looks a little odd. The animation for basic movement is also significantly different from that in cut scenes and dialogue sequences. It’s not bad but it does feel weird at times.
Then there are the usual performance hiccups that seem to have plagued Telltale titles for ages now. Micro-stutters are incredibly apparent all throughout, some instances throwing off lip-synching. While the game itself didn’t crash during my play through, the performance felt like it should have been way more consistent. This isn’t a brand new engine and despite great attention to character detail in keeping with the DC lore, Batman: The Telltale Series isn’t pushing the envelope when it comes to visuals. You’d be hard-pressed to see a different visual standard here compared to, say, 2015’s Tales From the Borderlands. It should run a whole lot better than this. I didn’t bother using a controller or playing the game on Windows 10, for which others have reported issues, so keep in mind that those still nag the game.
"Hardcore fans won’t want to miss Realm of Shadows, even with its technical glitches and performance issues."
Also, while the pacing and overall content in Episode 1: Realm of Shadows offers a great start to the franchise, I’m loathe to really know where this is going. There are plenty of interesting storyline possibilities that have been opened up and I can’t help but feel that Telltale will fail to really deliver on all of them. Keep in mind that this is nothing genre-defying either and could easily be another typical story arc for ol’ Bats rather than Court of Owls or A Death in the Family.
Then again, when you have a character like Batman who’s been through so much in his illustrious history, it’s hard to really convince people that he’s in too much danger this time around. Thankfully, Telltale keeps the focus on the dual nature of Batman vs. Bruce Wayne, especially how one’s actions could have a profound impact on the psyche of the other, and it works pretty well throughout.
Even if it’s not the Freeflow action that Batman: Arkham fans have come to love, Batman: The Telltale Series is still a game firmly rooted in the mythos of becoming Gotham’s sworn protector. Its gameplay does a great job of throwing you in the shoes of both Wayne and his alter ego with the decision making and story twists offering hope for the future. I’d advise you to wait for more episodes before going all in to Batman: The Telltale Series but hardcore fans won’t want to miss Realm of Shadows, even with its technical glitches and performance issues.
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Strong art-style and presentation that really captures the feel of Gotham. Good story-telling and voice acting. Telltale's decision making and dialogue choices feel significant while action sequences are still very well refined. Detection sequence and Linking system are intriguing and add further character to Batman.
The story, while well told, isn't anything Batman fans haven't seen before. Odd animation transitions at times. Performance issues manifest through micro-stutters resulting in broken lip-syncing. Gameplay, especially in action sequences, is still heavily reliant on QTEs.
As the first episode in the series, Realm of Shadows offers a compelling start to what could be an enjoyable Batman adventure. Performance could be better - notwithstanding other issues plaguing PC gamers - and Telltale's gameplay is getting pretty old but Batman: The Telltale Series more than holds up with its story-telling, art and mechanics.