Batman: The Enemy Within – Episode 3: Fractured Mask Review
Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Apple Mac, PC, iPad and Microsoft Xbox One
WARNING! This review may contain SPOILERS for Batman: The Telltale Series and earlier episodes of Batman: The Enemy Within.
When the last episode seemed to fizzle out, Fractured Mask reignited Telltale’s latest Batman season. After extricating The Riddler’s body at the end of The Pact, we’re immediately thrust into an invasive interaction sequence that constrains us to physically use the cadaver to unlock the barriers he left behind. It is an unpleasant mixture of crunchy audio effects and close up views of the body that make this opening so disturbing, and we cannot turn away!
After the episode locks us in its thrall, we become a passive witness to a fantastic character entrance and the episode gets truly underway. With this terrific opening at the forefront of their minds, players may quickly forget that their choices from The Pact have been nullified so soon during the introduction. The choices haven’t branched far from core narrative this season and when they have, the seams where they rejoin the intended direction can be noticeable. Branching narrative too far in a story-driven game can just be an expensive resource drain, especially when most players will only play through a game once. However, done well, choices can branch off and provide players with some of the most memorable gaming experiences - as was demonstrated by Kate's arc in Life is Strange.
The Pact rattled the overarching narrative of The Enemy Within, with its unbalanced tempo and unfulfilling reveal of The Pact members. Fractured Mask’s snappy intro gets us to the substance of the episode quickly. Its focused dialogue with specific characters makes for more succinct story development. That is not to say that this episode is all action though. Even in the slower sections, this episode concentrates on what is important - its characters. It’s the slow moments where you have optional conversations with the other characters that add some much needed nuance if you’re playing through a single time.
During this episode, Bruce is wrestling with his relationships in his real life and under his criminal persona. It indulged us with a new character dynamic; Bruce, John and Selena as Catwoman. Neither character is dependable, which makes conversation interesting and neither character trusts the other. On one side you have the would-be friend and love interest, Catwoman - if only you could trust her. She is a fiesty and capricious spanner in the works for Bruce as he grapples to remain undercover.
On the other side you have John the charming, yet unnerving, psychopath. John would be an even more interesting character if players did not already recognise him as Telltale’s own iteration of the Joker. Some of the most intriguing villains are those who begin as good guys. Even though John has not been painted as a good person, he has been built up as Bruce’s innocent and naive companion. He is enamoured with his best friend, so much so, that his naivety perhaps prevents him from seeing that this is a one-sided friendship.
John is loyal to a fault, currently, but at least with Catwoman you have an opportunity to appeal to her own - rational - best interests. Yet who is more reliable? John is torn between his abusive relationship with Harley and his manipulative friendship with Bruce. There is not a single stable influence between them for a man teetering on the brink of sanity, and since the manipulation runs so deep it is difficult not to foresee a turn in Bruce and John’s relationship. Interestingly though, some of the more plot-revealing dialogue comes from optional conversations with these individuals.
Continuing the pattern from last episode, the other members of The Pact are treated like a disappointing side salad. Bane and Freeze have been squandered. They are neither the brains, nor the brawn of the gang and none of the decisions surrounding them feel like they have had any meaningful impact on the story thus far. You do wonder why they are there at all since after two episodes their usefulness has not made itself known yet.
Depending on your choices this episode, you may or may not have had a shocking cliffhanger at the end of your episode, but let’s face it, we’re never in any true danger as Bruce. Despite that, Telltale have done an interesting job of building a banquet of characters and relationships that feel vulnerable. These characters have been developed really well, they are engaging and the choices surrounding them appear to have implications. Yet there is still some weaker decision making in this third episode that has become easily recognisable as placebo choices over the course of the season, due to lack of any story expansion generated. With too small of a variance between decisions by this point, the second half of the season runs the risk of becoming fairly predictable.
Aside from the usual Telltale decision making, this episode provides some thematic puzzles using riddles and gadgets. It is admirable that the puzzles are tied to the game’s subject matter, so they do not feel too contrived, but gameplay such as this has still been too little and far between this season. There are also some light hidden object puzzles, which have all but vanished from the Telltale games since the first Walking Dead season. We wouldn’t mind seeing more interaction like this in future episodes!
If you enjoy story-driven games then you will clearly see a deficit here. The attempt to add more interaction is promising, but it could afford to go further. Where is the exploration? ‘Press X to touch the only interactive object in the scene’ does not make for riveting gameplay. There is no sense of discoverability to bolster the dialogue sequences and there is nothing to solve. It feels like such a wasted opportunity given you’re playing as the bat detective. Story can be told through world-building and interaction too. It would be fabulous to unearth information that could be used within dialogue sequences in a useful fashion.
Minimal gameplay aside, Fractured Mask maintains momentum with some well-timed twists. The development of John’s character is the salvation of this episode. The Joker’s facade as John is cracking and his increasingly unpredictable nature adds some interesting spice. This episode has picked up most of the slack from The Pact by adding emphasis on all its strengths in terms of characters and reminds us the importance of pacing in a story-driven title.