Yes, that title is a mouthful.
We’re all adults here, we can be honest. Batman is kind of silly, right? Despite his apparent genius, Batman invests billions of dollars into a campaign to fight the lowest level crimes, in the least efficient way. On a good night he may stop one, maybe two crimes, but the cost of operation per night is easily thousands of dollars, if not more. Flying around in an experimental jet or tank, looking for muggers stealing $20 from a purse is a laughable application of resources. There’re two scenes in the first episode of Telltale’s new Batman series, Realm of Shadows, that drive this home spectacularly. In the first, Bruce Wayne has left the cowl at home and is wandering around a public park. It’s been a few years since his last visit and the whole place has lurched towards decrepitude—hobos and used needles line the ground instead of grass, memorial plaques have been graffiti-ed and nearby thugs would rather give you a knife between the ribs than a smile. Bruce, waltzing in with his pristine white shirt and old-fashioned morality, looks confused that he can’t just punch the socio-economic decline in the face.
"Flying around in an experimental jet or tank, looking for muggers stealing $20 from a purse is a laughable application of resources."
In the second, Bruce has to make nice with Carmine Falcone, a vicious mob boss (albeit voiced by Sully from Uncharted). He’s turned up uninvited at Wayne Manor, where Bruce is holding another one of those high-roller fundraiser events he loves so much. Falcone starts throwing his weight around, making demands, armed with his Cheshire cat grin and handful of henchmen. Bruce’s guests are watching. Reporter Vicki Vale is watching. I chose to bend the knee and keep the peace; but it was interesting to see Bruce Wayne so utterly vulnerable in the face of a criminal that has Gotham by the throat, a threat he can’t just toss a Batarang at. This kind of cross-examination is what piqued my interest in the series. We’ve had so many wonderful games predicated on Batman’s night-time antics of spandex and wrestling moves, but Telltale is equally fascinated with what happens the morning after; Bruce patching himself up, talking with Alfred, meeting District Attorney Harvey Dent for coffee.
A spotlight on Bruce is a great fit with Telltale’s particular niche of dialogue-focused game design. Batman is not a chatty guy, after all, mostly delivering short quips in his signature growl. Wayne, on the other hand, provides the human interest that the studio has always focused on. Still, Realm of Shadows has an uphill battle on its hands. Most interpretations of the character have anything outside the Batcave be a performance, he’s either a soulless yuppie or a bed-hopping playboy. Bruce Wayne is just another persona, a role specifically tailored for Gotham’s elite—both as vapid as each other. Theoretically, I’m excited for Telltale to dig a little deeper, to see what makes Bruce truly tick, to walk in his patented leather shoes for a day. In practice, however, it’s all a bit dull.
"In superhero comics, there are three inviolable rules; Hulk smash, gravity doesn’t work on breasts— and no one ever dies."
To my mind, the secret to Telltale’s incredible success isn’t necessarily in their choice-driven narratives, but their astute pick of licensed properties that support them. With Tales From The Borderlands and Minecraft, Telltale feed you a joke and you choose the punchline. With the lethal menace of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, Telltale offer decision points like ”save/don’t save” or “be a dick/don’t be a dick”, which resonate because their consequences are often “alive/dead”. The stakes, in other words, are incredibly high. In superhero comics, however, there are three inviolable rules; Hulk smash, gravity doesn’t work on breasts— and no one ever dies. Not helping matters is the relatively low-key trials Bruce Wayne has to endure; political wrangling, press conferences and strengthening business relationships.
But it all hangs together, more or less, thanks to Bruce’s personal (and financial) investment in Harvey Dent’s mayoral campaign. It’s a pairing we’ve seen many times before, and with good reason. With Dent’s squeaky clean image presumed to be Gotham’s salvation, his character is often a rare narrative convergence of Batman as a force for good, and Bruce Wayne as a force for change. For example, one of many initiatives they’re working on is transforming Arkham Asylum into an institution that can actually help its inmates—rather than just providing a grim yet easily escapable hellhole. Of course, with Harvey Dent, there’s always the ever-looming tragedy of him blowing half his face off. Maybe Telltale is framing this series as a fight for Harvey’s soul, maybe his villainous alter-ego won’t make an appearance at all. Either way, the tension is palpable with every ‘Harvey will remember that’ notification. If I can’t cajole my super-wealthy buddies to bankroll Dent’s campaign, is he gonna end up as Two-Face? If I badmouth him during a speech to the press or choose a dumb campaign slogan, is he gonna end up as Two-Face? If I passively flirt with his girlfriend, is that gonna turn him into Two-Face?
