Friends lost, enemies gained, truths revealed and lives changed. The first season of Telltale's Batman put the dark knight through the emotional ringer, testing his mental fortitude and balance between the lives of Bruce and the Bat. Following the events of the first game, Enemy Within gives Bruce little time to breathe before he's back into the fray, for better or worse.
Trust. That is the prevailing theme hammered into the player's skull throughout the first episode of Batman: Enemy Within. It's a concept that permeates through a lot of Batman works, as Batman is a man who is cautious about letting people get close, but has to in order to face overwhelming odds (unless he's given extra thick plot armor). "Trust" was also something that rang a lot in Batman's first Telltale outing, however.
Batman: Enemy Within is available on Steam for $24.99.
A reverse of what is usually the priority for most games, the writing is what is most crucial in a Telltale game. Gameplay takes a back seat to the story, so without the latter being quality, the former is moot. I looked at the writing as both a Telltale fan and as a Batman fan. Telltale has had some ups (Tales from the Borderlands) and downs (any Walking Dead after the first), with the first Batman tale getting mostly favorable, but not glowing reviews for its writing. So I was eager to see if the second installment got things off to a good start.
Thankfully, the writing, thus far, has been great. The characters introduced are interesting and polarizing, testing the player's priorities of gaining allies and protecting friends. Purists may not be happy with how some of the established characters from the comics are handled, as not everyone comes with the same familiar back story. This is a positive, however, at least for long time Batman fans. He's had a lot of stories, so it's always refreshing when something new is made with the pre-existing ingredients.
The two big characters introduced are Amanda Waller and The Riddler. While Riddler has more notoriety than Waller, mainstream audiences may know Waller as the only good part of the Suicide Squad movie. Here is the same tough as nails shadowy-organization director she always is, but there is some more depth there. Players will likely want to side with Gordon over Waller, since Gordon is an established friend, whereas Waller is new in town and her ways clash with standard procedure.
Riddler was sadly not as well written as I had hoped. He's a hard villain to write well, as too often he falls to close to Joker's territory and the biggest criticism is his gimmick (leaving clues) is self-destructive. The important facet of Riddler being a criminal for the sake of proving his intelligence is somewhat glossed over, but it is brought up enough times to make note of it. As the first villain of this season, he's woefully weak, but then Riddler is rarely interesting.
John Doe is by far the most interesting character in the chapter. With his pale skin, green hair, and wide smile, John is clearly the pre-form of Batman's most famous villain, Egghead. He comes across as that friend who is so eager to please, so happy to have you as a friend, but makes you uncomfortable with the way he behaves; yet you're unsure how he would react if you ever said no to him. He's quick to flip emotions, and while you certainly don't want him on your bad side, having him on your good side feels just as dangerous. Yet he's so eager to please that it's hard to hate him.
The problem with these franchise games is that we know who these characters become, most of the time. We know who John Doe is, we know who Waller is. It's hard to convince the player to side with them on anything because the end result is almost guaranteed to be what we expect. To their credit, Telltale, as stated before, does their best to mix up motivations and back stories, to keep the player guessing. It's just hard for the player him/herself to remove any bias that exists by knowing these characters from other works.
The majority of your interactions with the game come in the form of dialogue and action choices. You are given four choices on how to respond, including silence (and there was actually one situation in which I actually wanted to choose silence – a first for me!). Action also gets choices, allowing the player to decide how Batman will knock out a thug, though the end result is always the same and there's no consequence for choosing one over the other. Quicktime prompts exist to give the player some interaction during the action. Standard Telltale fare.
A grand total of two times are you given free control of the titular character, which is probably for the best. Batman controls horribly, moving sluggishly with a camera that doesn't want to budge. This is unsurprising, though still disappointing, as the major focus is on the social and combative interactions. Despite the sluggish controls, the game, elsewhere, performs smoothly, particularly in the cutscenes. Along with having a negative reputation of having choices that don't matter, Telltale games often are criticized for being poorly optimized. Thankfully, at least on the PC, this wasn't the case.
Covering the other half of Batman (the first being his combat prowess), the player will be given a couple puzzles to solve. When up against the Riddler, the puzzles should be deadly and challenging, and while they can kill Batman if the player doesn't hit the button at the right time, any challenge is non-existent. Occasionally the player will be asked to link two pieces of evidence. In these instances, the answer is either very obvious or the only option. For example, at one point you're given two pieces of evidence and told to link them. A rather unnecessary effort, if you ask me, since there's only one option available.
Relatively new to Telltale games is the crowd choice option. You can allow other players to view your progress as you play. When you do, you may toggle on an option that lets all choices become democracy based, with the audience voting on which path is taken. A feature best reserved for those who enjoy streaming.
And yes, choices do matter. It's common to criticize these games for claiming choices matter when in reality the paths taken all seem to lead to the same destination. The problem is people assume each choice will radically change the narrative, which is never going to be the case. It's unclear how much value the "X will remember this" moments have, at least when stacked up to much bigger events that clearly change the direction the character will take.
There's only one big decision moment in the game, where everything slows down and the two options are blown up on screen to drive home their importance. One of my relationships changed for the worse based on a decision I made that I felt was best to protect myself. While the end result upset me, I knew that this was something that made the game better. It's too easy to look up guides and see which choices to take based on what you want the end relationships to be. However, you get a much richer experience when you make a choice that fucks things up, and now you have to live with them.
The Telltale art style is here, of course, and slightly improved on the last iteration. Having the characters look more illustrated than realistic makes it easier for them to express emotions, and also helps given the game a longer shelf life. What Telltale still struggles with are big emotions, however. While a smirk or a shrug is easy enough to animate, the models feel too stiff to properly animate a scream of horror or shout of anger. It's a limitation that has, and sadly continues to, hold Telltale games back from being as an emotional an experience as, say, The Witcher 3.
Voice acting is done quite well, at the very least. No matter how good the writing, the voice acting can ruin it if it's not up to the same standard, and vice versa. Once again special mention has to be given to the actor who plays John Doe, who really does a good job of playing the character as being on the edge between a normal life and one of, well, you know.
For fans of Telltale and Batman, Batman: Enemy Within is a safe bet. This review is only for the first episode, mind you, so the story could easily take a hard left turn off a cliff and into Shitville. It's a shame these episodic games don't use the method of distribution that first came with them, where every episode was purchasable individually. So far, at least, things are looking good. Characters are interesting and the relationships that build and break will hopefully have lasting consequences.
A Batman story is only as good as its villains, so what will make or break this game is whether or not the baddies deliver. Batman has the most interesting rogue's gallery of any superhero, so if those combatants aren't handled properly, it won't matter what trials and tribulations Batman goes through; it just won't work. While Riddler is given very little depth (though more than he usually gets), the writing for the other allies and enemies gives me hope that the story can only get better from here.
|+ Well written characters…||– …but Riddler is woefully underwritten.|
|+ Runs smoothly on PC.||– Direct control of Bat/Bruce feel awkward.|
|+ Quality voice acting for quality writing.|