Would anyone actually miss episodic game distribution if it went away? I feel like the concept has been so tarnished by Valve’s irresponsible application that neither developers nor consumers will go near it anymore. After Kentucky Route Zero finally wraps up, Telltale will be seemingly the only entity keeping the practice alive, and even they should probably give it up. I say this because Batman: The Enemy Within – Episode 4: What Ails You is the title that finally hammered home how much episodic distribution screws with the reception and criticism of a game. It’s a genuinely good installment and undoubtedly the best of the season, but is it worth pushing through the largely mediocre previous episodes to experience? Probably not, but I’m not sure if I’m qualified to say that now.
This season has had two major problems: one is that inverting every second element of the Batman canon is its only semblance of originality, and the other is that its tension/release cycle is all wrong. After a fairly standalone but unimpressive introduction, the last two entries have been nothing but tension, affording this iteration all of the release. It’s possible this progression feels more expedient and gratifying when experienced back to back as a full package, but by adding a two-month gap between installments, episodic delivery has merely extended the tedium rather than build anticipation. Or maybe a five-part game just needs to have better cliffhangers in order to retain interest.
On its own merits, though, What Ails You is a surprising success. It does just about everything right from a narrative perspective: it quickly jumps into the action, resolves and elaborates on earlier unfinished ideas, and features an exciting conclusion that left me unexpectedly interested in how the final chapter will play out. As before, the standout character is John Doe, the unpredictable but extremely useful quasi-Joker, whose oscillating volatility and friendliness perfectly encapsulate everything that made Telltale’s signature dialogue-choice system worthwhile in the first place. The villains in general prove to be one of The Enemy Within’s greatest strengths here, as their large number is what allows Episode 4 to have an enjoyable climax without sacrificing the finale of the season as a whole.
Strangely, there are some moments where it feels like someone with a more traditional design philosophy briefly took the reins from the development team, only to realize there were no resources for traditional gameplay. Twice, Bruce Wayne enters a location that feels exactly like a distinct level from any other Batman game, complete with the possibility of some exploration, only to look down a hallway, decide that’s his destination, and immediately jump to the next scene. It’s not as frustrating as the wasted mechanics and characters of other episodes, but it still feels like an incomplete use of the material.
Thanks to episodic distribution, you know what to expect otherwise. Aesthetically, What Ails You is excellent as usual for this developer. The vocal performances are all top-notch, the visuals are as striking and expressive as ever, and the soundtrack is solid. I seemed to notice the presence of the orchestral swells and metallic ambience more than before, though I can’t tell if that’s because there are new compositions or if the more engaging events of the plot simply paired better with the established sound. Meanwhile, the moments that edge more toward gameplay are clunky at best, thanks largely to unintuitive mouse controls.
At this point, it’s safe to say that, as engaging as Batman: The Enemy Within – Episode 4: What Ails You is, the whole that it’s a part of is fairly inconsequential. After one long exercise in waiting for the other shoe to drop, it’s finally done so, and existing players have a couple of hours of exciting Bat-drama to look forward to. Of course, it’s not that drastic a leap in quality, so those holding out hope that The Enemy Within will be more significant than it’s been letting on may continue to be disappointed.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided with by Telltale Games.
Batman: The Enemy Within - Episode 4: What Ails You moves its plot along quickly and in some fascinating ways. It just can't save the entire season.