Sunday, 25 September 2016

Not Quite Review Corner: Batman (Telltale, iPad)

Batman took off as a video game property back in 2009, with the release of Batman: Arkham Asylum. There had been Batman games before, but no company before Rocksteady succeeded so thoroughly in making the player feel like the Dark Knight, in an adventure exactly like one of the Caped Crusader's grimmer tales. Not quite Alan Moore, but a passable Alan Grant. It spawned a succession of solid sequels, most of which - even the bad ones - were well received commercially.

Back in 2012 Telltale Games, a company that made a decent living but no significant reputation with episodic adventure games, confounded all expectations with The Walking Dead, an adaptation of the comic series by Robert Kirkman. Like Arkham Asylum, The Walking Dead shot to everybody's Top Ten or Game of the Year lists on release. It also spawned a ton of sequels, most of which were solidly put together even when they didn't match the emotional pull of the first game. Since then Telltale parlayed its newfound glory into a string of impressive hits, not least of which was The Wolf Among Us, an adaptation of a hit DC Vertigo series, Fables.

It was only a matter of time before Telltale gave Batman the episodic game treatment, and once it did it was bound to come out for iPad just as its other titles have. It just did, and these last few days I've been giving the first episode, Realm of Shadows, a shot on my iPad Air.

There are two questions to answer here:

Does it work as a Batman title?

Does it work as an iPad game?

The short answers are Not Entirely, and Absolutely Not.

As a Batman title it flows well. It suffers from Too Many Characters syndrome, probably because it's trying to pump as much Batman cred as it can in a short play time. I finished the title in a little under two hours, in which time we met Harvey Dent aka Two Face - before his unfortunate accident - the Penguin, Catwoman, Carmine Falcone, Detective (not yet Commissioner) Gordon, Vicky Vale, and probably Scarecrow, though that last awaits confirmation. Fewer references would have made for a better plot. But there's a decent balance between action and thoughtful crime-solving, and it really benefits from focusing on Bruce Wayne rather than his caped alter ego.

As a brief aside: it's a mature title, but all that really means is occasionally Selina Kyle says 'shit.' Because maturity is all about the swearwords.

That said, the big problem is that if you know the series at all, any tension is immediately lost. Telltale has a habit of making you feel as though every choice you make in-game is important - even though it often isn't so - yet knowing who these people are and what happens to them robs all the decisions of any impact. You know that Harvey Dent will become Two Face, so you don't care whether or not you make nice with him; whatever you do he's still going to get his face melted and become a villain. Equally you know it doesn't matter whether you choose to help Commissioner Gordon or Vicky Vale, since both of them will be your ally. There's no chance that Gordon or Vale will turn on you, and it won't matter too much if you upset one by helping the other.

Spoiler territory: the best example of this is the Wayne problem. In the first episode it's revealed that Thomas and Martha Wayne may have been in cahoots with the crime bosses that run Gotham, Falcone in particular. As a plot twist it seems powerful: Batman gets his whole motivation, and the money he needs to fight crime, from his parents, and if they turn out to have feet of bloodstained clay then the whole thing's upended. But you know full well Telltale will never stick to that, and even if it was tempted DC would pull the plug. No; the Waynes will turn out to be the sainted martyrs they've always been. My money's on the Wayne Corporation executive who turns up briefly at the Dent fundraiser, and later at the Arkham Asylum ceremony.

Personally as far as long-term plot goes I predict something like this: Penguin set Falcone up for the fall, using Catwoman to do it. Either Penguin or Falcone brought Scarecrow on board - hence the peculiar psycho gas that turns up in the crime scene - for reasons as yet unknown, but probably unpleasant. Penguin seems to be the long-term opponent, but things could change.

Moreover there are very few opportunities to be Batman. There are moments when you leap into action, but the game's rigged so that you never really fail. In only one instance does a bad button press result in Game Over; usually it just means you're not quite as cool as the real thing. Telltale's strength is in emotional strife, not combat, and it shows.

Which is why it doesn't work as an iPad game either.

The iPad touchscreen controls just aren't precise enough to make for a really compelling combat sim. More often than not the button prompt will come up for the quicktime event, you'll stab the screen like a chimp on a caffeine high, and your response will be off or mistimed or whatever it may be. End result: just not as cool as the real thing, just not as cool as the real thing, just not as cool as the real thing. Again and again and again. I don't doubt this worked like magic on consoles, but the iPad doesn't respond well to the chimp stab treatment.

Dishearteningly, it doesn't matter what you do. You'll still win. Granted you'll feel like an idiot and the little Bat-meter at the bottom of the screen, which does nothing except shatter your ego, will not fill up. But you'll still win. For a game all about power wish fulfillment, it robs you of power while at the same time fulfilling no wishes.

Is it worth getting? Ehhh ... if you're a Batman completest, sure. If you're just looking for some iPad fun, pass. I'd recommend The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us over this any day of the week.

See you next Sunday!

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