Telltale's Batman: The Enemy Within, Ep. 1-Reviews
After the overall excellent first season of Telltale’s Batman series, I had high hopes for The Enemy Within. The first season radically altered Batman’s world in deeply meaningful ways, exploring class conflict and heroism in a world of economic strife, abuse, and tragedy.
Before getting into the spoilers, let me say that The Enemy Within has met all my expectations and I can’t wait for episode two. If you liked Season 1, you will be happy with Season 2.
Art Style, Graphics, and Gameplay
The Enemy Within sports a new art style, with heavier inks and lines, emphasizing the wrinkles on the character’s faces and the weight on their souls, particularly Jim Gordon and Alfred. Some of the characters have been redesigned and the new artist gives their spin on old favorites. This feels like a salute to the way that comics shift styles between creators and story arcs. While the old style was hardly stale, it’s always nice to see a game company invest in something new. Like Jim Gordon’s new `stache, which went from thin to epic.
Game companies like Quantic Dream (Beyond: Two Souls) and Supermassive Games (Until Dawn) should take note of the animation work happening in Telltale Games. Games that utilize motion capture, particularly for facial animation, have often plunged deep into the uncanny valley. This storytelling method has made it harder to convey an emotional narrative because you’re constantly distracted by the various ways that the character models are almost human, but not quite. Telltale Games have chosen to use stylized models instead of hyper-realistic ones, and in doing so have created characters that are easier to watch and relate to. Telltale’s character models always enhance, rather than distract from, the story that they’re telling. I can’t say the same for Until Dawn’s doomed teenagers.
The game expands on the mechanic of character memory. In previous seasons, when you make a major decision, the game would say something along the lines of, “Jim Gordon will remember this.” The Enemy Within takes this a step further and lets you know when your decisions significantly alter your relationships. At the end of the episode, it lets you know where you stand with major characters like Gordon, Alfred, and others. One episode isn’t enough to tell me how this mechanic will function in gameplay, but I enjoyed seeing the final list of how my actions impacted how people felt about me. However, aside from this new mechanic, there are no significant gameplay changes. Telltale delivers all the Quicktime fights, timed dialogue choices, and detective work sequences that you’re familiar with from Season 1. There’s a formula at work here, and if you love it, you’ll be happy, and if you don’t, there’s always Arkham Asylum for Bat-action.
Story and Characters
The Enemy Within focuses on the shifting nature of relationships, trust, and family in the Bat-universe. A startling turn of events and a tragic loss early in the episode force Batman to confront the costs of his war on crime and the danger that his allies face. Telltale is never afraid to put beloved characters in the crosshairs (Hi, Kenny!), but violence always serves the game’s larger narrative and themes, rather than feeling like exploitative shock.
The game begins with Bruce Wayne tracking Rumi Mori, a gun runner and war profiteer. Telltale has given the Bruce Wayne sequences a strong James Bond vibe, with Alfred as your “guy in the chair” working your tech, feeding you information, and doing the odd bit of exposition. I really enjoyed this bit, as I always felt like Alfred got short shrift in Batman video game stories. The game also touches on how Alfred’s abduction at the hands of Lady Arkham last season traumatized him. Batman might be bulletproof, but the hearts and minds of his loved ones are not.
The Riddler shows up not long after, ready to torture and punish Mori. The plot of the episode is basic, but classic Batman. Riddler escapes after torturing Mori and you spend most of the episode gathering clues, solving puzzles, and chasing him down. None of the puzzles are particularly difficult – unlike the adventure games of old, Telltale Games aren’t meant to confuse you. Rather, they are meant to reveal more of who the Riddler is, how he sees the world, and how he utilizes diabolical machines to terrorize the targets of his ire.
The Riddler is a difficult character to reimagine. “Answer my goofy questions to foil my crimes, Batman!” is a hard sell to a modern audience. Today’s gamers have met Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Stringer Bell – realistic criminals who exist in a world of competent law enforcement. A goofball asking questions that give away their crimes won’t land. So Telltale doesn’t do that.
In the memorable climax scene, it becomes clear that the Riddler’s questions are not puzzles to be solved, but assertions of power over Batman and his other victims. The Riddler asks several rhetorical questions with obvious answers, all of which demand that Batman exalt the Riddler’s superior intelligence. If Batman does so, the Riddler activates a sonic device that deafens an innocent federal agent. If he refuses, the Riddler murders three other agents using his torture devices. Telltale’s Riddler doesn’t want to know how a raven is like a writing desk; he wants to know that he’s the greatest mind in Gotham, and he’s willing to kill to prove it. He’s a lot less Jim Carrey and a lot more Jigsaw.
