Batman – The Telltale Series, Episode 2: “Children of Arkham” begins with Bruce Wayne still reeling from the rumors of outright criminal behavior regarding his father as he attempts to navigate the tricky political firestorm of both the upcoming election of Harvey Dent and the media’s coverage of his family’s alleged wrong-doing. Is his father guilty? Should he confide in Vicki Vale and trust her to tell his side of things? Should he pretend to throw in with his father’s old partners as a means to an end, knowing that the move could draw even more scrutiny from the media and potentially damage Harvey Dent’s bid for election?
At the same time, Batman is facing some struggles of his own. Catwoman is on the scene much more in this episode, but her loyalties are questionable at best. Oswald Cobblepot has slid completely into his Penguin persona, fully committing to his nefarious plan for Gotham City, while the Children of Arkham appear on the scene, their plans shrouded in mystery, although murder seems to be at the forefront of their schemes. Altogether, Gotham is looking like a stack of dynamite with a match hovering directly overhead, with only Batman (and Bruce Wayne) having the strength to blow it out.
“Children of Arkham” has a lot more bang for your buck than the previous episode, despite being shorter by almost half. While there are still references to the Wayne’s deaths, Telltale doesn’t beat you over the head this time, and they actually manage to put a new spin on the iconic image of a young Bruce sobbing over the bodies of his parents. It’s also interesting to see a reversal of the usual Bruce Wayne/Batman perception. This time around, Bruce Wayne is the pariah, hounded and distrusted by the media and his fellow Gothamites, while Batman is enjoying a (mostly) positive outlook after apprehending Falcone in front of rolling cameras. This is a smart choice on Telltale’s part, since thus far the series has been more about navigating the political world as Bruce Wayne than slugging through the alleyways of Gotham as Batman.
This episode is also more grim in general. A lot more. In the first episode we had a few grisly moments, but this time Telltale really shoves their chips into the middle of the table. Bruce Wayne chokes a helpless man in a hospital bed, Batman jams a taser into a man’s mouth and slugs him in the pie-hole until he goes down (which is as awesome as it sounds), an innocent civilian gets shot point blank in the face, and even the death of Thomas Wayne gets an R rating, with Wayne Sr. being shot directly in the eye, the bloody socket in full view of a crying Bruce. The grimmer tone helps the episode overall, as everything here seems to be in a downhill slide, showing how truly frightening and merciless both Bruce Wayne and Batman’s Gotham can be.
Batman is more fun to play in this episode as well. The quick time events, while still very familiar, are exciting and more varied in Episode 2, especially in a bar fight scene that is a ton of fun to brawl your way through. There are some great “Batman” moments as well and once again Telltale does a good job showing how a modern Batman’s gadgets have upgraded with the times (although I do cringe every time he references “the Bat-Computer”). Drones are again at the forefront of his arsenal, and he uses them to great effect in myriad ways, including flying them overhead and grappling to them, which is implausible but very cool. Bruce has a self-driving Lamborghini (thanks Google), and of course the Batmobile looks awesome. Familiar standbys like the batarang and smoke-pellets are still in the ol’ utility belt, but the use of smart phones and drones really makes it feel like this is “today’s Batman”.
The visuals are great and the art style, while somewhat unimpressive to me at first, is really starting to fit this particular Batman tale. Harvey Dent looks larger than life, Catwoman is sleek and sexy, and Batman looks menacing as hell, with plenty of “pose-worthy” moments that stand out and beg to be screen-captured. Take-downs look awesome and will make you grin as you decimate your foes, and even when it’s just Bruce Wayne talking to people (which makes up the bulk of the episode), the directing keeps everything looking interesting.
The sound stays with the standards established in the first episode, from the rumble of the Batmobile to the cracking of pool cues and the meaty thumps of physical violence. The voice acting is almost always stellar, and Troy Baker’s Batman voice is growing on me more and more. I cannot help but compare his voice (and likely every Batman for the rest of my life) to Christian Bale’s ridiculous rasp, and Troy really shines when he is angry in this episode, sounding authoritative and dangerous.
The episode is not without its flaws however. Penguin doesn’t have a whole lot of personality besides “We used to be friends, now I’m nuts”. For some reason, I still cannot get the window to go full-screen, which really messes with the immersion. I get the dreaded “white screen”, which I see from the forums that many other people continue to experience as well. The puzzles are a bit easy this time around, and I have been waiting to use Batman’s detective skills to think around corners in creative ways, but so far, no dice. They aren’t bad necessarily; they just aren’t Batman level puzzles. The QTE’s seem to be dumbed down a bit too. I remember dying multiple times playing “The Walking Dead” series, but here, even when I press the wrong button, if I hit the right one quickly enough, the correct action will still happen on-screen. One nice thing to see in Episode 2 is that I actually did die a couple times, something I thought was basically impossible after playing Episode 1.
My final critique is a tough one. As I mentioned in my previous review, Batman is an amazingly difficult property to adapt into this type of medium. How do you get players to make their own decisions when so much of Batman’s lore and attitude is already well-known and established? Telltale does a damn fine job of it most of the time, leading you into tough choices where you can still see Batman or Bruce going either way. Yet there is still a feeling of riding shotgun on a road trip to an extent; you can suggest taking backroads vs. the freeway but you are still heading to your preordained destination. At the end of the day, the fun of the game outweighs the feeling that you are more a passenger than the driver, but I can see some gamers not feeling the same way.