"Telltale’s interpretation of Dent is more a muscly bundle of thematic potential than a fully realised character."
It sounds silly, but hey, we’re using comic book logic. Harvey is portrayed here as a charming and affable lunkhead who is very susceptible to manipulation. He’s got Bruce as his right-hand man propping up his legitimacy, Selina Kyle/Catwoman as his girlfriend and Falcone as a generous donor—with so many people pulling from different directions, it’ll be interesting to see if this Chekhov’s gun is ever fired. Meanwhile, in the here and now, Telltale’s interpretation of Dent is more a muscly bundle of thematic potential than a fully realised character. In fact, his shortcomings only make those around him shine brighter. Every time he panics or gets flustered, Bruce (and you) can make the hard calls with conviction. The more he postures in front of Selina Kyle, the more obvious it is that she’s got him wrapped around her little finger. If you choose to involve Harvey in a behind doors meeting with Falcone, the tubby mobster basically puts a dunce cap on his head and forces Harvey to sit in a corner. Telltale has committed a nice narrative cheat with his mayoral campaign, in that Bruce seems to be just as important, if not more important, to its success than Harvey himself—which of course gives the player more meat to chew on.
Political campaigns are basically popularity contests in tailored Gucci suits, so it’s a neat parallel to Batman’s ongoing popularity contest with the people of Gotham. News helicopters hover over an early rooftop scuffle with Catwoman, Vicki Vale queries why you’ve got blood on your chin and there’s TV reports of you foiling a bank heist (or not). Realm of Shadows takes place in the early years of Batman’s vigilante quest, with Gotham yet to decide their stance on it—some hate the very idea, while others are somehow comforted by this sociopath using Batman as an expression of his illness (or the therapy for dealing with it). At several points in the episode, you are given the choice of how to shape the Batman myth—which for me was another huge selling point of the series.
With other 70 years of Batman history to draw from, we’ve all got our own reference point for the character. When wearing the cowl, each dialogue option roughly translates to Michael Keaton charm, Ben Affleck psychosis, or Kevin Conroy bluntness. In the constant gaze of the media, do you break a suspect’s arm to get information or show restraint? Tip-off Commissioner Jim Gordon, or Vicki Vale? Arrest thugs, or throw them out of a window? Whatever flavor Batman you like, you can own (although you’re out of luck if hankering for some Adam West/Brave and The Bold-style goofiness—the considerable gore quotient sees to that. Heck, at one point Batman has to slowly drill into a dead cop’s brain to extract a bullet).
"When wearing the cowl, each dialogue option roughly translates to Michael Keaton charm, Ben Affleck psychosis or Kevin Conroy bluntness."
But the key thing here is that Gotham is always watching, always taking notes. Even the much acclaimed Rocksteady games did their best to divorce any context between your superheroics and the city you’re doing it for. Arkham Asylum and City took place in ostensibly giant prison facilities, whereas in Arkham Knight’s opening moments they straight up evacuated every single Gotham citizen, for Plot Reasons. In a superhero story, you need the reactivity of the people you’re trying to save—Spiderman needs a Jonah Jameson, Superman needs a Daily Planet—otherwise it’s just dudes punching dudes. Realm of Shadows lays down enough breadcrumbs to suggest a more holistic approach; you choose the way Bruce Wayne carries himself, the way he speaks and behaves, and ultimately how he is perceived—all of which has a knock on effect with how life as Batman unfolds. Telltale even promises that you’ll be able to choose whether to handle various situations as Bruce or his alter ego. I’m definitely curious to see how this all pans outs in future episodes (which mercifully, we’ll get to see before the end of the year).
In fact, curiosity best sums up my feelings towards this first episode—not excitement or surprise—but curiosity. There’s a lot of table setting in its two-hour running time, with many disparate plot threads and characters vying for attention.Telltale has to establish what exactly it means to be Batman in their version of Gotham, and in doing so, they have to reheat certain exposition we’ve seen time and time again (in particular the death of Bruce’s parents) Now that all of this is out of the way, my hope is they defy expectations in a clever and meaningful way. Right now, Realm of Shadows comes across as a bit vanilla; the Harvey Dent campaign merely sets up later intrigue, while the tension with Falcone fizzles out to service an even greater threat. Your ever reliable butler, Alfred Pennyworth, is similarly shortchanged. He looks like Michael Gough but is fed all of Michael Caine’s lines from the Nolan trilogy—a constant stream of heavy-handed philosophising about the psyche of Bruce/Batman. Jim Gordon, meanwhile, is just a cipher, a pair of thick glasses and a police badge, with no discernable relationship to the Dark Knight.
