Conventional wisdom holds that longer games make for better games. While that may have been true at a time when the only option for buying single games was to spend upwards of $50, the age of discount indie titles and regular Steam sales has not only rendered it obsolete but revealed how the demand for longevity has bred an array of strategies for wasting the audience’s time. These days, I’ll much more readily enjoy a game, especially a story-based one, that quickly gets to the point and then lets me move on, rather than one that pads itself out with empty space and nameless collectibles. Perhaps for this reason, Batman: The Enemy Within – Episode 2: The Pact feels like a significant improvement over the first episode, despite lasting less than two hours.
Of course, Episode 1: The Enigma wasn’t a standard time-waster, but it had an obnoxious habit of pretending to offer a challenge that wasn’t actually there. The Pact does away with that, excising most of the quick-time events and poor excuses for puzzles, and just letting the interactive story stand without any distractions. The occasional scenes that lean more towards traditional adventure gameplay are things that would be perfectly straightforward for anyone, rather than a trivial connect the dots quiz presented as some great mystery. Curiously, despite the miniscule amount of actual danger, players are bound to feel unusually vulnerable here, because most of the game is spent as Bruce Wayne rather than his alter ego.
Perhaps that could be seen as defeating the purpose of playing a Batman game, but it helps breathe a bit of life into the stale Telltale template. It’s practically out of the question for future episodes of this season to introduce any mechanical originality, so unorthodox narratives are the best fans can hope for to keep them engaged. Unorthodox narrative du jour sees Bruce using his reimagined family history uncovered in season one to infiltrate the previously foreshadowed gang of villains led by Harley Quinn. Applying Telltale’s trademark social juggling gameplay to such a situation easily pumps up the tension, and as usual, it’s presented superbly, with striking visuals and terrific audio throughout.
So with a solid but weathered formula somewhat reinvigorated, and the indecisive bits of its predecessor cleared away, all The Pact had to do was have a strong story, and the episode as a whole would be surprisingly good. Too bad that didn’t happen. The common “too many villains” critique is going to pop up a lot among reviewers, as Harley’s gang also includes Bane and Mr. Freeze, but that’s not actually the issue here. In fact, given that their powers are violent insanity, super strength, and freezing stuff, they’re good candidates for a team-up, because they don’t require much spotlight time to establish what they’re about. Contrast with the Riddler, a more “big picture” villain that was carelessly wasted on the first episode.
No, the real reason The Pact’s story doesn’t connect is that it has its priorities backwards. It’s a mid-season episode without any kind of self-contained story, so the time spent playing it is all setup and no payoff. More than that, though, it seems to skip over the setup for the events it does portray. There are multiple phases to Bruce Wayne’s infiltration mission, and I honestly can’t remember a reason for any of them after the first (which ends with an invitation to the gang’s hideout). Why does anyone care what the villainous plan is when the perpetrators are already wanted murderers that are all holed up in one place?
The chaotic finale to Batman: The Enemy Within – Episode 2: The Pact sees both Bruce and the player frequently paralyzed by indecision, which ends up giving his eventual actions an air of “Sure, why not?” which I’m increasingly convinced was the overriding philosophy behind this series’ writing process. Several elements of Batman’s world have been sharply inverted, but it’s difficult to tell if it’s being done for some larger purpose, or if it’s just being different for different’s sake. Similarly, the trajectory of the season as a whole is still up in the air, but let’s hope it continues this installment’s sense of focus while coming up with a more coherent plot to focus on.
Telltale's minimalist gameplay is exaggerated further in Batman: The Enemy Within - Episode 2: The Pact, to its benefit, but the plot seems to have been fumbled in the process.