Another year, another new franchise for Telltale to stamp their now-familiar template onto. The difference this time around is that they’re playing with a beloved DC comic book hero - something dear to fans’ hearts, a character cemented in popular culture for decades. Do it right, and you’ll receive grudging respect. Make a grievous misstep, and you risk a backlash of wrath capable of breaking the internet. Batman: Realm of Shadows manages to survive this rite of passage just about intact, but not without some serious technical questions to address.
Jared Emerson-Johnson’s music sets the scene with a brooding down-tempo orchestral piece, and the underlying menace of the score permeates throughout. It isn’t going to bait you with familiar hooks like his work on The Walking Dead, but it works. The actual introduction is tremendous fun, a high-octane action scene which sees Batman thwarting a group of villains brutally infiltrating City Hall, whilst cutting to Bruce Wayne and Alfred’s post-fight discussion. As is the norm with Telltale’s oeuvre, fights are predominantly a series of quick time events where a button press, controller direction or combination of both will get you through a scene. From a PC standpoint, a controller is definitely recommended. It feels far more natural than a mouse/keyboard setup, and navigating around the screen in the “puzzle” elements is a lot less erratic. Little has changed from a QTE perspective, the reticle-dragging elements for smashing up zombies in The Walking Dead have been replaced with equivalents for the grapnel, and fights are smooth and well choreographed, although you’ll spend more time looking at the screen prompts than actually enjoying the athletic punch-ups. These are far more forgiving sequences than previous games, which will either be welcomed by those wanting to get into the tenser timed dialogue choices, or a turn-off for those looking for a little more risk in their fights.
Batman may be the game’s title, but you’ll spend as much time playing as Bruce Wayne over the two hours of this first chapter. Telltale have taken a fresh, non-canon approach to the storyline, introducing relationships to certain characters that clearly weren’t in previous iterations, and which may possibly irk purists. A few familiar faces will make an appearance as well as one person whose name you’ll recognise, but whose voice-over and look is distinctly at odds with previous portrayals. The VO in general is above average but not amazing. Troy Baker’s delivery as the Dark Knight feels workmanlike when compared to previous roles, but is slightly more engaging when glad-handing his way around the room as Bruce Wayne. Alfred’s voice takes a little getting used to though and feels hammy at times, but settles towards the end of the game. Other supporting characters, including Selina Kyle, are great.
Without giving too much away, the story centres around Bruce Wayne’s support of Harvey Dent’s push for mayoral office, and the political machinations involved in a billionaire helping to fund a politician. As an introductory chapter, the writing feels dry on occasion, and only sparks to life during moments of conflict such as when Wayne has to take on a notorious crime boss in public view, or when giving interviews to the press. Much of the narrative thrust surrounds the Wayne family’s history and legacy but if you’re completely new to Batman the main tenets of his origin story are present and correct so you’ll be able to jump in without any previous knowledge of the comic book. That said, you’ll definitely appreciate the game more with a little background.
Realm of Shadows (a slightly meaningless title) wouldn’t be a good canvas for The World’s Greatest Detective without, you know, some actual detective work. On that front, Telltale have introduced an intriguing crime scene system involving you linking areas of interest together in order to establish the order of events that took place. This could be as simple as matching a bullet to a bullet hole or perhaps something a little trickier to consider, such as scorched floors and sniper nests. It’s different to the Detective mode of the Arkham series but fits nicely into the point-and-click genre and whilst the difficulty level is nowhere near the level of taking down yetis with custard pies, it’s nice to finally be able to use a bit of nous rather than just having an item in your pocket for 30 minutes and then talking to someone about it a bit later on. For Telltale, this mode represents something of a leap forward in their gameplay, other than making choices which may or may not have an effect further on down the line.
Here though, is where the game stumbles slightly. Sure, some of the decisions you make may hit Jack Ryder’s news show later on, but they feel a little superficial. It’s always tough with the first episode in a new series to understand exactly what is and isn’t important, as until those later chapters drop there’s simply no way of knowing if putting someone’s nose out of joint will actually make a difference in part two. However, the way you play Batman is important. He’s known for being a guy who doesn’t do sadism but - and this is a big but - this isn’t a normal Batman game. It’s an 18-rated Batman game, the second such adults-only title after Arkham Knight. As a result, some of the decisions you make, if you wish, can be brutal. However, where the decision-making falls down is that, on at least one occasion, the consequences of our actions were at odds with what was reported. We went incredibly easy on a crook during an interrogation despite options to do otherwise, yet a police officer commented shortly after that we “beat that man half to death”. The illusion of choice is broken, and you’re wondering exactly where your actions carry weight. A Sherlock Holmes-esque battle analysis in the later stages lets you choose how to infiltrate an apartment and take out goons which is enjoyable, but again, offers little different in ultimate pay-off.
It’s worth pointing out that at the time of writing, this reviewer’s experience of the framerate and performance in general was superb - possibly the best Telltale game to date. The usual choppiness associated with animations, lip-synching and segueing between scenes were non-existent. Similarly, a PS4 copy played through at The Digital Fix had no issues either. However - and this is a huge caveat - these experiences appear to be in the minority. Players have been extremely vocal, responding with negative feedback about significant lag, performance at 10 FPS, graphical issues, the inability to alter screen resolution and the cursor getting stuck, just to name a few. None of these issues were present during our playthrough, but we did come across one game-breaking bug within the codex where a lack of an exit option prevented us from actually leaving it in-game to return to the story. A recently released patch may address some or all of these concerns, but it certainly doesn’t help endear the game, or Telltale, to day one players.
That said, this latest slice of point-and-click is an interesting and welcome take on a slightly wearied genre. The focus on the more human aspect of the man rather than his cowled counterpart helps deliver more weight to Batman’s motivation and actions, even if some of the off-canon choices (such as a sports car that converts into the Batmobile) feel a little awkward. The ending does leave the series with some potentially intriguing threads to follow though, and with punchier writing and a few more detective puzzles in subsequent episodes, this could shape up to be one of the better Telltale stories released to date.