Note: This review will contain spoilers from episode one, "Realm of Shadows".
When dealing with a property older than the United Nations and more frequently updated than iOS, finding avenues through which you can tell fresh new stories is no doubt going to be a challenge. That's partly why we see so many remakes and derivative "reboots" of franchises in all visual media, whether it be movies, television, or games. Familiarity sells, but it's far from daring for a creator to retread paths that have been carved out before. When Telltale Games announced a Batman
game, many fans, including me, wondered what they could bring to the table. Their track record is well respected but Batman
is arguably the biggest property they've handled to date. They promised an original story, no small feat for any hero under the umbrella of the "big two", nevermind the most popular hero in the world. After the premiere revealed shadows of what's to come, the second episode, "Children of Arkham
", delivers an enthralling revelation that promises Telltale's vision is both unique and worth your trust.
"Children of Arkham" opens ominously at Crime Alley, the sight of the Wayne murders. Bruce and Alfred return to the scene of the crime from so many years ago so that Bruce may relive those fateful final breaths his parents took. He's there because he's questioning everything he thought he knew following the first episode. Joe Chill was just a mugger, itching for a fix or a stack of cash. His parents were just the unfortunate souls to cross his path that night. Or were they? This is the origin story used for almost every single Batman tale ever created. The few exceptions are things like Batman Beyond
, told in the future with a separate protagonist, or DC's Flashpoint storyline where it's his father Thomas who survives that night, not Bruce.
The cliffhanger seen at the end of "Realm of Shadows" was impactful, but truth be told I fully expected the second episode to squash what we thought we saw. It's a customary move in TV writing, from which Telltale's games so obviously borrow. Tease a big reveal for next week (or month, in Telltale's case), then come back and cancel out that tease with a fuller picture of details that lessen the impact. It was stunning to see Batman
didn't make such a move. The history-redefining details of the Wayne family are the groundwork on which Telltale's version of Batman is being built. They aren't shying from it. Along with the new look for The Penguin and Catwoman immediately determining Batman's true identity, the developer is off to a great start to prove they mean what they say. Rewriting the significance of the Crime Alley scene, perhaps the most iconic moment in all of Batman lore, is a defiantly bold move. Separate from the comics' convoluted chronology, this Batman
video game can exist freely and make moves some authors may not have the privilege or nerve to write.
Without Joe Chill, there would be no Dark Knight.
Through the first episode and a half, Telltale's Batman
has been as much of a political drama as it has been a superhero story. Keeping their Batman grounded in a Nolan-like manner paints a realistic image of Gotham -- gritty and dark, but not larger than life. The latter half of the second episode begins to tear away at that setting. Supervillains arrive on scene, clad in what would be iconic garb if it weren't also smartly reimagined, and the whole final sequence plays out like the climax of an issues-long comic book arc. Jared Emerson-Johnson, responsible for nearly all Telltale scores since 2012, delivers some of the best Batman
music since Hans Zimmer. It's decidedly more derivative of its predecessors than a lot of the story content, but the high stakes are markedly made more intense with the signature Batman
The music shouldn't be underappreciated either, because it often carries the action sequences when the archaic game engine's character animations continue to disappoint. I said it in the last review, and I'll probably say it in the next one, so I don't want to dwell on it too much with each episode. Simply put, the cinematic quality of this game (and all Telltale games for that matter) takes a big hit due to the engine's inability to deliver movements and reactions that are lifelike. Until Telltale commits to a complete overhaul, this issue will continue to hinder their games.
Episode two picks up the pace, which is great for the overall story but is hindered by the game's antiquated engine.
This episode is more action-oriented too, and that fast pace is made to feel even faster when this episode ends about 20 minutes earlier than the premiere. I'm never one to demand a certain number of minutes from a game. There's no sense in padding content, especially when all you're out to do is tell a story. If you disagree with that notion, just know this one unfolds a bit quicker than its predecessor. What was lost in that pacing were the detective elements to Batman as a character. The premiere toyed with giving us environmental puzzles to solve but they were so simplistic, I was hoping they would be improved upon in the future. Yet here is episode two, completely lacking those mechanics. The story didn't call for them, so it's not a great disservice, but I worry that Telltale's drive to tell the first truly Bruce-oriented story will cost players some of what defines Batman.
Some of the usual technical hiccups return in this episode. I didn't notice any in "Realm of Shadows", though some readers disagreed. They were minor and not at all abundant in my experience during episode two, but like the other issues with the game engine, these stutters are a long-standing nuisance for the company.
In and out of their costumes, the scenes these two share are the very best of the series so far.
The best part about Batman
is the role-playing of Bruce Wayne and the caped crusader himself. Not only is that dichotomy inherently interesting even as a spectator or reader as it typically goes, but shaping each of those personas individually is completely open to the player. My Bruce is quick to forgive, loyal, and understanding, while my Batman doesn't jump to conclusions, understands some fates are worse than death, but still refuses to cross that line. While those sound like the choirboy iterations of the character, the decisions presented in "Children of Arkham" make such characterizations even harder to uphold. I was consistently thankful several of the tough choices didn't have timers, but when the biggest of them all gave me about ten seconds to take action, I was shocked. Neither choice felt wholly right or wrong.
Once again the achievements for this episode are completely unmissable. Just finish the story, which will take you just under two hours, and you'll have re-completed the game as it currently stands.
Though the score accompanying this review is lower than the score I gave the premiere, in some ways "Children of Arkham" is the superior episode. This game exists first and foremost because it wants to tell a story. While the first episode set the table and promised a lot to be excited about, this follow-up begins to deliver on those promises in ways that are fresh, riveting, and challenging to Bruce, Batman, and the player alike. In traditional Telltale fashion, "Children of Arkham" ends on a high note and I'm already anxiously awaiting the next episode.
- Continues to change up Batman mythos in exciting ways
- Tougher decisions to be made
- Story picks up the pace and leaves you wanting more
- The usual technical hiccups
- Lacking detective gameplay this time
The reviewer spent two hours playing through "Children of Arkham" in one sitting, the way it's meant to be played. He hasn't yet decided whether he is shipping Bruce and Selina. An Xbox One season pass was provided by the publisher for the purposes of reviewing each episode.