Genre: Horror Adventure
Release date: December 20, 2016
Telltale’s The Walking Dead series will always be burdened by the weight of its own influence. The first season was a runaway cultural juggernaut, winning almost a hundred “Game of the Year” awards and popularizing a new way to tell stories in video games. Subsequent seasons and Telltale series have felt the strain of comparison, and it’s impossible to exempt Telltale’s newest release, The Walking Dead: A New Frontier, from similar scrutiny.
Ties That Bind Parts 1 & 2 bring us the shambling beginnings of a new story arc with a fresh set of characters and conflicts brewing. There are sparks of potential, but the series must overcome its own tendency to lean on fan favorite characters to tell a new story worth remembering.
A quick note: if you’ve played a Telltale game before, you understand the controls, mechanics, episodic structure, and gameplay style that are trademarks of the series, so I’ll spare you the details. If you haven’t, this isn’t the place to start. Treat yourself to Season One of The Walking Dead and then we’ll talk.
The start of the third season finds us several years after the initial undead outbreak and with a new hero, Javi. He’s traveling around in a large van with his brother’s wife and children, seeking all the things our favorite zombie outbreak survivors have wanted since we started playing these games —- supplies, shelter, fellow humans that can be trusted and the distant possibility of a better life. But the passage of time makes this story a bit different than the others. Anyone who’s survived four years of this nonsense has dealt with backstabbing friends, fought off bands of roving marauders and learned how to take out an emaciated walker with the claw end of a hammer —- we’ve long ago exhausted our supply of suckers and are down to the hardened survivors.
Javi is likeable enough. Flashbacks cast him as affectionate and playful when he is around his family, and he calls the shots like a natural leader. It’s clear that he has been set up, as Season One’s protagonist Lee was before him, to be a charming pragmatist with a seedy past —- Javi’s got a rascally grin and used to be a professional gambler who flirted with his brother’s wife. But he was outclassed a long time ago. Lee exuded a level of pure chemistry that is nearly unmatched in the medium of video games —- I associate it more with the onscreen grace of actors like Denzel Washington than with clusters of moving pixels. Lee was at once wry and cautious, perceptive and funny, toughened and soulful. It would be hard for anyone to step into the same spotlight he held.
We’ve also got the return of Clementine. It’s her third appearance running and now she’s a willowy teenager with the same dirty ballcap and shuddery voice that can give way to hardness at any moment. Yet again, the story necessitates that we find her alone, which means that nothing good has befallen whoever you left her with at the end of Season Two. These plot gaps are illuminated by flashbacks over the course of the episodes that show scraps of Clementine’s continued survival. As the story continues, I’m sure we’ll learn more about what’s made her into the kind of person who at one point utters, “Having people is nice, but it always ends up hurting in the end.”
The first episode opens on a startling and powerful scene: family members are gathered in mourning at the bedside of Javi’s father, who has just passed away in his sleep. Soon after, though, one of the children reports the startling news that her grandfather is not dead but is awake and moving again. Perplexed, the family goes to investigate, and "zombification" and its accompanying chaos ensue. This setup offers a clever point of entry into the perversion of death the walking dead represent. There is no rest, there is no peace, there is no desirable conclusion to your story. Instead you are wrenched back to animation, forced by an impulse that is worse than animal to attack friends, family and strangers in an unquenchable bloodlust.
The story is slow-moving but contains a few of these intelligent plot moments, most of which I don’t want to spoil. The rest is the usual fare -— hunting for supplies, scrambling to the next shelter and the constant push and pull of living versus surviving. Do you do what's safest or occasionally indulge in the small pleasures that make it worth being alive?
The story’s flashbacks center around Javi’s relationship to his family, especially his domineering brother David and his wife Kate. These relationships begin to shape Javi and his morality in ways that are less immediate but will most likely have pressing implications down the line. It’s a slow beginning — and perhaps the smartest thing about it is that for the first time, Telltale released two episodes of the series at the same time -- correctly anticipating that the end of Episode One wouldn’t raise the stakes enough to be satisfying. The end of the second part, however, signals some enthralling tension ahead.
The longer The Walking Dead goes on in its numerous forms, the knottier its stories get. Telltale made a brilliant decision early on by keeping the high-stakes world of the comic book series but passing on its characters and plotlines (for awhile, at least). This allows for an uncompromised exploration of the themes and situations that make this scenario so compelling. Now that we’ve arrived at our third continuous iteration of the Telltale series, though, the path forward is thorny and narrow. The urge to cling to Clementine as a story pivot has hunched the story inward on itself to accommodate her full arc.
This might be best explained statistically. The first season is such a slam dunk largely because it masterfully creates an ambiguous moral universe. Choices aren’t obviously ethical or unjust, nor is it apparent which option is safer or braver or smarter. Just as in life, you choose what feels right in the moment and hope for the best. The final tabulations of player choices (which are shown with the credits of each episode to show how an individual’s decisions compare to those of the total player base) reveal how divisive the first season is. Almost every choice is split evenly, with one side or the other having a 3-5% advantage. That’s peanuts compared to the splits so far in Season Three. There are two major plot points in the first two episodes that give Javi the option of choosing Clementine over his own family, and in both cases a staggering majority — 83.7% and 89.2% as of this writing — selected the path that would benefit or protect Clem.
There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. But anyone who’s been on a journey with Clementine this long will have trouble taking seriously any choice between helping her and protecting Javi’s family, which means the next episode needs to work twice as hard to invest players in a new storyline. I’ve spent a lot of hours following the thoughts behind Clementine’s mesmerizing golden eyes. I’m not about to defect now without a damn good reason.
+ Likeable hero
+ New family themes and conflicts
+ The return and development of Clementine
+ Exciting cliffhanger ending to Episode 2
+ Maintains Telltale-quality animation, cinematography, and editing
- Slow start to the narrative
- Leans heavily on flashbacks to tell Clementine’s story
- New characters are overshadowed by fan favorites