“Always be yourself. Unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman.”
This glorious Internet adage has been proven true again and again, and the latest opportunity to do so is in Batman – The Telltale Series. We definitely enjoyed the first episode Realm of Shadows which launched slightly under two months ago, but will Telltale Games capture lightning in a bottle once again with the second episode Children of Arkham?
After mob boss Carmine Falcone’s cliffhanging revelation at the end of the first episode, the question now is how will Bruce Wayne respond to the damning allegations. We’ll try to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, of course, so we’ll just say that Bruce’s search for the truth takes him back to Crime Alley and Joe Chill, the location and perpetrator of his parents’ murder two decades ago.
If there was any doubt that Telltale was actively attempting to tell a totally unique Batman story after the surprising twists of the first episode, they’ve definitely put it to rest right at the beginning of this episode’s narrative. It’s a jarring adjustment for the Crime Alley story to unfurl this way, and for the longest time I was waiting for some kind of Scarecrow-fueled nightmare twist, but as the game went on, I realised I was just playing the game wrong.
Batman – The Telltale Series is clearly more about being Bruce Wayne than being Batman, and the central conceit of the game is that you can truly be whatever version of Bruce Wayne you want. You just need a paradigm shift to recognise and acknowledge that.
As a result, the real enjoyment of this episode Children of Arkham for me only came midway through the narrative, while sauntering into a grungy alley bar as Bruce Wayne and genuinely enjoy my time there. It’s an environment where Bruce is easily recognised (from the media circus that has surrounded him after the events of the first episode) yet no one bats (pun intended) an eyelid at his presence. I’ve gotta say, the opportunity to control a playful, almost light-hearted Bruce, despite everything that was going on in his life, is a true delight.
The bar scene (unsurprisingly) climaxes with an action-packed bar fight – conducted as an extended series of quicktime events – which feels organic and doesn’t deviate from the fast pace of the larger narrative.
That said, the pacing of Children of Arkham actually works against it, making the episode feel shorter and less satisfying. It also doesn’t help that the major choices of this episode feel “safe” compared to the decisions found in the first episode, let alone several of Telltale’s other games. It’s probably an unfair expectation (especially considering the greater oversight Warner Bros. undoubtedly has over this game compared to Telltale’s other work) but I definitely miss the consequence-filled moral dilemmas of The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us and even the “each choice is worst than the last” conundrums of Game of Thrones. Where’s the fun when you have to select between “Batman would do that” and “even Owlman won’t stoop THAT low”?
For me, Children of Arkham barely rises above a servicable level – preventing Batman – The Telltale Series from being the consistent critical hit that The Walking Dead and Tales from the Borderlands were. In fact, I’m disappointed that there doesn’t appear to be a compelling reason for this series to continue. The cliffhanger of the first episode has more or less been resolved, and the subsequent mystery – the identity of the episode’s eponymous Children of Arkham doesn’t capture the imagination quite as much.