Imagine the following scenario:

Robin is missing.

Batgirl and Nightwing are unavailable.

And Batman needs help.

So who does the Dark Knight call?

You.

That’s quite the hook, and the basis of the plot in Batman: Crack the Case, the latest book from Insight Editions.  It’s a whodunit mystery story with several interactive elements, similar to their Batman: Flashlight Projections book from a few years back, aimed largely at younger readers.  It takes some surprising cues from last year’s absolutely brilliant (and also from Insight Editions) Batman: The Definitive History of the Dark Knight too, which makes this one of the most unique Batman products to come out in a while.

But does Crack the Case have an engaging story that rises above gimmickry, or is this a one-trick pony that doesn’t hold much re-read value?  That’s where reviewing this becomes much more difficult, because really, both statements are true: there are a lot of great ideas in this book, with some really fun interactive elements, but as a book it doesn’t quite reach the level of brilliance that it could have.

Which is a shame, because it has some pretty strong talent behind it: the script is by Derek “Li’l Gotham” Fridolfs, with art from Eduardo Mello.  Fridolfs quickly proves that he knows his way around Gotham, with informative character profiles and some fairly deep cuts with his references.  There are some curious choices made in the versions of characters used (Mr. Freeze is certainly a usual suspect, but the New-52 “so obsessed with Nora that he thinks they’re in love” version is… not), and an overall sense that this story never reaches the heights that it could have.  To be honest, I really think that this would have worked better as a “choose your own adventure” style book with branching paths and story options, or better yet, an interactive party game.  The way the story unfolds would lend itself spectacularly to a game where participants choose a character, work out various scenarios with each other, and once puzzles are solved the next part of the story is unlocked.  Throw in some randomized story paths and different outcomes and you have yourself a great game with lots of replay value.

But that’s judging the book based on what it could be, not what it is.  I don’t mean this to talk down to the target audience in any way at all, but for kids, this is a pretty adequate mystery book.  Heck, even as an adult it’s fun to read a story where you are part of the action as a character named “Solver,” who Batman calls on to help him work out puzzles and figure out crimes.  Kids will definitely get a kick out of being “in the story” with Batman, and some of the puzzles are pretty clever too.  They range from simple mazes or “figure out which wire to cut” kind of challenges, to more complex word puzzles and cryptographic formulas.

Much like Batman: The Definitive History, there are several pages that have extra bits of paper attached that are relevant to the case.  One is a small piece of folded paper that has anagrams written on it, complete with a coffee stain in the lower corner, while another is an official looking psychological analysis from an Arkham therapy session.  There’s even a sealed envelope toward the end that has the final case notes to show how you and Batman were able to determine the perpetrator of the book’s crimes.

Fridolfs’ writing is definitely solid, with a strong understanding of Batman’s world.  It is missing the charm of his Li’l Gotham books with Dustin Nguyen, but then again, this isn’t that series, so it doesn’t need to feel like it.  There are a few surprisingly solid one-liners throughout the story, one of which even comes from Batman himself.  I also appreciated how, even though he’s following a pretty set formula, Fridolfs throws in some twists in the narrative.  Without spoiling it, there’s an aspect of Scarecrow’s inclusion that genuinely surprised me, and made me appreciate that the story has a brain in its head.

Mello’s visuals are likewise solid, doing what needs to be done without a lot of flash.  His Batman actually has shades of Mikel Janín, particularly in the dark eyes, high forehead, and short ears of the cowl.  All of his characters are on-model with an occasional custom flourish (I quite liked his Poison Ivy design, which is similar to her original look with a few modern touches.)

Where the book really shines visually is in the actual design, though.  The mazes, puzzles, and other challenges are engaging to look at, even when they don’t present much of a challenge.  I can’t say enough about the supplemental inserts either: some are charmingly mundane, like sticky notes with computer passwords written on them, and others are incredibly creative, such as the Gotham sewage system layout that has a schematic that can be laid over the top.

Batman: Crack the Case is fun enough as a book, particularly for younger fans.  Older readers and parents will find plenty to like in Fridolf’s knowledge of Gotham’s characters, and kids will have a blast playing long with the mystery.  Even still, there isn’t a ton of return value with this book, so its $25 price tag is kind of steep.  You won’t regret the purchase by any means, and who knows?  Maybe this book will spark the imaginations of you and your kids to create your own Batman adventures.  That kind of shared interaction is more than worth it.

Batman: Crack the Case will hit stores on April 7, and can be preordered now.

Overall: The latest from Insight Editions is a clever– if lean– interactive mystery.  All of the elements for a great adventure are there, and to an extent they work well: you are “in the story” and teamed with Batman, poring over clues and maps and puzzles to try and find Robin.  As presented, this concept could be expanded upon and the story would lend itself better to a party game with branching paths, scenarios, and outcomes.  As it is, Batman: Crack the Case is a pretty fun blueprint for potential future greatness.  A book like this deserves more, so here’s hoping we get a lot more soon.

SCORE: 7/10


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