Batman The Telltale Series Episode 2: Children of Arkham Review
(Note: The following review contains spoilers for Episode 1: A Realm of Shadows, read at your own discretion.)
When Telltale Games discussed their approach to their own adaptation of Batman, I couldn’t care less. The comics have been perpetually rebooting themselves to the point of being impenetrable, the last video game outing had some decent moments but had some fundamental problems, and the recent film interpretations doubled down on the character being a fascist sociopath who uses guns and kills. Despite the studio’s great track record of bringing fantastic drama and powerful characterization to their games, I thought the well had dried up for any more interesting versions of Bruce Wayne to be expressed.
Then I finished Episode 1 of the series, was immediately hooked and my love of the character reignited. It begins as yet another version of a Batman early in his career as a vigilante crime fighter, with billionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne helping to push the morally upstanding Harvey Dent (preface mutilation) into Gotham City’s public office to help fight corruption, both of which are being threatened by the crime boss Carmine Falcone. Queue up some well-animated Quick-Time Event fight sequences for Batman to punch some people, some dialogue options where Bruce Wayne needs to keep up the facade of being a shallow idiot, and some mild detective work and you have yourself an inoffensive appeal to the Batman brand with Telltale’s signature gameplay formula.
But then the emotional climax of the episode rears its ugly head, revealing that Bruce Wayne’s parents were not goodhearted people using their legitimate wealth to improve the city of Gotham, but morally corrupt gangsters that worked with the Falcone crime family and the mayor for power and influence. Batman was created from dirty money and Bruce Wayne was blissfully ignorant of his parents’ mob connections due to his childlike innocence. To my knowledge of Batman stories, this is the first time the origin story is taken into such dark territory and it made me worry that Telltale would renege on such a drastic change rife with possibility to keep it as a cheap cliffhanger with no bearing on the status quo at all.
Children of Arkham doubles down on this change with it opening on Bruce Wayne revisiting Crime Alley. Alfred accompanies him and proceeds to help clarify and correct the events of what occurred on that fateful night. Specifically, the Waynes weren’t randomly shot by a mugger. It was a hit put on them by an unknown third party due to their dealings with organized crime.
On a narrative level, it’s impressive, since it manages to be a retcon of a pivotal element of this character’s entire core while keeping things believable. After all, even the world’s greatest detective can remember things differently if it’s connected to severe emotional trauma. It helps iron out certain issues such as why Alfred kept such information secret, leading to a great moral choice about whether or not to forgive him. But gameplay wise, it’s basically filling in the blanks. No bad design decisions, just a reliable return to conventional formula. Choices have consequences, characters will remember what you said, puzzle logic remains consistent, etc., but nothing else completely sticks out.
The entire episode is an extension of this dynamic. There are several fantastic sequences where Bruce Wayne deals with the fallout of his ties to evil men. The issue of how he should use his resources as Batman are called into question due to their nature. The highlight of the episode is choosing whether or not to deal with a major character in or out of the cape and cowl. But despite the great writing chops of the studio, Telltale struggles against its own limitations when it comes to action sequences that feel like padding. A particular brawl in a bar goes on a bit too long and could have easily been avoided, but it felt forced in to reach a face-punching quota.
Episode 2 is also the introduction of the series major antagonists, the titular Children of Arkham. On the whole, it’s another bold choice that pays off. Despite Batman having one of the best rogue’s gallery in comics, when they usually show up in a narrative, their familiarity removes any intrigue or mystery from their actions and motives. However, for a superhero who’s also a detective, knowing who did it and why from one incidental detail kills the mystery. The leader of the organization does seem to be an odd combination of the Scarecrow, using emotion-based chemicals to control people, and the extremist anti-authoritarian spiel of Anarky, but his brief appearance in the episode does promise something threatening long-term.
Episode 2 is Telltale at its best and worst. When it sticks to character drama and meaningful choices with no clear answer, it’s the most compelling Batman narrative I have experienced in years. But when it comes to action or contriving intense heat of the moment decisions, they play it aggravatingly safe. Press X to know kung fu, fixed amount of time to help one of two people, been there, done that, bought a t-shirt. I’m still invested in what the studio has in mind for Bruce Wayne’s quest for redemption and interested in the Children of Arkham’s endgame, as well as any batfan out there who picked up the season pass. However, I am worried that Telltale Game’s formula is starting to show its age and may need some mild reinvention of its own to survive.