Telltale's Batman spotlights the less thrilling side of Bruce Wayne

I can’t think of many notable Batman stories that feature Bruce Wayne prominently over his costumed alter ego. There are plenty of Batman books where Bruce pretends to be having a good time at a fancy party before slipping out, putting on his costume and beating criminals round the head for a while, but the Dark Knight alter ego invariably takes centre stage. I think there’s a reason for this. Paraphrasing Rachel Dawes in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne is the mask, Batman is the reality. Curiously, Telltale’s long-awaited Batman adventure will have you spend as much time playing as Bruce Wayne as you will playing the Caped Crusader. I’m not totally convinced by that direction yet.

I watched (but wasn't able to play) 30 minutes of episode one at E3, which Telltale suggested will be out very soon. The opening cuts between Batman stopping a bank robbery while encountering Catwoman, as well as Bruce back at Wayne Manor fixing himself up after a rough night in Gotham. Ever-cautious butler Alfred warns Bruce he’s just flesh and blood. It’s convincingly Batman-esque. The talented and omnipresent Troy Baker, who actually plays the game version of Lego Batman, also plays Bruce Wayne here. Since he also voiced The Joker in Arkham Origins, it’s reasonable to assume he’ll be playing all Batman characters by 2020. His take on the character is like a more sincere version of Lego Batman, though his voice in the cowl is electronically modulated so it doesn’t sound exactly the same. 

This is a Batman relatively early on in his crimefighting career. Harvey Dent isn’t Two-Face yet, and he’s running a political campaign. Telltale hasn’t detailed all the villains we’ll see across each episode, but the first chapter at least has Dent and Carmine Falcone in it, and I can see them saving some of the heavier hitters for later in the series. Batman’s ally Jim Gordon is present, too.

The Batman sequence presents the usual Telltale mix of QTEs and dialogue options. When Batman fires his grappling hook, you use the stick on the controller to aim it in the right direction. When Catwoman and Batman talk, four options come up with how to respond, including the option not to respond. Catwoman will remember that, and so on. If you’ve played a Telltale game, you’ll know what to expect from the format, though the Dark Knight’s universe feels like a neat and moody artistic match for Telltale’s usual standard of visuals, even if the fighting animations are a bit wooden compared to the lavish Arkham games.

The Bruce Wayne half of the demo took place at a Wayne Manor fundraiser for the seemingly happy and healthy Harvey Dent. Bruce and Harvey are teaming up on an initiative to replace Arkham Asylum with a different institution in which to treat the city’s wrongdoers (maybe they could put some locks on this one?). As the billionaire playboy, you choose how to respond to people. Meeting some guests, Bruce is asked by Harvey to “say hi, Bruce!” and you can choose to goof off with the response “Hi Bruce!”, which I kind of like. 

When reporter Vicki Vale enters the fundraiser, Bruce can flirt with her or ask her to leave. The idea is that decisions you make as Bruce will affect the Batman part of his life, and vice versa, though it’s too early to figure out how from this demo. When Carmine Falcone arrives at Wayne Manor, you can refuse to shake his hand, which he naturally doesn’t like. The end of the demo suggests Bruce has to play nice with Falcone, since he can shape Harvey’s political future.

I wasn’t too compelled to find out what happens next, in all honesty. I found most of Bruce’s interactions at the fundraiser to be pretty low energy, and if 50 percent of the game is going to be focused on the Dark Knight’s public facade and dealing with political matters in Gotham, I’m not sure how exciting I find that idea, as much as I’m intrigued to answer rudely to every dialogue choice and see how that turns out. The familiarity of the format may be part of the problem. Telltale’s approach seems unwavering, and it doesn’t feel like the formula is able to bend around a character as iconic as the Dark Knight. Perhaps there’s some comfort in knowing what you’re getting with Telltale’s games, but my first look at episode one just doesn’t excite me, and I’m a huge Batman fan. If this was the first issue of a comic book, I probably wouldn’t read the next one. I’m not sure the Bruce Wayne focus is the most exciting use of that character or his universe.

This is just the first 30 minutes of a five-episode season, though, and that didn’t show off Batman playing detective, which will also form part of the game. The voice-acting was excellent, and I do want to know how Batman and Bruce’s choices will inform the other side’s of the story. I just wish I had the same buzz about it that I had the first time I saw The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us. Maybe I’m being too picky, or perhaps the Arkham games have just spoiled us, but this hasn’t really stirred the Dark Knight fan in me yet.