Clem: Some people looked out for me, too.
Javier: What happened to them?
Clem: Same thing that happens to everyone…
December 17, 2013. That’s the date Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 2 debuted. The final episode was released on August 24, 2014. Going from the launch of Episode 1, it’s been over 3 years since we’ve had any new, relevant content inside The Walking Dead universe from Telltale (I don’t count Michonne as relevant content). That’s a supremely long wait for a series fans have been chomping at the bit for (no pun intended?), and the one that arguably put Telltale on the map as a major player in the industry. After months of teases and “info will come at this time” only to not have any info come, today we can all breathe a sigh of relief, because not only has Episode 1 launched, but Telltale felt that the first 2 episodes were so impactful of one another that they needed to launch together. That means if you want to play Episode 2 immediately, you’re free to do so. I’m willing to bet you will do so.
So before we dive into the nitty and the very gritty, let’s get some housekeeping out of the way up front. First off, there will be no PS3 or 360 versions of this series. Telltale has recently announced their cancelation, though I question the timing of it. Either way, if you were hoping to get your fill from their original homes, you’ll be disappointed. However, should you have access to your original system and the save file, you’ll be able to upload that data to Telltale’s servers and transfer it over to any device you choose to continue on. Pretty great deal, even though it could be a bummer for some. I haven’t had the chance to do this (no easy access to my 360 currently), but from what I’ve heard, it’s pretty simple and seamless.
As far as if you don’t want to/can’t upload your save, or if you’re a first timer to this series (what’s wrong with you?), Telltale has given us the option to either take a “save” that they have constructed that they feel is best for newbies, or, you can tailor the decisions from the first 2 games as you had, or any other way you see fit. It’s a great idea, but in all honesty, you lose a lot of the context for the choices you made, and hell, you may even forget a choice – or several – that you made, especially if it has been almost 3 years since you chose them. I get that it’s not an easy thing to do, in every sense of the phrase, but, that’s just the nature of the beast. We’re making the best of the situation, and it could have been a lot worse. So, for my file, I chose what I think I remember doing in the first 2 seasons with Clementine and the gang.
When we begin, we don’t pick up right where we left off. Season 3 starts with a flashback, and if the rest of the season follows suit of the first 2 episodes, we’ll be in for plenty more “history lessons” with characters the whole way through. We start off as Javier, who is doing his best to rush home to see his father for the final time before he dies. This is just as the outbreak starts, and, if you have any common sense, or you’ve seen the trailers for S3, you already know where this is headed. Since this is a story-heavy game, I’ll do my best to keep spoilers to a minimum but know that there will have to be some somewhere. Javier is the main protagonist for the first 2 episodes. Whether this changes or not down the line is unclear, of course. You get a glimpse into his family life prior to the world ending, and that’ll be the jumping off point for the season.
After the opening, we jump forward several years, and we see where Javier is at in the struggle to survive. We get a little insight to who he’s with and what they’ve been through, though I will say, for me at least, Javier and his band of misfits take a while to get over with the crowd. Some much longer than others, and candidly, one I still haven’t taken a liking to. Although in fairness, the story beats come kind of fast in the opening moments, so you don’t get too much down time to think. You make your judgments from their book covers, and those beats shape yours and their actions going forward. Your mileage may vary, of course.
After a short back and forth with his traveling companions, the adventure kicks into gear and everything you’d expect from a Telltale adventure game comes to the forefront. The familiar TWD controls are present with the Quick Time Events (QTE) and light puzzle solving, and the dialogue system is what you remember, but more on that in a bit. If you’ve played the recent Batman series from Telltale, you’ll have no issues jumping in here if you’re newer to this genre. Aside from the different aesthetic flair, they are very similar in practice. Every new season/series improves on the last from Telltale, and that’s no exception here when it comes to controlling the action. Unlike the Batman series, I had very few issues with the game recognizing my movements in the QTEs, however, there were a couple of hiccups that resulted in immediate deaths, though this was right after a cinematic transition, where the controls just locked and nothing moved, rather than not registering what I did a la Batman. I know what I explained may sound the same, but I assure you, they’re different. This may have to do with other issues I’ll bring up soon enough rather than what I believe was a design choice in Batman.
