How do you follow up a sturdy - if not revolutionary - take on the Dark Knight’s backstory? We would suggest as a minimum: sustain the momentum, introduce more juicy plot threads, and capitalise on an intriguing crime scene system. Unfortunately, Children of Arkham dishes up the exact opposite of this, and the result is a tepid second episode which will have left your memory an hour after completion.
We’re not entirely sure what went wrong. The interface is as slick as ever, and the presentation is still top notch.The voice acting continues to quiver marginally on the scale between hackneyed to great, and the fight scenes are expertly choreographed - especially when you find yourself teaming up with a friend later on down the line in a thrilling bar room bust-up. Yet, for all of its outward gleam, the story in this instalment rings hollow.
Following the bombshell that the Wayne family got themselves into bed with Falcone and other shady characters, Bruce is feeling a little resentful towards Alfred for keeping the secret. Back in the alley where Batman’s origin story took place, we’re forced to relive it yet again in order to get some clues about his father’s dealings. This wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t crowbar in a pretty major change to the canon to further the path that Telltale’s narrative is taking. We knew from the previous episode that they were happy shaking things up from a storyline perspective, but the reveal here feels forced and will likely bug the hell out of fans - if only for the clunky way in which it is implemented. Whilst the story’s trajectory for Thomas Wayne has been explored in the comics (notably in Batman R.I.P. and The Long Halloween), they were never taken to the conclusion that is reached here. This isn’t necessarily a negative though - some of the changes could serve to keep things fresh, if they’re handled carefully.
Even so, it doesn’t help that the dialogue is pretty awful, despite the cast’s best efforts. At one moment, Bruce is saying he recalls everything that happened in the alley in vivid detail, the next there’s a convenient hole in his memory to slot a new plot twist into. Things doesn’t improve past the prologue either. A thread from Realm of Shadows is tied up quickly and unconvincingly, whilst the remainder of the entire episode is focused primarily on the rather dull conflict between incumbent mayor Hamilton Hill and challenger Harvey Dent - which is to say, a lot of words are spoken, but not much is actually said. The Penguin’s motivations for his actions are also unclear at this stage, making his introduction into the series a generally unsatisfying one so far, not helped by the decision to make him a Cockney geezer. There are also some cringeworthy exchanges between Bruce and Selina - one example: “The bat helps the cat….” “....and the cat helps the bat.” feels like something from a Joel Schumacher film, if his writing team had channelled Dr. Seuss.
The gameplay is basically unchanged, aside from offering a little less agency in this episode. The combat sequences feel slightly slower, which actually works to their benefit as you can now make out what is happening in each move, rather than just concentrating on hitting the right button for the quick time event and missing the action. That isn’t to say it’s made the game easier; we missed our cue a couple of times in this episode compared to the previous one and ended up dead. We may have imagined it, but it feels that the window for each button press has been shortened in order to balance out the slower fights.
The tasks you take on outside of the fights are far more mundane, however. Billionaire and part-time chemist Bruce Wayne spends much less time at the Batcomputer, instead performing such exciting tasks as swiping up to send a phone message to Alfred, or moving drones around a map to follow a signal, which is as thrilling and unnecessarily clumsy as it sounds. The World’s Greatest Detective does very little actual sleuthing, other than thinking really hard at the start of the game. It’s disappointing to see Telltale let the crime scene analysis from the first episode fall by the wayside; it’s an interesting mechanic that would have livened up the non-combat portions of the game.
Given the choice-driven story, there are some key decisions to make. Subsequent playthroughs reveal that one offers very little other than a cosmetic change, whilst another dilemma alters the canon dramatically depending on its outcome - as well as the possible direction of the final three episodes. Of course, there are always questions about the illusion of choice in these situations, which the upcoming instalments will either confirm or confound. It would be fantastic if Telltale can right the course in this regard, and offer a truly divergent series with a branching storyline, but we’re struggling to see how that would be possible at this stage.
The cel-shaded characters and backdrops look as crisp as ever, and other than a brief portion of stutter during the very first camera pan, we didn’t notice any framerate drop on PC. The first episode caused controversy with its day one release, due to a lack of optimisation and a whole slew of bugs across most formats. We appear to be one of the few review outlets that didn’t experience these issues, and we managed a smooth run this time around too - but whether this is due to more diligent QA from Telltale or a second dose of good fortune on our part remains to be seen. The developer’s forum members will no doubt make their feelings known either way within hours of its release.
Children of Arkham could be summed up as “filler” in almost every respect, which is disappointing given the potential of the opening chapter. Telltale seem determined to forge their own path through the canon which is admirable, but it needs to be held together by strong writing and interesting gameplay. Judging by this latest offering, there is much work to be done back at the Batcave.