Batman has had a stellar video game career this generation and last with the Arkham series as well as the burgeoning Injustice fighting series. Likewise, in that time we have seen Telltale Games go from making card games to story-driven, episodic adventures with writing on par with critically acclaimed television and films. With their recent expansion into different types of stories from already established game franchises like Minecraft and Borderlands, or comic adventures based on Bill Willingham’s Fables series with The Wolf Among us, now they’ve put a bat silhouette on their spotlight and focused it on the caped crusader. This game is a new direction for this superhero, who was used to appearing in lavish, action games, now in a game that emphasises the story much more where the player mainly interacts with choices that leave telling effects in the game’s plot. Episode One of this new series adequately delivers in introducing us to the characteristic dark, moody theatricality that is ubiquitous in the Bat’s world. Watching the story unfold is an enjoyable experience however the game suffers from a lack of gameplay depth outside its well-crafted cutscenes.
The template of this game’s story feels like it was cut and pasted from elements of different Batman adventures we’ve seen over the years. The first scene features Batman fighting a bunch of armed goons before squaring off with Catwoman moments later with her hand in the cookie jar (a safe) containing something important that forwards the plot in some way. The game shifts to a lighter (or less dark and sombre) tone where Alfred bemoans Bruce Wayne’s choices right before he shows up fashionably late for Harvey Dent’s mayoral fundraiser where we also meet other established characters from the DC universe, Carmine Falcone and Oswald Cobblepot. It’s cookie-cutter stuff and the sequence of events seems like a methodical approach to making the most Batman story ever, combining well-known plots from the comics and movies. It’s impossible for me to say how the rest of the episodes will handle the plot threads left open but episode one definitely feels like a well-rounded establishing episode for the series with some closure given from an episodic subplot while still leaving some mystery left for larger plots to come.
The writing was well-written and clever without any trite clichés or bad puns while also keeping the plot moving forward without any aspects of the story becoming tangled or jumbled. There is also a strong cast of supporting characters that we encounter throughout the game, who mostly keep the story fresh and interesting. Some feel insufficiently fleshed out and feel like they are only present to give minor foreshadowing of what will happen in the later episodes which is what we experience with Oswald Cobblepot. Nevertheless, such relationships also serve to show the depth to the character there is in this game. The friendship and trust between Harvey and Bruce is an amiable one rooted in similar ideals for example. The dialogue choices you can make highlight the many different stances a character like Bruce Wayne could take in these interactions, they could carry tones of empathy, playboy charm or crusading justice akin to the words of Batman. In fact, it’s these story-based mechanics I found to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game.
As you manoeuvrer your way through these social cues, the choices that are given to you often showcase how heavy an impact you can have on the game’s story. Something as simple as a handshake or whom to share vital information with changes the resulting outcomes of the story in a concrete way. This never seems to feel out of character nor feeling like one would give an obviously better outcome than the other. Sometimes you end up saying the right thing, or you can choose to just say nothing at all. Dictating these moments is a satisfying feeling that stems from the thought that the player him/herself is an integral part to what unfolds in a scene.
Telltale have also embraced the notion of how dynamically different Bruce Wayne and Batman are in terms of character and personality. Batman encountering Catwoman is different to how Bruce Wayne talks to Vicki Vale for example. In fact, this duality seems deep-rooted in the gameplay as well, which takes a different turn when donning the cowl. This gameplay mechanic is available for Batman and let’s that character stand out albeit far less frequently however undoubtedly more brutal.
Despite the simplicity of picking what sentence to say, the breadth of these options that takes place throughout the game is far more superior to the brief and slightly more complexing playthrough of the Batman parts. The quick time events are our first introduction to any sort of gameplay in Realm of Shadows but are then used sparsely throughout the episode. They are however well choreographed with the button layout on the controller. There’s no repetitive patterns that then feel like a dull bore to repeat nor any sense of dis-association with what’s occurring on screen that I feel happens a lot in games with QTE. There was very little difficulty in executing them and often it feels like there is not much consequence to failing one. Throughout my playthrough of a few hours for example, I only had to restart from a checkpoint once from dying. There was also two separate incidents where I was piecing together evidence from a crime scene as well coordinating an infiltration into a bad guy’s lair. These moments definitely felt more characteristic of the type of things Batman would do yet I feel as puzzles that the game offers the player, they lack any real depth or difficulty and are simply ways of trying to virtually experience what it might be like to be Batman. While still enjoyable and memorable, perhaps in later episodes, we will get to see more recurrences of such incidents with greater depth to them.
Visually, this game is very similar to what we have seen in other Telltale games with striking cel shaded character design that feels in place in the iconic visual motif of the Batman universe. The comic book look that we see in The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us is ever more suitable for a Batman game that makes it look unique amongst other Batman pop culture appearances. When animated, characters move in a rather unnatural manner. Some of these animations, such as seeing Batman walking can be distracting but is characteristic of games from Telltale. Realm of Shadows perhaps challenges technical fidelity a little too much in certain instances however with a stuttering frame rate and screen tearing issues abound throughout the playthrough. This is a real shame because the smooth, sleek character design and visual environments were beautifully designed, with multiple locations each manifesting a different mood or atmosphere.
Realm of Shadows is a pretty silly name for a game that is rather enjoyable, with a fun and intricate plot that lets well-known characters shine. It gives us a good first impression of what’s to come but also there are some kinks that need to be buffed out if there’s four more episodes to go.