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Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The Walking Dead: A New Frontier E4+E5: Thicker Than Water & From The Gallows

The Walking Dead: A New Frontier
Episode 4 + Episode 5:
Thicker Than Water & From The Gallows.

Let this be a lesson to you, kids: If you delay writing your review of an episode of a Telltale Games series because you have nothing new to say about it, and never have anything new to say because they're the video game equivalent of spun sugar, then eventually the episode after that will come out, and you'll have to review two at once, and have double the absolute dearth of interesting observations.

This shouldn't be this difficult, right? Even if you stripped away the gameplay entirely, you'd still have an hour and a half story -- I regularly review things with much less content than that -- but the problem with Telltale's fare is that there's also just not that much story. Padded as it is with quicktime events, occasional 'walking around' segments, and meaningless dialogue choices in over-long, empty conversations, the actual story is pitifully short.

What story you get also isn't that original. After three series (I'm counting Michonne) of The Walking Dead, I feel like I've just seen varying iterations of the same story. There's a group, they have a safe space, that group fractures, zombies attack, zombies attack, zombies attack, some people die because you chose not to save them, some people that you saved die in later unavoidable circumstances, zombies attack, linchpin moral choice that reflects the story so far and what you've learned.

This is one of a great many problems with Telltale Games: They aren't just producing barely-games with a laughably empty choice system, they're also just producing the same stories, over and over, ad infinitum, and we're paying them to do that, and god knows I did not intend for this review to turn into my own personal nervous breakdown over this one company, but here we are.

So. Thicker Than Water and From The Gallows. With Javi, Kate, Clem, Gabe, and David having discovered that Joan is raiding other settlements, Javi escapes and starts preparing to save David from execution -- only to quickly discover that Joan has been tipped off and is expecting him. As the rescue collapses into civil war and then, with the advent of a zombie horde, into chaos, Javi's relationship with Kate comes to light, splintering the group and leaving Javi with a choice: Save Richmond, or go after his brother and Gabe as they drive directly into a zombie horde.

I say 'a choice' -- you have four choices, really: Either you can save Richmond, in which case Kate survives but David and Gabe die; you can go after David and Gabe, in which case Gabe and David live but Kate dies; you can go save Richmond but send Clem after David and Gabe, in which case Kate and Gabe live and David dies; or you can go save Gabe and David and send Clem to help Richmond, in which case Gabe lives but David dies and Kate is missing (presumed dead).

I'm outlining these because they are functionally the only real choices you have in this entire game, and they basically amount to 'you do one gameplay section of shooting things in a quicktime event, or another, and some combination of deaths happen as a result' and that's not really much of a choice. It's a hollow choice, only one step up from the infamous 'pick a colour of energy wave' choice, and yet -- and yet -- I still know it presents such a massive choice by Telltale's standards that if they did another game with Javi in, then David, Kate, and Javi would all perish off-screen.

Apart from that, both of these episodes have the usual suite of gameplay mechanics: Meaningless choices, quicktime events, rinse and repeat. I don't even think you get to control Javi walking around in this game, and while that's not exactly a titanic loss, it stands out when you only have three gameplay features in the first place.

I feel like I should have liked this story, and when the first two episodes came out, I was pretty optimistic: I liked Javi as a character, and seeing an older, harder Clem -- and the possibility being floated that Clem might actually have gone off the rails and be a bad influence now -- was intriguing. But the series basically failed to follow through on any of its potential: Javi's character arc can basically be summed up as whether to be supportive to his abusive brother or not, with no concrete difference no matter which you pick, and the idea of an older, tougher, and potentially less morally upright Clem goes nowhere, as the game reveals in short order that she really is a good person still, and all those hints that she might not be anymore were just red herrings.

I cannot overstate how much of a waste that is: You have a character who audiences adore, who you can use to play with audience ideas of loyalty and morality in interesting ways, who you can have dip into darkness and then make a really compelling redemptive arc for, and instead she's just -- Javi's helper. 

Will we get a fourth series of this game? Probably! Will I watch it? Probably! Will I be very disappointed by it? Probably! I was certainly disappointed with this series, I can tell you that.

Incidentally, I tried watching Telltale's Guardians of the Galaxy game and couldn't get more than ten minutes through it. Think about how much I adore Guardians of the Galaxy and then think about that.

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