Impressions of Batman: The TellTale Series Episode 2

During my first impression piece of Batman: The TellTale Series, I mentioned how the series adds a new layer to the Batman universe, adding complexity to the mythos by changing certain dynamics that are common in Batman stories. Batman: The TellTale Series Episode 2, Children of Arkham, continues this trend with precision and deftness that makes me ache for canonical changes to the Batverse. Don’t worry, as spoilers will be absolutely minimal!

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Building Mythology

Those who played Episode 1 get a few hints at how the Wayne Family mythos has changed in TellTale’s version, but Episode 2 magnifies it. It makes it very, very hard for Bruce Wayne to be a completely innocent character. While he may have been ignorant, that fact that his life was built on the sorrow of others makes it almost necessary for him to take up the mantle of the bat. While not explicitly said (yet), it feels like Bruce’s crusade starts for the usual reason we get in every iteration of the story, but is clearly becoming one of redemption, specifically for his family name.

Batman’s origin story has been told ad nauseum, but having Alfred there, prodding Bruce’s memory, helping him think through the details, adds a new dimension. As Bruce recalls details new to TellTale’s vision of his origin story, we get a real sense of Bruce’s privileged lifestyle, but how sheltered he was. Like Buddha, Bruce seems to have been sheltered from the real world, and a chance encounter with it scars him, initially taking him on a journey that starts with a naive goal but, perhaps, is leading him to a kind of enlightenment.

This is critical for adding depth and freshness to the character. Batman’s obsession and inability to deal with the death of his parents always makes critical readers note that the character is, in some ways, immature, possibly crazy. However, if Batman/Bruce realizes that what happened to his parents is a natural result of the secret lifestyle they led, if he chooses to reject their ways and use his fortune to right their wrongs and the wrongs of others like them, not only he becomes a brighter symbol of justice, but better fits the description of a dark knight. He may be trying to right wrongs, but they’re wrongs caused by his ilk and seemingly only something he’s in the moral and financial position to do, something Alfred constantly mentions.

As someone who grew up on the Bat mythos, one might expect me to rage against such a change. Batman should be a good guy, the end, right? However, as an adult in the modern world, I know that there’s rarely true good or pure evil. Humans come in various shades, and it’s our choice to guide our moral alignment.

By making Batman the psychological avenger of a half-remembered traumatic experience, the character becomes pitiable. His choice to use the persona to avenge a death that, frankly, should have surprised no one, comes into question until Bruce start to come to grip with reality.

Wrestling with his mistakes made in ignorance while trying to do good is a lot easier for most people to empathize with than a pure hero often making decisions that have a single, clear, heroic choice. It’s one thing for Batman to save a woman from a thug, but it’s another if Batman saves a woman from a thug who became a thug because of something Thomas Wayne did.

 

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Family Ties

One of TellTale’s most interesting changes has been with the relationships between characters. Making some of Batman’s traditional enemies family friends brings an immense amount of complexity not only to the plot lines, but your time playing as Bruce Wayne. Certain characters who seem rotten to the core become Vader-like as they reveal an uncomfortable closeness to the Wayne family, which becomes even worse when you find out how different Thomas Wayne is from his son.

A simple, spoiler free example would be Alfred. Alfred is usually a proxy father figure to Batman, being not only the one who raised him, but also an older male figure there to offer advice and pick the younger man up when he’s been beaten down. However, certain revelations show that this is a life Alfred chose. That he could have walked away. Establishing this makes Bruce seem even more childish and sheltered at times, treating Alfred lightly or even with disdain when the man has clearly gone well above and beyond his duty as not only butler, but friend.

This, however, is with a character that’s a Bat ally. Applied to enemies, the player now has to deal with severe complications introduced with Bruce’s relationships to villains. While Batman can do what’s right, it’s hard not to question what right he has to judge these people, moreso than usual. It’s one thing when Batman’s a simple vigilante, but it’s another when we know his alter ego’s wealth is built on ruthlessness and suffering.

Again, in lesser hands, this could a be disastrous experiment within the Batverse, but TellTale pulls it off in a way that ensures that the audience can recognize that our Batman is still growing up to be the practically paranoid, ready for everything super hero that’s able to take down most of his colleagues.

TellTale sets up a disturbing closeness to villains a la Hush in previous years, but without the overly dramatic, convoluted backstories that can only exist in comics. When I had to face a certain character I’d put in the hospital and learned his connection to Bruce, I found myself shouting in denial at the screen, unintentionally channeling the spirit of Luke Skywalker.

I didn’t need any psychological set up, brainwashing, or magic. Just a few, normal situations that a child might have missed are enough for the player to accept the truth but also recoil in moral horror. When combined with the way Batman can treat his enemies, the player is left wrestling with many occasions where Batman’s decisions can screw over Bruce and vice versa. It’s both frustrating and immersive, making the Bat-experience more palpable than most Batman games to date.

 

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New Additions

Episode 2 doesn’t just build up on the new, but fixes some of the old. My gripes with some of the over the top comic-y sexism aren’t exactly gone, but some play time with Catwoman, hinted at in the trailers, certainly makes up for it.

While she’s still in a damsel in distress situation, she’s more than able to take care of herself, and this (potentially) becomes even more apparent at the end of the episode. Although she lacks Batman’s tools, her fighting style is believable enough for me to feel that she actually can take down large groups of men, assuming they charge in only one at a time as they seem to tend to do in pop culture fights. Like Bruce, she’s far from innocent, but very practical and open in endearing ways.

I admit to having a childhood crush on the character, and TellTale’s version is a good reminder of why I have a hard time resisting women who can bluntly cut through social niceties while remaining charming. Team ups with Robin in past games are enjoyable enough, but TellTale’s Catwoman brings in all the style and sexual tension you’d expect from her comic book counter part, but without being pornographic.

Truthfully, it makes me wish for at least some DLC where we can play as Catwoman. TellTale generally has male protagonists, but Catwoman seems like a morally flexible yet loveable character both genders could certainly enjoy playing as.

That being said, there are points in the episode that had me rolling my eyes. Taking a picture of victim of a barely known substance during one scene somehow leads to a chemical test, which makes absolutely no sense. Bruce is in direct contact with the victim. Why TellTale couldn’t simply have him dab at some body fluid with a tissue and take it back to his lab is beyond me. In fact, this scene, along with several others with Bruce Wayne, often feel very uncomfortable as Bruce is not only a well-known billionaire, but one dealing with some harsh rumors in the public spotlight. Why he’s not at least wearing a fake nose and moustache is beyond me, but perhaps this is meant to lead to more hard lessons Bruce needs to learn so as to perfect his Batman.

 

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What the Future May Hold

Episode 2 leaves us with quite a cliffhanger. Once choice certainly will complicate Batman/Bruce Wayne’s private and public life, but another almost seems to challenge our understanding of certain characters’ development, or lack thereof.

Those paying attention to the codex entries and newspapers will notice that both change based on decisions, which helps reinforce the idea that we have an effect on the game world. However, this last episode allowed us to change a lot, and even gave us an opportunity to choose between playing out a scenario as Batman or Bruce Wayne. Seeing how that choice, among others, will effect TellTale’s intricate web of Bat-connections makes the cliffhanger more torturous to endure, but the experience is satisfying enough to placate me, for now.

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