The Walking Dead: A New Frontier – Ties That Bind Parts 1 & 2 PC Review
Telltale’s critical darling, The Walking Dead, is in its third outing. The first was widely applauded for its affecting narrative and the second managed to maintain the emotional momentum. I personally loved them both and so approached these jointly released episodes with high hopes.
The game opens at the very start of the apocalypse, following the Garcia family. Flash forward to the present day and nearly unbelievably, four of the family are all still alive and together, taking a dangerous road trip to keep the horde at bay. We play as Javier, the reliable family man who will do anything to keep his sister-in-law, niece and nephew alive. After a misunderstanding with some unsavoury types, Javier gets separated from his family and for the rest of the two episodes, is trying to make his way back to them and outrun the bad guys.
Of course, Clementine eventually makes an appearance and like a proud, apocalyptic parent, I was pleased to see she has become a little badass. She is still the Clementine we know and love, albeit moving into her teen years, but her experiences have hardened her and made her extremely wary of others. Mellissa Hutchison does a good job at ageing her voice and her new design matches her extreme emotional strength.
There are plenty of new characters in this episode and it was interesting to see the inclusion of Jesus, familiar to comic book fans and voiced by the wonderful Brandon Keener. The Telltale version of The Walking Dead has tended to steer clear of any of the comic or TV canon, so it will be intriguing to see how Jesus might effect the story, especially since he is such an interesting character.
However, for all the new characters, it seems as though Clementine gets short shift in the first two episodes. She does have some great moments but the focus is very much on Javier. We are able to sneak a few glimpses of the happenings between the end of the second season and the present day but these seemed lacking in some way. At the end of season two, I had chosen for Clementine to leave with Jane. There was only a brief flashback explaining what had happened to Jane and though it was mildly effective, it had the potential to be so much more if it had been fleshed out to an entire episode. The choice, as is always the case with Telltale, did not effect the main story at all, except to give Clementine a different wound. This is not necessarily a terrible criticism, their games have still been effective and yet lacking consequence in the past, but it does seem to belittle the finale of the previous game.
There were also a few strange glitches in my playthrough which did detract slightly from the story. Near the beginning, we see a horde of walkers but some of the central figures were so blurry and low resolution, they resembled background characters from a 90s game.There also seems to be a problem with faces in this entry to the series: Clementine’s face looks as though the only makeup in the apocalyptic wasteland left to experiment with in her tween phase is a really effective highlighter. Her face is so, ludicrously shiny. Some characters also have comically extreme reactions to events. Early on in the story, a female character expresses how she needs to ‘get laid’ and Javier looks like Christmas, Halloween and Easter have all arrived at once in July. This is strange for a game which traffics in complex emotion but is probably a result of the updated Telltale engine making the faces look more realistic.
One improvement that Telltale have brought over from Michonne mini-series is the more cinematic view. This is evident in the action but also in the quieter moments, with some more mature framing of scenes. The quick time events also seem more fluid in this outing. The blood-soaked, graphic novel style buttons are back too and this gives the action more of a purposeful effect than in previous main instalments of this series.
A strange flaw in the game is that there seem to be a few choices which appear artificial to the situation. Allow me to explain: there are plenty of choices in which Javier must either choose to trust or betray or be nice to Clementine. The audience is then in an artificial position of making a choice with more information than the protagonist would readily have available and this is reflected in the choice percentages revealed at the end. Of course almost nobody betrays Clementine – we have grown attached to her over two games and yet Javier has only met her for a day in which she performed some dubious actions. It’s hard to see Javier as a character acting the same way the veteran player inevitably will. This leads to a strange disjoint in the narrative in which Javier, who has been shot at by strangers in the first 30 minutes of the game, suddenly has an unswerving loyalty for a random gun-toting tween with anger issues and, it turns out, a suspect backstory to boot. As a player, my main aim is to protect Clementine but Javier’s main aim is to protect his family causing an odd clash of intentions between the player and protagonist. This is a serious narrative failing and makes Javier as a character very difficult to rationalise.
These two short episodes (about three hours for both) did keep me invested and reminded me that Telltale can spin a good story. There were a few effective moments and a few tricky choices. However, the technical and narrative flaws are too glaring to ignore. And, perhaps saddest of all, I am just not as excited to play the next episode as I usually am with Telltale games. Introducing new central characters entails starting anew to develop an attachment between the player and the protagonists and therein lies the problem. I’m not invested in Javier’s story the way I was with Clementine and the relationship between the two characters is muddled by the player’s emotional and epistemic perspective. This is quite a fundamental flaw for a narrative, choice driven game. So far, A New Frontier fails to live up to its excellent predecessors, but there are plenty of episodes still left to redeem it.