"There’s a lot of table setting in its two-hour running time, with many disparate plot threads and characters vying for attention."
A brief (but bright) appearance from a certain Oswald Cobblepot threatens to shake things up, however. Much like Harvey Dent, he’s introduced prior to his comic-book mandated descent into Penguin supervillainy, but is framed here as an estranged childhood friend of Bruce. His cockney swagger reminds me of Spike from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but if Spike had accidentally wandered through an Oliver Twist production, on his way to the hipster barber. Cobblepot has a riches to rags story, having just returned to Gotham after Carmine Falcone royally screwed over his family (that dishevelled public park I mentioned earlier? The Cobblepots built that). As a character, the would-be Penguin has been experiencing somewhat of a renaissance of late, with shows like Gotham spinning him in fresh new directions. I’m glad Telltale seems to be following suit.
If you come into Realm of Shadows expecting lots of quality fisticuffs, it might be best to revisit, oh I don’t know, literally any of the dozens of Batman games out there. Don’t get me wrong, the expected QTEs are as painless and functional as Telltale have ever offered (not exactly the best box quote, I’ll grant you). Button prompts are logically integrated into the on-screen brawls, dancing across the screen to create a nice illusion of kineticism. The action itself is inventively staged, a personal highlight being an early encounter with Catwoman, who registers as a credible threat against Bats. As each delves deeper into their respective utility belts, they cancel each other out in a gripping match of rock-paper-scissors. Most importantly, the choreography communicates character, with both struggling to get the measure of one another amidst all the punching and kicking. It helps that Laura Bailey’s performance as Selina Kyle is infectious fun, a joy to watch anytime she appears.
The real problem with Telltale’s action sequences is their complete lack of peril. Let’s say, for example, that you’re experiencing some kind of stroke and can’t follow the simple button prompts—it doesn’t actually… matter? Sometimes the sequence will just repeat until you get it right, but most other times it will simply progress as if you’re a button mashing master. I experimented with a second playthrough of the Catwoman fight; intentionally failing all the cues and misfiring the batclaw as if Bats had severe glaucoma—but the sequence was barely affected.
"The action itself is inventively staged, a personal highlight being an early encounter with Catwoman, who registers as a credible threat against Bats."
It’s frustrating because QTEs needn’t be the nadir of game design they’re often regarded as. I always hold Heavy Rain and Until Dawn up in particular as excellent exercises in tension. Their action truly adapted to your successes and failures, the abstract player input becoming a rhythmic expression of complex moves near-impossible with traditional mechanics. Telltale, meanwhile, prefers Batman to never put a foot wrong, regardless of your input. Even more bizarrely, they introduce a combo meter of sorts. Press all the button prompts on time (which again, stroke aside, anyone can do) and the meter builds. Once full, you can end the sequence with a flashy special move. It comes off as a token videogame-y flourish, a nod to a complexity that just doesn’t exist. The episode’s final slice of crunchy action fares much better, positioning you as more of a director than a direct participant. You loosely choose which mini-set pieces to layer on top of each other, the order in which Bats brings down thugs, which furniture to hit them over the head with. It’s fun, and something I’d like to see more of going forward.
All gripes aside, Realm of Shadows is a solid enough first entry from Telltale, and faint praise though it may be, a damn sight more coherent and engaging than say, Batman V Superman. By focusing on Bruce Wayne the person rather than simply the conflicted pugilist wearing the mask, Telltale have succeeded at mining fresh material—especially commendable when we’ve reached peak Batman saturation point. By the final scene, the table has been set and an intriguing mystery established. I’ll be looking forward to less expository dialogue and a deeper clarity of story in the next episode, Children of Arkham.
- “Sometimes I think this whole city’s a crime scene.” Jim Gordon wins the Clunkiest Dialogue Award.
- There’s a sweaty-palmed close call where Batman’s secret identity is almost ousted. In the next scene, Bruce gives a press conference speech where he reminisces about the movie he watched on the night his parents were murdered, where a heroic vigilante in a mask “stood up to oppression and defended the people from injustice, no matter the cost.” I mean, he’s inadvertently having a Robert Downey Jr-style “I am Batman” moment. Why Telltale, why.
- After poking light fun at Cobblepot’s hipster haircut, I realized that I, in fact, have the same haircut. Oh well.
- I might have enjoyed Troy Baker’s performance more if I wasn’t constantly thinking that Bruce Wayne looked the spitting image of Sterling Archer, super spy. Now that’s a property that Telltale should explore.