Release Date: December 20, 2016Platform: Windows (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Android, iOS, OS XDeveloper: Telltale GamesPublisher: Telltale GamesGenre: Graphic Adventure
(This review covers the season’s first two episodes, “Ties That Bind Part I & Part II”)
The first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead was a revolution in video game storytelling. While the “choose your own adventure” style of design was familiar territory for Telltale Games, never before had the studio managed to craft such a compelling narrative. Many considered The Walking Dead to be the game of the year in 2012.
The second season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead was a good game. While good games are rarely a problem, some viewed The Walking Dead’s merely good second season as a step back. It seemed to validate some fan’s fears that Telltale had fallen into a bit of a design rut and that the lightning they bottled with their inaugural exploration of The Walking Dead universe would ultimately prove to be inimitable.
If you do assign The Walking Dead: A New Frontier the burden of recreating indefinable emotions brought on by unique experiences…well, you might be pleasantly surprised by the way the season begins.
In case you haven’t already heard, The Walking Dead: A New Frontier is not just a story about Clementine and the survivors we’ve come to know across the previous episodes. This time around, much of the focus is on a newcomer named Javier Garcia and his people. The introduction of a new character at this stage of the game could have easily turned out be a cheap attempt to freshen things up.
Instead, Javier’s introduction ranks among the franchise’s most compelling scenes. His contributions only continue from there as we quickly learn that Javier is a fully-fledged character whose story deserves to be told. It’s quite remarkable, actually, how quickly he becomes one of the franchise’s most compelling stars.
As you may imagine, his path does eventually cross with Clementine’s. The manner in which they meet-up does seem a bit unnecessarily fortuitous, but the two do play off of each other quite well. Without getting into story specifics (a burden that is particularly painful given the weight certain revelations carry), the nature of their dynamic affords the player the opportunity to see Clementine in a leadership role that she hasn’t been able to fully assume before. She continues to be Telltale’s greatest character creation.
At the same time, the way in which Clementine is introduced into Javier’s narrative does mean that certain storylines left hanging from the second season are only resolved through flashbacks and some exposition. While the backstory overall (at least the backstory presented in the season’s first two episodes) is remarkably good, it’s a shame that the gap between seasons couldn’t have been addressed a little more cleanly.
Then again, it’s clear that the interactive elements of this series are becoming a bit played out. As before, the gameplay of The Walking Dead consists largely of dialog decisions, QTEs, simplified shooting segments, and moments of major choices which will, ideally, impact the direction of the story.
The “ideally” qualifier is more necessary than ever when describing the impact of your decisions. I was often surprised to see the breakdown of which decisions actually mattered at the end of each episode as it often felt like I couldn’t significantly alter the story my choices. Granted, this isn’t a universal rule (and it’s impossible to tell how early choices may impact later episodes), but the veil of illusion which previously shielded you from any disbelief that you aren’t actually capable of dynamically altering the story is thinner than ever.
This leads to something of an identity crisis for Telltale’s flagship franchise. The Walking Dead: A New Frontier doesn’t have the unique character-specific gameplay of Telltale’s Batman story, nor does it possess the incomparable personality featured in Tales from the Borderlands. It also lacks the feeling of exploration that comes from hopping into an entirely new licensed universe. That being the case, the question of whether The Walking Dead: A New Frontier has a unique experience to offer is a legitimate one.
The best reply to that question in defense of this latest entry is still “the story.” Yes, thus far, The Walking Dead: A New Frontier’s story really is that good. If there’s one thing to be said about the evolution of Telltale as a developer, it’s that they have finally discovered how to develop a plot with as little reliance on exposition and filler as possible. While it’s a shame that they’re still struggling to update adventure game staples such as puzzles and organically incorporate them into the overall experience, the relentless pacing of The Walking Dead: A New Frontier’s story will keep those who consider themselves franchise loyalists hooked.
While The Walking Dead: A New Frontier is fundamentally a better game than Season One, it seems like it will ultimately be incapable of reproducing the magic that first season yielded. While such a feeling is no doubt the result of nostalgia-clouded perception, it still feels necessary to clarify that this new game is not going to make you feel as you did when you first experienced this style of design.
Based on the strength of the season’s start, however, it’s likely that The Walking Dead: A New Frontier will eventually be remembered by Telltale fans as something better than good.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer.