Telltale has made their name on adapting comics to their now practiced narrative adventure game formula. But with both The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us long since under their belts, the team has set their sites on one of the most recognizable comic book characters in the world, Batman. And they don’t disappoint.
Realm of Shadows starts off like any Batman tale you’d expect. Criminals break into City Hall, only to find a certain pointy-eared vigilante isn’t far behind. It’s a standard opening that quickly introduces players to the combat, Telltale’s brand of Gotham City, and the Caped Crusader himself. For fans, or even just anyone that has only seen the Nolan Batman films, the opening is a solid, if straightforward introduction.
However, it’s once this portion is over that you really begin to see why Telltale’s Batman is worth your time. Bruce Wayne steals the show as the game cleverly builds conflicts around the man instead of the masked legend. In the same way that the Arkham games are able to make players truly feel like Batman, Realm of Shadows is Telltale’s first step towards truly making players feel like Bruce Wayne, complete with the stress, trust issues, and everything else.
As such, the Dark Knight actually takes a back seat throughout much of the episode, Telltale offering up one of the most human and down-to-earth looks at Batman we’ve ever had. Balancing your friendship and working partnership with Harvey Dent with your public image in the press and the demands of Gotham City as a whole all play a role. After the more lighthearted Tales From the Borderlands and Minecraft: Story Mode, each new weight on Bruce’s shoulders amounts to what is a welcome return of the complexity and moral ambiguity Telltale is known for.
This excellent subtlety is most evident in regards to the villains. While Carmine Falcone is the lovable, sleazy mobster you’d expect, Realm of Shadows handles the character well, establishing just how interconnected he is with the whole of Gotham society. Voiced by Richard McGonagle (Uncharted’s Sully), Falcone is both interesting and menacing. Likewise, Telltale uses Catwoman to great effect, delivering one of the episode’s best scenes.
Neither Falcone nor Catwoman can hold a candle to Oswald Copplepot however. Telltale’s latest features a decidedly different take on The Penguin. And even just going from his limited appearance in Realm of Shadows, the new direction could be a shockingly brilliant move for a villain that has always been more comic relief than real adversary.
With that said, what’s most important to note in regards to all the villains is just how much more they are connected to Bruce Wayne than they are to Batman. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the majority of the other Dark Knight stories out there and helps distinguish the series for even a diehard Batman fan.
Likely do to all of this, in comparison to the strong Bruce Wayne portions, the Batman scenes do feel a bit lacking. There is still plenty of choice and consequence weaved in, but all of it is in regards to what you do. With the game taking place relatively early in Batman’s career, it’s left up to you to decide how you want to be perceived by the city, mostly through how brutal you want to be. Though it’s an interesting wrinkle to throw into a Batman story, especially given the surprisingly murderous Caped Crusader of Batman v. Superman, there’s no real payoff just yet in the first episode alone.
Other than deciding just how badly to beat certain people, your time as the Dark Knight falls into the realms of combat and detective work. The weaker of the two, combat obviously lacks the flow and exhilaration of the Arkham games, but also doesn’t quite measure up to the excitement found even in other Telltale games. In an effort to emphasize the precision and majesty of Batman’s fighting style, almost every kick, punch, and block is mapped to a quick time event. For this to work, each of what would otherwise be very rapid movements triggers a second or two of slow motion, allowing the player to respond to the prompt. The edge-of-your-seat tension quickly fades as the fights plays out in this stop-and-go manner.
Even when given the chance to map out your plan of attack, a mechanic that has plenty of potential, there doesn’t seem to be any wrong answers. What could be an excellent tool through which to turn the combat more into a game of strategy feels hollow, every tactic working just as well as the rest.
Where the Batman segments do show promise is in the detective portions. Echoing the Arkham games, Telltale presents players with a crime scene to investigate. Taking it a step further, you then have to link individual pieces of evidence from around the scene to each other in order to piece together the whole picture. While admittedly simple and still short of showing off the World’s Greatest Detective in all his glory, the system is interesting enough to stand out, and has room to grow in complexity in later episodes.
With all of the comics, movies, TV shows, and games that have starred the Dark Knight, it fell to Telltale to distinguish their game from the pack. Delivering a good Batman story, let alone one that feels fresh, is no small task. But Realm of Shadows efficiently sheds expectations and sets up a promising framework for the remainder of the series. While the cape and cowl portions may struggle at some points, the true star of the game is Bruce Wayne. And on that front, fans couldn’t ask for a much better pilot episode.