There's a meddlesome good-thing/bad-thing dynamic I experienced as I sat down with the next instalment of Telltale's Batman video game series: I kept waiting to be shocked. Then when the shock came, I wished it hadn't happened at all.
Last year, Batman: The Telltale Series won my affection by presenting a fractured-mirror version of the Bat-mythos. Almost every instalment harbored some plot beat featuring well-known characters that diverged wildly from their comic-book canon counterparts. Thomas Wayne was a Gotham City crimelord who hurt and killed people for personal gain, part of a triumvirate with corrupt mayor Hamilton Hill and flamboyant gangster Carmine Falcone. The Penguin was a tall slim mercenary who'd been childhood friends with Bruce Wayne. And the first season's big villain was a startling re-imagination of perpetual damsel girlfriend Vicki Vale.
After all of that, it's hard to suppress the urge to go, "What y'all gonna do next?!" If you played the previous season and made a set of choices that you didn't like — or didn't play at all — you can answer questions that give your playthrough a different angle. Batman: The Enemy Within starts with the familiar. The opening sequence has Bruce Wayne scoping out an arms dealer's gambling den, which is then invaded by the Riddler and his thugs. This Riddler is presented as the first supercriminal in Gotham, someone who wielded influence in the city's underworld at the same time as Thomas Wayne.
As you make choices as to how to save lives and fight bad guys, you'll hear Commisioner Gordon express gratitude for Batman's help. At the end of this opening, Amanda Waller comes on the scene, demanding answers. At first blush, Waller comes across similar to her most well-known iterations. She's no-nonsense and brassily combative, talking trash about Gordon and Batman's acumen, depending on the player's dialogue choices. But, here, she's working with a mysterious government outfit called the Agency, which specialises in taking out the most dangerous criminals in the country. One of her operatives is Gotham native Iman Avesta, a profiler who tries to get all up in the business of both Batman and Bruce Wayne.
As with other Telltale releases, The Enemy Within teases players with a chain of narrative decisions. In terms of gameplay, this episode doesn't stray too far from the Telltale template. You're still making decisions in the moment in a variety of conversation and action scenarios. But the execution is more granular here, resulting in moments where, for example, you choose what music Bruce puts on while examining evidence in the Batcave. Your choices will go towards maintaining trust and building out relationships with other characters. The specific tension of these Batman games comes from knowing how things are in other iterations of the Dark Knight mythos. Seeing how much you can align or diverge from how you think things "should be" in your own personal understanding of Batman is a huge temptation.
It's clear that the main throughline in this season is going to be an exploration of which personal relationships you'll decide to prioritise as Batman. For example, you'll be forced to ponder if it's OK for Batman to lie to Jim Gordon or Lucius Fox to accomplish a greater good. Similarly, you'll be made to wonder what kind of Joker the John Doe character will turn into based off your interactions with him. At this stage of his development, John Doe is a needy, wannabe-best-friend. He's ill-suited for a world that isn't Arkham Asylum and leans hard on Bruce Wayne for social interaction, embarrassing the billionaire with his complete lack of politesse. With John Doe, the choice-driven anticipation comes from knowing where the story will end but not how it will get there.
But there are some plot beats you can't change, no matter what choices you make. During the course of an investigation into a mysterious puzzle box left behind by Riddler, research scientist and longtime Wayne family friend Lucius Fox dies a tragic death.
The passing of Lucius Fox struck me at first as a hoary old plot expedience. After all, the death of a good-hearted supporting character is a longstanding mechanic to ramp up stakes in adventure fiction, especially in Batman stories. My response was shallow, at first. But I only got more upset as I kept on thinking about all the other iterations of Lucius Fox throughout Batman's multimedia history. He's been there in animated cartoons, live-action movies and more combat-centric video games, a kind, warm, avuncular presence helping Bruce be a more formidable force for good. And now, in this very dramatic re-imagination, he isn't. I should be too jaded for this to mess me up but, oddly, I'm finding that's not the case. Lucius' death reminds me to take nothing for granted in this Telltale Bat-continuity.
Episode 1 of The Enemy Within closes with two reveals that practically guarantee players will show up for more. One of them upends a pillar of Batman lore; the other teases yet another radical re-invention that's yet to come. I have suspicions of where each might lead and can't wait to see how how right or wrong I might be. Those cliffhangers serve as great examples that the game-makers really understand the appeal of this divergent Bat-franchise.