After a decade of point-and-click success dealing in the biggest entertainment brands, you'd have to say that Telltale Games is in its prime right now. Just when you thought the Batman license was being stretched too thin, exhausting every angle Gotham City's moody detective can explore, Telltale remarkably has made the Dark Knight feel essential one more time.
In Batman: Realm of Shadows, we are at the point of Batman history where Harvey Dent is yet to become Two-Face, and curiously it's Bruce Wayne fighting allegations of duplicity. There's no side-stepping the responsibility by playing a side-role in the events; you are Batman/Bruce and the steps you take reflect directly on both popular public figures.
The story-telling approach is brutal from the beginning, the opening shot telling you all you need to know about how far it is willing to go to grab your attention. As Batman there is no pussy-footing around, not least in an early fight against Catwoman, which is reminiscent of the awesome Blade vs Nomak climactic scene in Blade II. Both superheroes are convincing as people first, their costumes convince as work tools (albeit hugely theatrical ones).
Batman gets close to the unseen terror of Ridley Scott's Alien as he stalks nervous-talking mercenaries that are up to no good. "Do you think he's gonna show?" They quiver. Then, once the show inevitably starts after the greatest entrance we've seen from Batman in many years, one merc bravely suggests: "Whatever got in, don't let it out." It's great to feel so shocking. You can take the "whatever it takes" angle surprisingly far, but not without consequences.
Telltale works its celebrated 'adapts to the choices you make... tailored to the way you play' concept expertly throughout Episode 1. The persona of Batman and Bruce Wayne never strays too far from what your personal ideal is for either of them, but allows you to take it to the conceivable extreme. It shows how much Telltale has researched and respected the character through years of iteration, to the point where you can find aspects of the 1960s Adam West buffoonery offered alongside the bleak Christian Bale adaptation.
The most noticeable elaboration upon earlier Telltale games is the escalated Quick Time Event scenes. In the opening sequence there is close to 15 minutes of arrow swiping, button matching, dragging and highlighting, plus combinations of direction plus button to survive. On the positive side, the intensity pushes the system to its limits while showcasing some outstanding combat choreography. Frankly, it's kind of tiring after the first five minutes during which, okay, we get the idea. Could we stop to have a conversation now please?
Thankfully the dialogue is excellent in Episode 1, superbly written and charismatically performed by all the voice actors. Laura Bailey is always compelling as Catwoman/Selina Kyle; her 'poker games' with Troy Baker as Batman/Bruce Wayne are scintillating. Commissioner Gordon cusses convincingly ("Ah Christ!"), Alfred sounds especially wise, instead of whining.
Performances succeed in the grey areas too, with Harvey Dent clearly a bit of a dork, although his heart's in the right place. You can believe the kinds of scrapes he gets into, perfectly setting up your cue to support as you see fit as Bruce Wayne, lending a hand during Dent's mayoral election campaign. Do everything exactly as this clown asks, or allow yourself some quips on the sly.
Central to how the whole Telltale mechanic works is that you may wish to progress the story along its truest path, without ruining your chances of the best results. But there are so many opportunities to indulge in off-hand comments or unhinged assaults that balance becomes part of the thrill. Even playing the silent card, a Telltale device that never gets old, feels so potent especially as Bruce Wayne during the more personal situations.
There's a possibility that some dialogue branches may back some fans into corners with Bruce and/or Batman, making you feel uncomfortable to the point of starting it all again. Bruce's approach to reporter Vicki Vale can quickly turn predatory without you realising.
Other times, though, you really have to hand it to Telltale for really putting players in a tight spot regarding moral choices and being wrong-footed for the sake of dramatic impact. As anyone who played The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones will know too well, sometimes the proverbial hits the fan for you to deal with later as best you can.
Anything involving gangster boss Carmine Falcone feels precarious. Oswald 'Oz' Cobblepot is as dangerous as they come, regardless of some old buddy history. Even press conferences are tricky to deal with; Bruce Wayne distracted by larger concerns lighting up his cell phone.
Aside from the balance of conversation and the action you might expect, one surprising factor was how reverently the detective angle has been explored. It isn't perfect, in fact it could use some work after Episode 1, but using Batman's gadgets to examine and piece together crime scenes is a welcome change of pace. The Bat computer is also tidily integrated to serve as both a Codex and plot-moving narrative device.
While playing the 2'30" (approx.) introduction to this new series, the word that cropped up most in our note-taking was "mature". Although visually there are nods to the comic-book origins, this isn't a graphic novel, more like a movie. The soundtrack is tasteful and supports the scenes, in particular those requiring serious thought with subtle, broken piano chords.
The inevitable cliff-hanger is surprising enough to make you want to resolve issues asap. But it is the investment in Bruce/Batman's complex personas you'll hurry to revisit most of all.