I didn’t see it coming, but one of my favorite games of 2016 turned out to be an episodic drama about Batman. Following the success of The Walking Dead, developer Telltale settled into a very particular formula: story-driven titles based on existing properties, spread out over a handful of episodes, that put player choice at the forefront. It worked well for series like the fantasy crime thriller The Wolf Among Us, but as the developer’s roster of games grew, its releases started to vary in quality. Sometimes you got a gem, other times a drab take on Game of Thrones.
With all of this in mind, I went into Telltale’s Batman series not quite knowing what to expect, especially considering just how many versions of the Dark Knight’s story already exist. But it surprised me: from the very first episode it felt like a refreshingly new take on a long-running mythos. And after wrapping up the fifth and final episode yesterday, I’m comfortable saying that this is among Telltale’s best work to date.
What makes the series so good is its fearlessness when it comes to making important changes to the Batman canon. These are all characters you know already, but here they feel totally different. It starts with Batman / Bruce Wayne himself; you’re able to make choices that help shape who he is as a character, and define both sides of the character. Similarly, the likes of Lieutenant Gordon, Catwoman, and even the Joker are all present, but they’re in a formative state, letting you see a different version of characters you’ve seen plenty of times. They evolve over the course of the season.
The fifth episode, called “City of Light,” starts out with Gotham in a particularly rough spot. Following the events of the last episode — which, based on my choices, led to a deranged Harvey Dent destroying an entire building in an attempt to irradiate dangerous drugs — the city is in a state of lockdown. Dent’s armed goons patrol the streets, fighting against the Gotham police department, even appearing on TV to silence reporters who oppose the newly implemented mayor. This nearly apocalyptic version of Gotham provides plenty of moments where you can delve deeper into these new versions of familiar characters. There’s a scene where you attempt to talk down a murderous Harvey Dent, another where you have a heartfelt goodbye with Selina Kyle, and one where you have to risk yourself to save Alfred.
“City of Light” zooms in on the aspects of the game that work best. The conversations are plentiful and challenging, forcing you to make decisions that will influence not only how events play out, but how other characters view Bruce / Batman. There are some really great investigative sequences as well, where you’re analyzing crime scenes, and piecing together clues. And, this being a Telltale game, things get appropriately dark. Where the episode really shines — just like the rest of the series — is the dynamic between Bruce Wayne and Batman. In essence, your actions determine which side of the character is really the most important, an aspect that comes to a head during the episode’s final moments, when you have to make your last, big choice.
The entire episode rushes forward in a satisfying way. Episode four was all about setup, setting the stage for what promised to be a big final act, and “City of Light” makes good on that promise. It’s a tense thriller where every second feels important. And, if nothing else, it bodes well for Telltale’s incoming onslaught of new releases. Next week will see the debut of the much-anticipated third season of The Walking Dead, while the studio is also working on a new series based on Guardians of the Galaxy.
If Telltale can make the well-trod ground of Gotham feel fresh, I’m excited to see what happens next for Clementine and Groot.