And not a moment too soon either.
I have been a fan of Telltale Games for a very long time now. In the half decade since they first released The Walking Dead: The Video Game, the company has had an incredibly solid track record, delivering a varied assortment of “series” that all proved to be of strong quality, from the noir-drama of The Wolf Among Us to the sci-fi fun of Tales from the Borderlands. Telltale was one of the only gaming studios out there that truly put story first (arguably to its occasional detriment), and as a lover of strong narrative, I responded in kind.
But recently, there has been a change. As excited as I once was for the series that Telltale was creating, my enthusiasm began to wane. It really began with their Game of Thrones game which, despite the pedigree, really failed to live up to expectations. They they released Minecraft: Story Mode, which I admittedly never played, and admittedly never will. But the real sign of trouble for me came just this year with their Batman series, another surefire hit that turned out to mostly be dead in the water. None of these games were bad, per say, but they lacked the care and attention that made the studio’s previous efforts so effective. With a shoddy track record in the last year or so, I was quite distressed that Telltale would regress to their Law and Order/Jurassic Park days.
And this stress certainly impacted my anticipation for The Walking Dead: The New Frontier, a.k.a. the third season of their ongoing Walking Dead series. The original series is one of my favorite video games of all time, and despite all odds, I really believe the follow-up series matched (and hell, in certain part exceeded) the quality of the original. Either way, both seasons 1 and 2 are spectacular in my eyes, and their quality alone should have made me completely confident in Telltale’s ability to craft a proper follow-up. But after the year they had…my confidence was shaken.
But it shouldn’t have been. Even when the rest of Telltale’s recent oeuvre has taken a nosedive, The Walking Dead remains as great as ever.
Right off the bat The New Frontier presents a different side of their Walking Dead universe, showing the life of Latino man Javier Garcia moments before the walker outbreak began. It’s a confident and stylish opening, one that I really didn’t expect to see from Telltale at this point. Intercutting the increasing drama of the narrative with the opening credits has been used many times in the past, but it really worked to set the tone here, and to bring players back into the atmosphere of The Walking Dead universe.
And even better, it right away puts you in the shoes of Javier, and instantly attaches you to the fate of his extended brood. More than anything else, this is where Telltale succeeds with The Walking Dead: A New Frontier. Going in, I was nervous about a Walking Dead season no longer lead by Clementine — as the de facto protagonist of the series, I thought it would be bizarre to see Clementine reduced to a NPC again, especially after playing as her for such a long stretch of the series. Really the only way to pull the switch off would be to provide a character who was just as interesting and enjoyable to play as Clementine was, and though Javier hasn’t gotten quite there yet, he’s still a very much worthy successor to the playable character throne.
After all, the bar was set pretty high. Clementine is one of if not my favorite video game protagonists of all time, and to provide a character as interesting as her to be the new lead character was always going to be a challenge. But for the most part Telltale rose up to it, presenting us a good-but-potentially-flawed man with dramatic family ties anchoring him in the apocalypse. It’s a good blank slate for this “Choose Your Own Adventure” type character, and in the first two episodes at least, I have yet to find Javier’s storyline to be pointless, or an “also ran” compared to the tale of Clementine.
Which isn’t to say that character gets short shrift — not at all, in fact. One of the highlights of the first two episodes of A New Frontier is seeing what Telltale does with the character, now slightly older and more hardened than ever. Her relationship with Javier is very interesting, as the pair work as reluctant peers more than anything else. Of course their relationship will likely soften as the rest of the season’s episodes go by, but it’s so far been a very fun dynamic. After all, we as a player have dealt with Clementine in two very distinct ways: in the first season as a ward, and in the second as an extension of the player. And though some of the latter is still present in the once-an-episode Clementine centric flashbacks, for the most part, you’re now dealing with Clementine as a friend and ally. That dynamic can lead to a lot of dramatic potential down the road, and it’s going to be interesting to see how Telltale plays around with the character dynamics knowing our experience with the Clementine character.
But for now, I’m all in just on the drama and plot of the first two episodes alone. Both parts of “Ties That Bind” were great, and I am extremely excited to continue the series going forward. That said, enjoyment of a Telltale series is very much a “you’re in or you’re out” thing at this point, as the complaints that have been pegged at the developer are still very much present. The engine and graphics remain as rough as ever (although no game-breaking crashes, which I guess is a step up from Batman), and the illusion of choice is still something you inherently have to buy into in order to enjoy these games. Simply put, your decisions really don’t matter, at least in the long run — most players end up on relatively the same track, even if making different decisions affects the journey getting there.
To some, I understand this can be disappointment, and I do not begrudge anyone for not enjoying Telltale games for this reason. But what makes the best Telltale games (and ESPECIALLY The Walking Dead) work despite that illusion is the power the choice has in the intermediate — even if things won’t change substantially based on something you did, in the moment, most of these choices do feel like life or death. And that immersion in the story can only come through great writing, exciting stories, and strong characters. In the last few Telltale games, those essential elements were not always present, and the series overall suffered.
But in the first two episodes of A New Frontier, what made these games work so well in the first place comes alive. From simple conversations about drugs in a jam packed van, to intense interrogations with life and death consequences, Telltale once again shows off its talent for dialogue and character amidst the chaos. This has been getting lost in Telltale’s newest work, but it takes the forefront in A New Frontier, and the series so far is all the better for it.
With a whole cast of interesting characters, a strong pair of leads in Javier and Clementine, and one killer of a cliffhanger (that single-handedly explains just how having Javier as the main protagonist is essential to the future of the series), I am so far completely on board for this new season of The Walking Dead. Let’s hope the remaining three episodes (whenever they might come) live up to the standards set by the previous two — and the series overall. If “The Ties That Bind” is any indication, Telltale is on the right path at least.