Review for The Walking Dead: A New Frontier
The Telltale games have come a long way since their first forays into the adventure genre. Missteps like Jurassic Park, a game that continues to be unplayable to this day, have been all but forgotten in the wake of their smart usage of popular franchises like Batman, Game of Thrones, and even the seemingly impractical Minecraft.
The first season of the The Walking Dead came as a pleasant surprise to fans of Telltale, and the television show alike. Relatable people, coupled with decisions that were not the usual binary choices, made for an engaging experience. The fact that your actions mattered, and the story would change based on those actions, brought many non-gaming fans into the fold. Telltale succeeded in making the adventure game relevant again, re-invigorating the genre, and spawning copycat productions from even the lofty heights of Square Enix with its Life is Strange series.
Telltale’s recipe may not be trademarked, but its recognizable format is colloquially referred to as a ‘Telltale game’, regardless of who makes it. That’s some serious brand recognition, and as the pioneers of that recipe, it’s their right to change it as they see fit – or even screw it up.
The first two seasons of The Walking Dead were a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows. From the gut-punch ending of the first, to the agonizing decision of the second, you are thankful for the pause button so you can put some serious thought into your choices. You grow attached to these well-written characters, and would claw your way through hell and back to save them. It’s no wonder people grow angry when the game changes focus.
The New Frontier centers on Javier, a new character to the series. Many fans were outraged at this, wanting to continue with Clementine as the last season had. The first episode goes to great lengths to endear Javier to players, giving him a complicated backstory, and setting him up to be the real life personality that the series is known for. Many players wouldn’t have it though, and despite Clementine being a prominent character in the season, they just couldn’t accept that she was secondary to the story.
Well, I say get over yourselves.
Javier is a great character, befitting of the series, and if anything, the story relies too much on Clementine being there. The Walking Dead, game and television series, has always been about diversity. Losing characters for entire seasons is nothing new, and they always come back more interesting then when they left. Clementine has been with us for two complete games now, give her a chance to grow and return as the strong, but conflicted character she is destined to become.
Javier’s story centers around his family. His trying relationship with his brother, and the even more complicated relationship surrounding his sister-in-law. Through the zombie apocalypse, Javier becomes the protector of his brother’s family; Wife, son, and daughter, the whereabouts of his brother unknown. With the inescapable doom approaching, the group leave the family household in search of safer pastures.
A New Frontier plays heavily with the timeline, jumping forwards and back with no warning. Occasionally, you’re not sure you are watching the past until something obvious happens. It’s not game-breaking, but it does interrupt the flow. The scenes are all relevant, especially considering they are mostly for the new characters, but you need to pay attention.
Though Clem is secondary to the story, we get to learn what happened to the character you ended season two with. The epilogue to your choices are played out, and I appreciate that Telltale spent the time to include it. I still wish I had chosen differently, but that is another matter.
The plot fits nicely into the mythos of the show, and fans will find it familiar. The gameplay however is becoming systematic. Every scene where you are expected to explore has become a game of guessing which hotspot triggers the next scene – and avoiding it. Scene transitions invariably mean you can’t go back, and anything you missed will stay that way until the next play through. There are no long term fail states in Telltale games; You will not get stuck at a locked door because you missed a key tucked away in a drawer somewhere. You may however miss an item that would make a problem easier to solve, so checking everything before moving forward becomes the name of the game.
Another growing problem with Telltale’s design are the pointless actions. It’s as if there is an internal alarm somewhere that goes off if the player hasn’t interacted with something in a while, so you will be asked to press a button to open a door. Not because it was a choice or important to the story, but because they don’t want you getting bored.
Conversations, the meat of Telltale games, are starting to break down with this third iteration. The shortened version of your choices don’t always correspond to what your character actually says. Sometime being the polar opposite of what was written. Choices are also becoming easier to navigate, with the best decisions being more obvious than they have ever been. One of the staples of Telltale was the ambiguity of your responses, making your choices tough yet rewarding.
This season is heavier on gore and death, with more shooting gallery scenes and close-ups of carnage. I’m not sure if this was to reintroduce the danger of the environment, or an attempt at being edgy, but it seems extreme as compared to the previous games. Shock scenes are also used on a few occasions, one of which making a very emotional situation feel cheap.
Coming in shorter than previous seasons, A New Frontier ultimately felt forced at the climax. The consequences to many of your decisions were ham-fistedly jammed in for the sake of wrapping them up. Some scenes were also erratic, characters jumped from one emotional extreme to another for no reason. It’s almost as if the team was running out of time and had to just mash together what they had. The ending I received felt more like a mandate to make it shocking than memorable. I could go back for another try but I never play Telltale games twice. The decisions I make are the same decisions I would make every time, anything else just takes away the magic.
Broken plot lines aside, I applaud Telltale for trying to steer the series away from the characters we already know – I just wish they would put the same effort into changing up the gameplay. Their adherence to familiar design, and attempting to further homogenize the existing model of play, is cheapening their alre0ady transparent mechanics. If they keep this up, a ‘Telltale game’ may become synonymous with a ‘walking simulator’, and then where will adventure games be?