And now for the moment some of you may have been waiting for. It doesn’t take too long for us to run into Clementine. The events leading up to it are loaded with drama and strife, and Clem does get a pretty neat intro into Javier’s life. Their relationship starts off out of convenience for Clem, but as it tends to do in these situations, it turns into necessity for all involved. Oh, and the years we’ve been without her? Clem has turned into a little badass. I wasn’t sure I would like an older, harder version, but it turned out fine. You get to see that she’s been around the block a few times. She’s very familiar with her surroundings and is a delight when on screen. In fact, when she’s not, it’s kind of downer. She’s become the anchor as well as the star, and I don’t want to say I feel “lost” without her there, but when she’s not around, something feels off. Obviously, this is due to the fact that if you’re like me, Telltale has let you “raise” Clem since the first season, and she feels just as much a part of you as anything else when playing. It’s a testament to their storytelling. I’m a little surprised I felt this strongly, but, I really missed her.
The detail that’s been put forth into the look of the zombies this time is much better than previous seasons. The gore is more elaborate and because it’s many years later, it shows on many of the walkers you come across. The graphical upgrade isn’t only to the shamblers, though. Everything looks smoother, and character models really pop (well, as much as you can in this world). The way lighting is used, especially in specific scenes is wonderfully done, and you’d think you were watching a moving comic. Hell, sometimes I couldn’t even distinguish if I was watching a game or a live action show. That’s a bit hyperbolic, but it’s not too far off from the truth. Keep your eyes open to some scenes in Episode 2 for proof. The animations are little better here, too. There’s still the stunted movements from time to time, but I do see an improvement, especially in cinematics. The brutality is still present, and some may say even more than before. It doesn’t hurt that everything is more defined and detailed. The more graphic, the better in my opinion. This world is tough, and nothing should be sugar coated.
Musically the cues hit at the right moments and the overarching main theme is still there, though understated this time around. This was probably a choice because I don’t just associate that song with the series, but with Clem and everything she’s gone through. That theme hits nerves in me that can move me to tears with I think enough about it, and with the focus this time around being on Javi and his family, it would feel disingenuine to shoehorn that in with him. Familiar sound effects return, with the stings and tones that have signaled decisions or events as present as ever. The voice acting is good, too, with only a few characters not hitting their high notes every time. Overall, there’s not much to complain about, and the few times some lines or interactions fell flat, I quickly got over it. The writing is once again a highlight, with some light humor thrown in to break up the constant woe. Not overdone, either, which would definitely hurt the mood. Arguments feel real, emotions hit home, and if the writing didn’t deliver, the acting wouldn’t be able to save it. Luckily, the dialogue never has to rely on something else. Not everything is perfect, but when one line falls flat, there’s plenty to help you forget coming right up.
This is the comic universe, not the TV one, and there have been major characters Clem has come into contact with before. I don’t read the comics, so I don’t know how much of what is offered here ties in (I feel like it’s a lot of little references), but I do know there will be at least one thing comic fans will immediately recognize. I’m very much for these kinds of things in media crossovers, even if I don’t instantly benefit from them.
So yes, there’s plenty to love about the first couple of episodes from the storytelling standpoint. However, there’s a ton I saw and experienced that sadly hits the game with a few good and hard blows to the stomach. It’s a technical mess. Granted, I played it just as it launched, but, still, this shouldn’t be acceptable with the issues I faced. I’m just going to throw everything at you that I feel is relevant to my experience and enjoyment because that’s exactly what it felt like while playing – issues just kept being thrown at me.
The stuttering and general Telltale Tool engine issues remain. In fact, there was MAJOR stuttering during scenes in Episode 2. Like, almost every single one. The whole episode. Sometimes it felt like I was watching a stop motion movie. A little exaggerated, but again, not that far off from the truth. Objects would disappear from scenes. Let’s say someone was holding a cup, for example. When they took a sip, the cup disappeared (I’m subbing in a cup so that I don’t spoil a plot point). Graphical glitches were rampant – textures disappear or flicker black all over the place, which often took me right out of the scene emotionally, the pause menu flickers nonstop, and in fact, even a hard reset and normal restart of the game seemed to make everything with the stuttering and flickering worse. It was such a trainwreck.
