WARNING! This review may contain SPOILERS for previous episodes of this series.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Telltale’s reimagining of the Dark Knight, it’s that Bruce Wayne is a tough guy. He’s been beaten up almost as many times as Batman himself and his body is as scarred as his armour, yet he remains surprisingly unbroken. Another pummelling lies in wait for him from the inmates at Arkham Asylum, as he’s transferred there following the beat-down he gave to Oswald Cobblepot just after the last episode ended.
It seems that a rage-inducing injection administered by Vicki Vale - who actually turned out to be Lady Arkham - was enough to send Wayne over the edge. Now Cobblepot and Vale are in cahoots, Two-Face aims to destroy both them and Wayne, and Batman is everyone’s enemy. If the story isn’t convoluted enough for you, the start of Guardian of Gotham introduces the Joker, which feels like Telltale are hurling a bunch of origin stories against a wall and seeing if any stick.
The main issue here is the same one that has plagued the series throughout: narrative change. By taking characters you know and care about and flipping them on their head, you’re undoing the entire Batman lore. What’s left is a group of characters that share the same names but different motivations and arcs, and - as with Penguin and, in some respects, the Joker - dissimilar appearances. Telltale have created a Batman facsimile, an alt-dimension story which goes against pretty much everything you know of the comics in an attempt to shake things up whilst parading around in the same clothes.
Some may play to see if the changes are interesting enough to sustain a story that has been played out in various, repeated forms over decades. Many will simply be confused. Why is a news reporter now an evil matriarch out for revenge? Why is the Penguin a Cockney childhood friend of Wayne’s? How is the Joker suddenly in Arkham Asylum? None of these questions would matter so much, if there were motivations for each of the characters that we could believe. Four episodes in, the only plotline that has felt developed enough to invest in is Wayne’s relationship with Selina Kyle - and she doesn’t even make an appearance this time around. Worse still, the Joker’s appearance is so brief as to be almost meaningless. One item - like Chekhov’s gun - will no doubt be of importance in the finale, but it’s made such an integral part of the first twenty minutes that you feel cheated when that scene resolves itself.
Even the narrative beats required to get Wayne out of Arkham Asylum to progress the story ring hollow. A couple more villains are thrown into the mix to keep the fans happy, but the means of escape are pretty unsatisfying. On the way back to the Batcave, it is apparent that the Gotham people have it in for Wayne after his crazy display, yet this isn’t fully justified given that Cobblepot hasn’t been around long enough to merit any loyalty from the citizens. The drug which sent people - including police officers - totally crazy, only has sporadic effects on our hero, for reasons not delved into here. Creating an antidote is a puzzle that takes ten seconds to solve, but is rendered pointless later on anyway after a specific event occurs.
Thankfully, it isn’t all dire. The second half ramps up considerably when Batman goes in search of Vicki Vale. A gruesome discovery leads to another detective sequence (sadly, far more obvious and uninteresting than the ones in preceding episodes), but they shade in the more mature aspects of the series nicely. The relationship between Batman and Gordon finally feels like it’s on solid ground, and Two-Face’s descent into insanity finally reaches its conclusion as he uses his mayoral status to full, devastating effect.
Direction from a visual perspective keeps the action sequences and QTE-heavy fights moving along at a brisk pace, even if they still feel a bit too breezy to present any kind of challenge. The choreography is excellent, especially in the last battle, and Jared Emerson-Johnson’s moody soundtrack doesn’t let up, but neither do the unfortunate glitches which plague the game throughout. A late patch caused the Steam release to be delayed by a day on PC, prompting a furious fan backlash, but there are still notable problems. Speech without any lip-syncing, audio drops during fights, and odd animations that look like Batman is able to knock out an enemy by barely touching him - they all detract from the experience.
In earlier reviews, we touched on the lack of any significant impact our decisions made in subsequent chapters. Here, there were almost too many to keep track of. At least four major choices could have played out differently, and each one of them made us pause and consider the possible outcomes. You can decide whether to approach a situation as Batman or Wayne, choose whether to play good or bad cop, or pick what’s most important to Wayne in his fight against the Children of Arkham. Many of these are rehashes of previous instalments, but they’re given additional needed weight here since the motivations for Cobblepot have been hazy at best, and the Children have been borderline fringe characters rather than decent antagonists.
The final call you’re forced to make may well have immense input on the direction of the closing chapter, and it’s the first time since playing the series that we’ve felt motivated to immediately go through and play things differently. This is exactly what has been lacking throughout, and we can only hope Telltale capitalise on it to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion and end on a high note for what has been one of their weakest licences to date. Guardian of Gotham is an improvement on the banal Episode 3 then, but is not without its share of technical and narrative faults. The caped one has an uphill battle ahead of him before the year is out.