It’s been a banner year for surprises in video games, both good and bad, so it’s nice to cap the year off with a pleasant one or two by discovering that Telltale’s third season of The Walking Dead is shaping up nicely, and that the ‘Telltale second episode curse’ has been lifted.
I have been concerned that Telltale’s magic touch was almost drained dry as soon as episode four of Minecraft Story Mode ended. In that time we’ve had an erratic extension to that series, a decidedly poor Walking Dead miniseries, and a Batman series that is arguably the developer’s weakest outing for some time. The one-two punch of The Walking Dead: A New Frontier’s two-part premier shows that while there are still the usual Telltale complaints, there’s a return to form of sorts.
Set a few years after the events at the end of season two (but flipping back-and-forth in time when required), we no longer find ourselves with a familiar lead, as A New Frontier is predominantly about Javi Garcia, a disgraced former baseball player, and his family. Telltale echo the start of season one by introducing us to the lead character during the rise of the outbreak. It gives the player a window into Javi’s family life, building up a cast of characters in a pre-apocalyptic world before we join them on the other side a few years down the line. Javi is clearly the black sheep of the family, whilst also still being considered the golden boy for his sporting achievements. His volatile relationship with his brother paints a particularly vivid picture of how Javi is perceived. Not a bad guy per se, just a misguided young man who tries to do good.
Once the formalities of the past are out of the way, we rejoin Javi and some of his family members in the present day as they struggle to keep ahead of a herd of walkers and top up their supply cache. The next twenty minutes or so further cement Javi’s relationships, with Javi himself coming off as a highly likeable, relatable chap who clearly puts family first. This is a good shift away from building relationships with strangers as in past seasons, being part of something pre-existing saves a bit of legwork for the narrative, and gives it new avenues to wander down. Javi’s remaining family in the present day post-apocalypse are his brother’s wife, Kate, and two her step-children, the sulky teenager Gabe, and sweet-nature Marianna. It’s hard not to feel at least a little drawn into their affectionate bickering, sniping and ribbing during the opening episode, such is the manner in which Telltale set out their stall. That alone would be a good start to the opener, but after events conspire to briefly pull Javi away from his family, we get reintroduced to the undisputed star of the series to date, Clementine.
Clem comes back to us an older, swearier, more cynical girl than we previously saw, and she’s all the more interesting for it. It’s been quite the journey since players first met her as a frightened little girl in her treehouse over four years ago, and that is a key component of why season three starts so well. We know this girl, or at least we did, but what has the last few years done to her as a person? There’s a much bigger passage of time between series two and three than there was between one and two, so Clem has both a familiarity and a mysteriousness about her. Occasionally you get a brief look at her intervening years as she flashes back to her past in small segments that look like they may lead down a disturbingly bleak path, but beyond that she’s merely an associate, a violent, decisive accomplice,wrestled from your control, and viewed through the eyes of Javi, a man who knows nothing of the things you and her have been through together. He does share that sense of mystery about Clementine with you though, and that keeps her fresh and interesting. Can you really trust her? A little uncertainty goes a long way, and by the time the two-parter wraps, you’re still not entirely clear how much of this Clem is like the one you remember. It’s a clever use of the character, and it keeps you invested in the story so much more.
There’s a procession of Walking Dead tropes during this time that at least feel a bit livelier with the characters we have in them. You have your roving gang of utter bastards, the walled community, and the kind of situations that will have you cursing the apparent stupidity of humanity in a standoff. The second part suffers more from it than the first. This is the norm for second episodes in Telltale games, a slower pace, safer story beats and a feeling of unfulfillment as the story sits between set up and execution. Thankfully the meat on the bones of part two is pretty juicy thanks to the way the world and character building is handled early on. Both episodes have plenty of human moments that don’t lean too heavily on the ridiculously bleak stylings of the TV show. Sure there is brutal violence and decaying undead, but it’s rarely as glorified as it appears elsewhere, rather it’s seen as a natural part of this world. It’s an honest relief to not have the ‘humanity is the real monster’ theme clubbing you over the head repeatedly and treated more matter-of-factly.
The beats are still predictable of course, and that can work in the game’s favor when it draws out a tease for something unpleasant on the horizon. This payoff is especially present in the impactful end to the first episode. You can see it coming, but it doesn’t prepare you near enough. Similarly the second episode ends on a high note, as two ridiculously tough choice arise and come to a conclusion that puts an interesting spin on a plotline from the comics.
Story and moral choices are pushed to the forefront this season, the light puzzles and fetching from earlier entries is now almost nonexistent, bar one notable scene. I can’t say I entirely miss the puzzle side of the series, and for The Walking Dead, a focus on the choice and consequence side is the right move, as it keeps the pace from crawling to a halt, but it’s still alarming quite how little of the original balance is there just two seasons later.
The dreaded game engine argument is still present sadly, with the same stiff, robotic character models, and incredibly inconsistent facial movement being the more prominent offenders this time. On the plus side, this is nowhere near the technical mess that Batman was, and the art style of the comics suits the engine well, and a more dynamic camera freshens up the presentation. Still, it’s papering the cracks somewhat, but it’s some good quality paper at least.
The third season is off to a good start, with a strong opener and a solid follow-on episode. The collective cast is interesting enough that you’ll want to find out more about them, especially Javi and Clem, who have some intriguing dilemmas ahead of them by the looks of it. Unlike recent Telltale games, there’s a great sense of player investment from the off, even if actual player agency is more limited than that. One thing is for sure, both Telltale and The Walking Dead are both currently on the up again after much disappointment.
Ties That Bind Episode 1 review: 8.5/10
Ties That Bind Episode 2 review: 7.5/10