‘Episode 1’ intrigues despite its slow start
It’s quite the game we’re playing when even the decision of whether to shake a hand can cause everything to go off the rails. Welcome to Telltale Games’ latest creation, “Batman: The Telltale Series,” where yet again every decision matters and you’re not going to be satisfied with any answer you choose or any route you take. They say the grass is always greener, right?
“Episode 1 — Realm of Shadows” wastes no time introducing us to the hero (anti-hero? vigilante? crazed psychopath bent on revenge?): one Bruce Wayne (voiced by Troy Baker) — or, as we first see him, Batman. Well, we first see a security guard get shot in the head, which probably is a solid indicator of the trauma that’s going to follow in the next four episodes.
This tale of the Dark Knight splits our character into three distinct flavors: the detective, the bruiser and the politician. Each version of Wayne has a different role to play in the overall story: the politician uses his money and family name to influence the city’s leaders; the bruiser strikes fear into the heart of Gotham’s criminals; and the detective pulls a Sherlock Holmes, just with cooler tech.
During the course of the two-and-a-half hours or so it took to finish the episode, the basic premise that plays out is fairly straight-forward, if riddled with land mines of all stripes (it wouldn’t be a surprise if that turned out to be literal, as well) and incredibly slow-paced. Wayne the politician is helping Harvey Dent, the city’s district attorney, to become mayor, hosting a fundraiser at his mansion. A more seedy side of Gotham wants part of the cut, to make both Dent and Wayne a part of what could only be considered a crime syndicate. Your options are limited, but you do have the choice of how you want to handle the situation: with rigid resolve or more flexible glad-handling. The choices here may greatly affect later episodes.
As the episode continues, rumors about the Wayne family begin to surface, sowing doubt about the family’s good deeds, which will undoubtedly serve as the crux of future episodes.
Oh, and Catwoman aka Selina Kyle shows up, basically being an agile distraction. Because what would a Batman game be without her, right? At least this one puts up a good fight.
What you know about the backstories of these popular characters, however, may not serve you much good. In what could only be considered a risky decision, Telltale seems to be using well-known characters in its plot but giving them different histories with different agendas. This is especially true with Oswald Cobblepot (voiced by Nolan North), who makes an unexpected appearance in a vastly different light. The man who would become The Penguin doesn’t seem any less shady, but his actual intentions remain elusive.
It’s a move that can pay off handsomely or backfire, causing players to become disengaged with the characters. Only time will tell which.
The studio utilizes its standard graphic novel-style of design, basking in stark contrasts and striking features. And, per usual, don’t be surprised if you notice a few dropped frames here or there. It’s particularly noticeable when you control Wayne. Trying to move him around the scene can be a bit of a visual shock compared to the fluid cutscenes. It’s definitely not something that should be overlooked, but in this type of game, it really doesn’t draw away from too much.
Telltale has rolled out a new feature this time around: Crowd Play. The option allows for friends to use a code you generate to more or less crowdsource the options you make in the game. I can see the appeal of having someone else to lean on when tough decisions need to be made, but that’s always been part of the appeal of a Telltale game. If you can’t handle making tough, morally ambiguous choices on your own, you’re probably playing the wrong game.
Also, actions you complete during quick-time events now stack up, allowing you to pull off a type of super move at the end to complete the sequence. The gauge slowly builds up during the course of the event, growing if you correctly nail the QTEs. If you don’t, it doesn’t grow, but no worries: It doesn’t seem to matter anyway. It just completes a different action, one that isn’t quite so grandiose and violent.
As it’s always worth mentioning, you don’t so much play a Telltale game as you direct it. Those who want more control over their action scenes will be disappointed. “Episode 1,” as most of the company’s games, are far more story-driven; you’re meant to be immersed in the story, grappling with morally gray decisions rather than blasting away with a gun (or a Batarang).
In the end, “Batman: The Telltale Series: Episode 1 — Realm of Shadows” is an incredibly slow, exposition-heavy start to the series. It insists on repetition, especially in regards to the Wayne family and its connection to the city, though whether that’s intentional is unclear. However, the late-episode revelations, including the introduction of certain characters and plot lines, prove intriguing enough to keep you interested until “Episode 2” rolls out. Maybe then we’ll find out who’s trying to tarnish the great Wayne name.
Three “Nice Bat-cave” stars out of five.