Batman: The Enemy Within (2017-18) – Review.

As is often the case, the Joker overshadows the Bat in Batman: The Enemy Within, the five-episode sequel to Batman: The Telltale Series. Only here, we’re privy to what might be one of the freshest and most unique takes on the character in many years.

John Doe is introduced in the fourth episode of Telltale’s first foray into Gotham City, as a kind of proto-Joker and an inmate at Arkham Asylum. Having met Bruce Wayne under bleak circumstances, and even aiding the player in our attempt to escape the asylum, John comes looking for Bruce in the first episode of the latest in Telltale’s ever growing library of licensed narratives. While The Enemy Within can at times feel overstuffed with characters and, as a result, fails to do justice to all of them, it is the developer’s best game since 2014/15’s Tales from the Borderlands.

It relies almost entirely on the player’s relationship with John Doe, whose friendship Bruce can either embrace or, to an extent reject. The unhinged John is child-like and lacks control over his aggressive impulses. He’s also very impressionable and idolizes both Bruce Wayne and Batman. The player has the opportunity to impart wisdom onto John in an effort to steer him down the right path, but we can also choose to be his closest friend and confidante. Many of the choices both major and minor that we make regarding John come back to the fore in the fifth episode, which inconceivably has two markedly different chains of events depending on the climax of Episode Four.

Telltale’s Batman has, overall, been an experiment in subversion as it continues to flip our expectations upside down at every opportunity. This leads to some lore-shattering revelations in the first game. The precedent is reinforced immediately at the beginning of The Enemy Within when the Riddler returns to Gotham as a sixty-year-old super criminal, who has been in action since long before Batman’s time. Our hunt for the Riddler leads to losses and later on to a greater mystery involving something called The Pact.

The Pact is a group of notable members of Batman’s Rogues Gallery, as Telltale takes a deep dive into the cesspool of Gotham’s more colourful criminals. These villains have come together with a united goal, though the dynamic is anything but unified. We’re introduced to Bane (J.B. Blanc), Mr. Freeze (Matthew Mercer),  and Harley Quinn (Laura Post), the latter being the most interesting twist of the entire cast (aside from John) and who ultimately becomes the series’ greatest let-down. John (Anthony Ingruber) is the victim of the abusive partnership he and Harley share, a glorious reversal of a role that’s always belonged to the latter. As for her motive, Harley struggles to remain relevant as the series wears on, with a familial fear she’s desperate to ward off. In the end she’s buried under the weight of John and Bruce’s looming conflict and particularly in one of the two finales, she’s reduced to nothing more than a one-dimensional hurdle for Batman to leap.

Bane is little more than a hulking monster whom offers the series one (or two) of its many incredibly well-staged action sequences (in the form of QuickTime events, a staple of Telltale Games that have become more and more cinematic over the years). Mr. Freeze meanwhile, just vanishes from the game, as though the writers themselves understood how insignificant he was to the story they were telling. Telltale nevertheless revels in thrusting its players into moral situations and forcing us to make decisions that can affect the trust between Batman and the characters around him. Apart from QuickTime events, the game involves dialogue trees and a very basic investigative feature, but it’s mostly reliant on interactive cut scenes and conversations.

Head of an Agency Task Force, Amanda Waller (Debra Wilson), has come to Gotham in search of the Riddler, and she is instantly at odds with Commissioner Gordon (Murphy Guyer) and the GCPD. When Waller reveals her ace in the hole, we’re expected to choose who we are most loyal to. What good comes from the Agency’s domineering presence in Gotham is an introduction to Iman Avesta (Emily O’Brien), an agent who becomes a friend and ally to Bruce in his war; a war that can be waged against either the Agency itself or the Joker, depending on the route you take.

Not even taking into account some of the smaller, more personal elements to the game, such as Alfred’s dealing with some form of trauma following the ending of the first season, and Bruce deciding whether to bring the daughter of Lucius Fox into his crusade, the series is bursting with characters and story-lines. The series never loses its focus despite all of these many moving parts, due largely to its devotion to exploring John’s evolution. There’s an added level of tragedy in the birth of the Joker, being the fault of Bruce more distinctly than in any past iteration, and the series takes every opportunity at paying homage to the character’s heritage without adapting any prior versions; In Episode Four, John throws himself from the bridge a lá his fall into the vat of chemicals, and later on he and Batman battle in the infamous Ace Chemicals factory in one version of the game’s climax.

Laura Bailey returns as Catwoman, an on-again, off-again ally to Batman and a potential romantic interest for Bruce and who, after leaving Gotham at the conclusion of Season One, slots nicely into the overarching story-line when she returns. While Troy Baker is measured and engaging as Bruce Wayne, it’s Ingruber who stands out as John Doe/The Joker. Ingruber deftly delivers the fragility and vulnerability of a Joker who isn’t sure of his place in the world and is desperate to find it. John is excitable, occasionally volatile, and always well meaning, but he has too many dangerous voices in his head and too many whispering in his ear. Whilst the iconic villain’s ultimate fate is largely the same externally, there are emotional complexities underneath and the path taken in the final episode is drastically different. John can either embrace the role of vigilante and attempt to become Batman’s greatest ally, or he will resign himself to villainy and attempt to take his pain out on Bruce and his family.

The series ends on an enormous choice for the player to make, casting doubt over whether there’s a future for the series. Telltale’s bold interpretation of the Batman mythos begs for more stories to be told, but that freedom to tell stories outside of the usual conventions means that Telltale continues to make choices that may well impact the longevity of the title. There begs the question of how exactly Telltale would find a way to merge the vastly contrasting pathways players could find themselves down, so that there’s a realistic starting point for a third season.

Overall the game arguably bites off more than it can chew in attempting to do justice to five key villains. As a result it fails almost all of them on some level. Still, there isn’t a dull moment in the five-episode series, fueled by action and suspense and plenty of moments to give us pauses of anxiety. Very rarely do events drag and the balance between playing time as Bruce and Batman is generous, offering the most compelling exploration of the man without the mask so far outside of its original medium. If the middle chapters sprawl ever so slightly, it’s made amends by a premiere and a finale that help catapult Batman: The Enemy Within to the top tier of Telltale titles.

Film ’89 Verdict – 8/10

All five episodes of Batman: The Enemy Within are available now across multiple gaming platforms.