Batman – The Telltale Series – Episode 1: Realm of Shadows Review
Telltale’s games force you to make tough choices, and choices have rarely been tougher than those faced by the titular Caped Crusader in Batman – The Telltale Series – Episode 1: Realm of Shadows. Batman, and his billionaire alter-ego Bruce Wayne, has always been more intriguing and complex than his contemporaries, and this complexity should play to Telltale’s strengths.
Here, Realm of Shadows sets up a story that interweaves politics and relationships – the relationships between Batman and the bad guys, Bruce Wayne and the supporting cast, and – perhaps most interestingly – Batman and Bruce Wayne. With such rich lore and complex characters, no Telltale game has ever made us question our ability to make decisions as much as this first episode of five.
Telltale games are all about the story and we have come to expect deep characterization, plot lines that play with our hearts and our heads, mysteries, and cliff-hangers. To that wonderful mix – all present to a greater or lesser degree in Realm of Shadows – we can add one of the most successful noir interpretations of Batman, Wayne and Gotham City, we’ve seen in a long time. There’s a suitably cinematic panache to the tale, especially the action scenes punctuated by Telltale’s trademark QTEs.
While these Quick Time Events add style and a touch of the Bam! Thwap! Ka-Pow! Batman deserves, they serve only as dramatic distraction; in fact, failing these interactions only serves to deprive the player of a dramatic finishing move or two, but rarely alters the story in any material way. Where an event is catastrophically mistimed and results in the Bat’s demise, an instant restart from a handily recent checkpoint and another go at the same button combination is but a moment away.
Those looking to influence every nuance of Batman’s fighting skills should look elsewhere, then, but that’s not what this game is about. Instead, these sequences showcase his undoubted physical – and gadget-powered – prowess, separating Batman from Bruce Wayne to the extent that they really are two separate characters.
The tale for the telling is an origin story, of sorts – in the Batman timeline, Realm of Shadows takes place early in the Dark Knight’s crime-fighting career and seems to play with the origins of at least one his super-foes, moving as far from canon as one can imagine. Whilst some might view this as heretical, in fact it allows even the most die hard fan to approach the story with a sense of mystery and wonder. It’s a brave move but one that – so far – is paying off.
You experience Realm of Shadows from two unique points of view. As Batman, aside from directing combat, you’ll be putting the World’s Greatest Detective to work – analysing crime scenes and linking together evidence to piece together the story. This is an enjoyable – if relatively straightforward – task; not yet has our grey matter been tasked to the point of head scratching. What could have been unnecessarily obtuse segments are completed with relative ease and keep the story ticking along throughout its two-hour run time. A similar linking mechanic is also used to plan combat set-pieces in advance – allowing the Bat to carry out some stylish ambushes, only to have the ballet of violence ruined by a ham-fisted QTE performance.
Whilst the majority of the patented Telltale ‘decisions-against-the-clock’ fall to Batman’s alter ego, there are some more nuanced decisions to be made while masked, notably in your interactions with Catwoman, and controlling the degree to which suspects are roughed up under interrogation.
But it is as Bruce Wayne that the more difficult conversation decisions need to be made. There’s barely a single interaction between Bruce and the seven principal cast members (Selina Kyle, Vicki Vale, Carmine Falcone, Oswald Cobblepot, Harvey Dent, Jim Gordon and the long-suffering Alfred) that didn’t have us second guessing ourselves, with cryptic “Harvey will remember that” notifications only fuelling our paranoia. We had to weigh up what every decision meant for Bruce and for Batman; for Dent’s political career, and for Gordon’s faith that there’s still justice in Gotham. Alfred helpfully wheels out the “your parents were good people, wouldn’t you want them to be proud” card a few times, too and, as if that wasn’t pressure enough, how do you keep Vicki Vale on side when the rest of the press is turning against both Bruce and Batman?
Ultimately, as Batman, you can decide to be brutal or benign, but as Bruce Wayne you need to walk a far more tortuous path and, on balance, Bruce is the more interesting character. There’s plenty of moral ambiguity and shades of grey in Bruce’s story, while the Dark Knight tends to operate in just black and white. This separation is clearly deliberate, and helps us explore how the actions of the Bat affect the psyche of the man. It’s interesting and engaging stuff.
There’s necessarily some lengthy exposition; this being the first episode there’s plenty of scene-setting to do. The voice acting is at worst solid and at best outstanding – Laura Bailey’s rapidly becoming a favourite here at the Xbox One UK and her standout Selina Kyle has a harder edge that suits this Catwoman perfectly – so no scene, however long, did anything less than hold us rapt.
In fact, from start to finish Realm of Shadows rarely puts a foot wrong. We still struggle with the speed at which the cursor moves, and out-of-combat Batman walks rather stiffly (we imagine there’s not much give in that suit). There’s an occasional graphical glitch too, momentarily knocking visuals and dialogue out of sync, and it’s frequent enough to be distracting.
These are minor issues, though. Realm of Shadows gets – in this reviewer’s opinion – close to the high water mark that is The Wolf Among Us, and that’s no mean feat. Telltale has even takes steps to address the solitary nature of their games with Crowd Play – allowing friends to influence your game by using smartphones to vote for conversation choices. It’s neat and works well locally – though it’s not recommended for streaming because of the stream delay, which is a shame.
Realm of Shadows sets up some intriguing story possibilities and we’ll wager harbours more than a few surprises for fans and newcomers alike. We can’t wait for our return to Gotham.