Bruce Wayne and bloody walkers: talking Telltale

I took a break from playing through a chunk of my pile of shame – I’m on the second game of the Arkham series of Batman console reboots, though I’m playing on a PC – to play through two Telltale adventures: The Walking Dead: A New Frontier and Batman: The Telltale Series. So let’s have some thoughts about ’em both.

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Clementine has some thoughts to share with you.

I played the former because the final episode was finally released, and the latter because as noted, I’m in the middle of a BatFrenzy, and I thought a narrative game would be a nice break from snap-kicking henchmen, as fun as that is.

Let’s deal with A New Frontier first. It’s the first of the Walking Dead-related games that I’ve played (I’m including 400 Days and Michonne here, short as they are) to feel like a retread or to have run short of ideas. Now, I do appreciate a game which gives you the opportunity to say “Fuck you, helicopter!” but this one just didn’t seem to have much of the heart of the first two seasons.

Trying to broaden the cast means that though Clementine appears here, she’s also not the main focus of the game. She drifts in and out – mostly in a snit – and seems to provide a frame of reference rather than any particular heft. The rest of the time, we’re left controlling Javier Garcia, a disgraced baseball player who’s been left to look after his brother’s family.

There’s still a bunch of head-kicking fun to be had, but the mechanics of the game seem to have had the difficulty dialled back. I didn’t need to restart sections as much as I did in earlier games, and the whole thing feels a little bit more like an interactive film, which I guess is what Telltale have been looking for all along. Certainly, they’ve put a bit of work into the engine – but it feels like they’ve done that at the expense of characterisation. There’s story, there’s intrigues, but the game had me feeling as if I were just waiting for the next scene trigger, endlessly. It also felt like there was a lot less content in this one, and what was there was just an iteration on what we’ve seen before.

(It’s too bad that effort on the engine seems to have resulted in making a buggy series even buggier. I’ve a game-destroying year-old video card and there’d be stutters and drops aplenty. This is an engine which runs on a fucking iPad, guys. Something’s up.)

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Bet your engine can’t keep up with me LOL.

What’s strange about this game – particularly the last episode – is that it feels, more than in any other Telltale game I’ve played (and I’ve played about eight of them now) as if your decisions are inconsequential. I know that each of the games needs to funnel players towards the same broad ending, but the incongruity of some of the characters’ responses to their situations – you can make people move on from a fairly major character’s death with two button clicks and a cursory conversation, at one point – feels wrong. It felt rushed, or as if certain conversational options were merely tacked on rather than provided to offer a credible alternate experience.

TNW: ANF feels, overall, like a stand-in. Sure, they flesh out the Garcia brothers in some detail, but it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for them. One’s a bit of a wuss, the other’s an arsehole. Clem gets a little development by the end of the game, but it’s too little – and an awkward conversation and a haircut callback to the glory days of the first series seems a bit below the team, too. I get that this is taking place in an in-between period for Clementine, and the way the game concludes sets up what I imagine will be the rescue mission of the fourth season, but it felt like too much filler, too much prologue.

Hm. Maybe everyone’s a bit Kirkmanned out? I’m not thrilled with this one, and I suspect they’ll have to really knock the fucker out of the park with the next season to keep me on board. (Or to convince me not to buy it at a steep discount during a Steam sale, I suppose.)

So now, the better (and in-a-way worse) of the two: Batman.

I have to say, I’m on board with this game. It plays pretty fast and loose with key tenets of Batman canon – to the extent that what you know about Bats’ Joe-Chill-Murdered-My-Parents-Now-They’re-DEEEEEEAD origin story will be called into question.

What’s best about this game is that while you get to stomp some henchman arse at multiple opportunities, it also gives you the chance to do something not many others do: to be Bruce. It’s easy to simulate the arse-kickery of the character, but not many games (if any?) try to take on the other half of Batman’s persona.

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Hey, rich dudes who beat up the homeless have problems too you know.

It’s a shame that the technical issues of the game seem to have gathered so much attention, as the game itself is a lot of fun, and looks particularly true to how I imagine the Batman world should appear. (That said, I probably had more graphical errors and outright crashes in this game than I have any other Telltale product.)

The story is pretty simple: it’s set around Gotham’s mayoral election, where best Wayne mate Harvey Dent is running for the top job. Bruce is bankrolling the run, and let’s just say a fly’s thrust into the ointment when both Oswald ‘Penguin’ Cobblepot and a bunch of masked terrorists called the Children of Arkham turn up to start fucking everyone’s life up.

From this setup, you’ll choose whether to pursue goals as Bruce or as The Bat. Obviously you’ll get into similar story zones whoever you choose – this is a Telltale game after all – but it certainly feels as if there’s been more time spent making it work. Perhaps the DC gatekeepers are a bit more hands-on than those looking after The Walking Dead but this feels much more developed. It could be that I’m more familiar with the lore of Batman – even though I’m not a huge comics guy – but everything about the universe here feels solid. There’s other well-known characters involved – Selina Kyle, Jim Gordon (duh) – but this is a place where they exist to deepen our understanding of Bruce. Key to this is Alfred Pennyworth; I suspect this is close to the best portrayal of the character (and his importance to how Bruce views the world) that I’ve seen.

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BATCAVE LYFE 4 EVA.

There’s a couple of extra mechanics in the game that I haven’t seen in other Telltale adventures. The fighting is quicker – you really do feel like a bad-arse when you hammer a bunch of goons in a bar brawl, let alone when you’re using a Batarang to knock shit out of someone – but there’s also an investigative aspect which intrigues. It’s rudimentary – you examine parts of your surrounds and then link them together to provide a compelling theory of what’s happened there – but it’s a new development, and it felt interesting and suitable to the story. Batman is a detective at heart, after all.

The cast is pretty spot-on in this thing. Troy Baker plays Bruce with the slightest hint of Adam West insouciance, which offers a little camp levity to the GRIM AS FUCK proceedings. Enn Reitel’s Alfred is a servant, but not subservient. Everyone else is suitably grizzled or manic, and if you’re a fan of other iterations of the Dark Knight, you’ll dig what’s happening. I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say there’s an Arkham inmate who they’re obviously setting up for a future installment that you’ll be quite pleased to meet.

One interesting discovery was that there seemed to be a fairly decent adherence to an “ideal” storyline. At the end of each episode, the breakdown of the decisions I’d made seemed to echo the decisions made by a multitude of players. I can only put this down to the way that – even though certain things are changed – the game is respectful towards how we believe Bruce should be seen. The character’s way of being in the world is clear-cut, and we cling to it, us players. But it feels like a kind of a reward to be able to do so: to know that yep, though I know I can be the Batman in games like Arkham City, I can be Bruce Wayne, too.

If you’re interested in Batman, and can handle the tech glitches – maybe this is better on console? – this is well worth your time as it’s something you’re not going to really find elsewhere. I hope they make a second series and don’t bury it.

(This means I’m probably going to have to read a bunch more of the Caped Crusader’s comics now, doesn’t it? Anyone have any recommendations beyond Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns?)

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