Telltale’s Riddler retains the goofy green suit, but adds a wickedly sharp hooked cane and a heinous torture device. The contrast of a Golden Age character model and a distinctly contemporary propensity for torture and self-aggrandization is jarring and disjointed and drives home the Riddler’s arrogance and megalomania. In short, bravo. Making the Riddler into a cool villain was a tall obstacle to clear, and Telltale soars over it.
The Riddler’s unsympathetic portrayal stands in stark contrast to your first interaction with John Doe, the game’s “Proto-Joker.” Last season, Doe helped Bruce Wayne escape from Arkham Asylum in exchange for a favor. In an incredibly awkward and unnerving scene, he shows up at a funeral to cash this favor in. Doe’s manner veers wildly between terrifying and pitiable. He seeks your approval, makes demands, and embarrasses you. He calls you “two friends in the same stitch”, a terrific call back to the classic Joker/Batman dichotomy. He insists that he’s made some new friends that “live by their own code” (like you, Doe claims) and he wants you to meet them. (I theorize these folks might be Telltale’s take on the League of Shadows). In exchange, he provides information on the Riddler’s whereabouts.
John Doe is lonely. He’s weird. He’s scared. He’s scary. He’s vulnerable. He has trouble with social situations, but wants to do the right thing. In short, John Doe feels like a real person suffering from severe mental illness. Telltale has promised that we will play a key part in the Joker’s origin story, but after this episode, all I want to do is save him from himself.
Furthermore, the game hints that John Doe is being manipulated by his psychologist – Harleen Quinzel! In what may be a radical act of reinvention, the Joker could be a pawn of a much more dangerous and empowered Harley Quinn. This actually makes a lot more sense than the original Quinn storyline. A skilled psychologist / psychotherapist won’t be subverted by a patient – they go through over a decade of advanced training to avoid that. It’s much more realistic for a clinical professional to have the skill and training to abuse and control a severely ill patient. The mentally ill are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators, which has always been one of the problematic aspects of Batman’s rogues gallery. I’m hoping that Telltale addresses this point with John Doe.
After Mark Hamill and Heath Ledger’s portrayals, I didn’t think there was any room in the world for another interpretation of the Joker, but Anthony Ingruber has proven me wrong. It’s too early say for certain, but this could be a Joker for the ages.
Batman is also challenged by the arrival of The Agency, led by Amanda Waller. She’s in hot pursuit of the Riddler and demands your cooperation. Jim Gordon doesn’t like the idea of a federal agency subverting his police department’s authority and doesn’t want Batman to work with her. However, the game’s plot draws strong parallels between Batman’s vigilantism and Waller’s rule-bending approach to crime fighting. The game asks, what really is the difference between a costumed vigilante and a highly trained operative working for the Agency? If your answer is “not a whole lot,” you can ally with her.
This is another example of playing with gamer expectations, used to great effect in the previous season. Fans familiar with canon know that Waller is one of the founders of the Suicide Squad and Not A Great Person, but there’s no telling how Telltale will utilize her. Is it a coincidence that Riddler shows up along with Waller, and that John Doe is discharged from Arkham around the same time?
Waller seems to be highly competent, but while Jim Gordon works with Batman as an equal partner, Waller demands obedience. And when she reveals that she knows that Batman is Bruce Wayne, she might just get it. Yes, episode one’s cliffhanger ends in Waller hissing Batman’s secret identity at him. Hang on, Bat-fans, because it looks like Telltale has crafted one hell of a ride for us.
Thoughts and Observations
Is there a discount warehouse superstore where super villains can purchase suicidal / idiotic henchmen destined to be dispatched by Batman? Where do all these guys come from? Are they working stiffs with no other options? Are they career criminals? Who are these guys?
When Agent Iman Avesta first meets and sort-of flirts with Batman, asking pointed questions, I flinched. Given how Vicki Vale and Selina Kyle turned out last season, I think I’m going to avoid chasing women in Season 2. And given how the episode ends, I doubt I’ll have the opportunity. But hey, I gave her a Bat-hug.
I wonder where they’re warehousing Harvey Dent and Oswald Cobblepot. Are they in Arkham or elsewhere? You could argue that Dent has lost his mind, but Cobblepot is a sane jerk. Where did he end up? Blackgate? I’d love to know, even if they don’t have a huge impact on this season’s plot.
No sign of Lady Arkham, but I’d love to see her come back. They make a point that her body was never found, so it’s open season!