I had a lot of audio sync issues. Lines being delivered, then finished, but the mouths kept moving. Think Godzilla movies from Japan and you have the idea. Subtitles didn’t always match what is actually said, while sometimes there were whole sentences left out of spoken dialogue (shown on subtitles, not actually spoken). Sadly, we once again run into the issue of what you choose as a speaking option isn’t always what is said (sometimes it differs wildly), and that can hurt you if you think a response is going to go one way via the small phrase you chose, only to have it take a sharp turn with a paragraph of dialogue. One particular flashback takes this to a whole new level of deception and truly ruins your intended response. The couple of words you chose turns into a tirade that exposes a secret about someone – with them standing right there – which is something I never intended on saying. These 2 episodes are littered with this stuff. There really needs to be a better way to communicate to players on what their choices will bring verbally, especially when they matter so much in a game like this. [Heazie will remember that.]
The controls locked up during a pivotal scene which led to a death. OK, fine, I can get over that. Once loaded, I had to watch the whole 5-minute scene again. Why couldn’t you load me to the moment before the action started? Another scene in which I died because the flickering was so bad I couldn’t see the reticle I needed to aim, the zombie that grabbed me was completely different than the one that bit me. The way the scene is constituted there was no way it could have been a different one. I’m talking full on gender-swap zombie. A nitpick, yes, and normally something I would laugh at and move on from, but when the rest of the run is a technical mess, I feel it bears mentioning. I’ve never had this many issues before on a Telltale game, and I’ve been through some scrapes. The final kicker and another sad realization for me? Seeing the credits for episode 2 and realizing it was over in about an hour.
I know, I know. I threw some harsh realities out just now. As it stands, this season has been far from great overall, with so many technical hiccups affecting my playthrough it was impossible to overlook them. I have to grade on what I played, not what someone else may play. There are are some people who rarely experience (or notice) much of anything when it comes to the technical gaffes in Telltale games. I was in that boat a couple of times, too. I must have lost my life jacket this time out on the water.
The interworkings of game development aside, the story is the most important part of these games and I have to admit it works. Yes, there were some characters I didn’t particularly enjoy, and I would have preferred to play as Clementine the whole way through, but I’d be lying if I said what we were given with Javier was bad. It’s not. At all. The story beats played out nicely and by the end, I was struggling to figure out where I went wrong (or right). I’m just as curious and intrigued to see if alternate choices really pan out that much differently than what I saw, though, knowing Telltale, I doubt it. Yes, there were some unsatisfying (and wholly predictable) plot points both in flashbacks and present day, but cliffhanger at the end of the 2nd episode? Wow. I never saw that coming…
Even though I wanted to cry at all the bad things the game was throwing at me that had nothing to do with deaths, choices, and zombies, there was still an enjoyable tale to play through. Knowing how you feel about Telltale games personally will likely already be your deciding factor on buying the season, and not much I’ve said in this longwinded review will likely change your mind. However, unless you must play this now, I’d hold off until there’s official word on a patch or some assurances you won’t experience issues. Yes, I think this is absolutely something you should buy, but that comes with a huge caveat. I played on Xbox One, and with so many places to play this, again, you may avoid everything and it could be smooth sailing. I thought the story and situations were great. I think the engine needs to go. Yesterday. Were it not for the technical side, this would have been rated much higher.
***if you’re interested in seeing my choices at the end of each episode, which obviously includes spoilers, scroll to the bottom for screenshots***
The Walking Dead: A New Frontier – Ties That Bind Episode 1 is available now on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 for $4.99. The Season Pass is available on those platforms for $24.99. The Steam version is available as a season for $24.99. The game is also available on various other platforms and mobile devices. A copy of the game was generously provided by our friends at Telltale Games.
***YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!!***