A trademark of recent Telltale Games series has been making tough choices on the fly, knowing full well the game’s cast is not likely to go unpunished for whatever decision you make. If ever there was a previously untapped popular franchise more suited to this formula than HBO’s Game of Thrones, I honestly couldn’t think of it. A T.V. series that centres on people’s manipulating opinions to suit their own agendas and where the use of the right and wrong sentence usually results in someone’s grisly demise? Thrones is almost a perfect mould for the Telltale method of branching dialogue choices and deadly decision-making used to great effect in the company’s recent big hitters, The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, and here is the fruition of these two mediums coming together.
Trouble is the point and click adventure template used to great effect in those games has been used on five or six others titles before them, and the worry is that this winning formula could be in danger of going a little stale as we see it for the umpteenth time in the past few years. Somehow though, Game of Thrones’ first episode, Iron From Ice, manages to retain the overall Telltale dynamic while having its own identity and telling yet another cracking story.
Iron From Ice runs parallel to the final episodes of the T.V. show’s infamous third season and follows a new set of characters connected to the lesser-known House Forrester, former bannermen to House Stark, as they find themselves caught in the maelstrom of The War of the Five Kings.
You begin Iron From Ice as Gared Tuttle; a squire to Lord Forrester who quickly finds himself in a world of trouble that climaxes just in time for the signature opening credits sequence and theme to kick in. The entire prologue sequence is wonderfully reminiscent of the source material and certainly the most action-packed part of the episode. It establishes the story in a thrilling fashion while getting you invested in Gared quickly. It needed that pacing to work, as you soon find yourself in the shoes of another character, Lord Forrester’s Third-born son Ethan at the home of the Forresters: Ironrath. After an initially brief introduction to him, you are introduced to a third character, Mira Forrester, eldest daughter of Lord Forrester and currently a handmaiden at King’s Landing. You then jump back and forth between these three (there are two other protagonists to come in future episodes) as the episode goes on, delving into their individual tales; somewhat akin to The Walking Dead’s 400 Days DLC episode but a little more fluid.
Each character’s choices can come back to affect the others, making the already stressful decision-making a far more complex juggling act of trying to please or annoy everyone with the least amount of penalties for all three. It means each choice is generally more reactionary than premeditated as you fumble to say the right thing (not that it’s inevitably going to be right for everyone). In true Telltale form, you actually want the best possible outcome for the Forresters as despicable forces threaten both their home and their legacy. When one character is being pushed too far by a clearly sadistic villain during a later part of the episode, you know the only option is to stand your ground or be humiliated. As mentioned before, neither choice will leave you feeling good about yourself but for quite different reasons. Worst still, you are left feeling you could have prevented the encounter completely by choosing differently with another character very early on. Iron From Ice takes that damned-if-you-do mantra that works so effectively in The Walking Dead and turns it back far more aggressively on the player than you initially expect, making for some truly tense and shocking moments, not unlike the T.V. show it stems from. Some story arcs seem painfully familiar to fans–family outsider sent to the wall in times of crisis for instance–but they remain well written arcs all the same. It’s fair to say that Iron From Ice is a rip-roaring start to the series from a story point of view and leaves you very eager to see where it goes from here and how it will weave into the bigger, established picture. Standard Telltale stuff at this point, and that’s fantastic news.
Outside the storytelling, it is the presentation that stands out most. Not only is Westeros and its cast of back-stabbers and proud, stubborn folk incredibly faithful to the show, the visual style gives the locations and characters a beautifully oil-painted look that differentiates Game of Thrones from other Telltale series while still looking very much a part of that staple. It also helps to have key cast members from the show come in and reprise their roles without sounding like they read their lines while they were drinking on their day off. Peter Dinklage in particular partly redeems himself for his lazy voice-acting in Destiny with a nice little turn here as series favourite Tyrion Lannister and Lena Heady is suitably evil as Queen Cersei. The rest of the voice cast is of a high standard for the most part – the odd garbled accent aside – and fares perfectly in keeping standard with the overall package.
The minor frustrations in Iron From Ice are sadly just as much a part of Telltale Games’ D.N.A. as good storytelling. Low-level visual glitches, audio issues that see occasionally repeating words or cutting them out altogether, and that odd, stilted walking gait characters seen in every Telltale series to date is still present here. While other improvements and refinements have been made to the Telltale Tool from game to game, these issues seem to be avoided every single time. They aren’t big problems, but they’re just incredibly irritating ones to see pop up time and again without being addressed in any way.
The only other complaint I could have with this remarkably strong series opener is that past the prologue, there is far less interaction than previous Telltale games. The larger body of content goes to conversations here, which is understandable considering the source material, but the level of meaningful interactivity with the game world slides off so steeply after the prologue that it may be off-putting for some used to the established balance.
Iron From Ice delivers the goods by building a faithful representation of the Game of Thrones universe while telling its own compelling tale that comes with some truly brutal moments. With the pedigree of the developer behind this series and the notoriously blood-drenched source material, you know that will continue to be the case in five remaining episodes, but the question will be whether or not they can top this fantastic start and continue to surprise and delight in new ways.