REVIEW: The Walking Dead – A New Frontier

Regardless of how people decide to expose themselves to stories that will hopefully resonate with them, it has become impossible to ignore that the video game industry has quickly become one of the single most vibrant mediums in all of entertainment. It’s easy to see why: with increases in technological capability, game developers and storytellers are coming together to turn the interactive format into one of the most potent narrative mediums active in the world today. Sure, plenty of games come along that try — and fail — to tell a good story, however one developer that has consistently shown a dedication to the truly resonant emotional appeal is Telltale Games, with their creative and engineering staff unifying to bring, in many cases, what can only be described as powerful games to life for millions of players all over the world.

Perhaps Telltale’s most defining success to date rests in their games based on the comic book series The Walking Dead, created by writer Robert Kirkman and artists Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard. With no narrative ties to the highly-popular TV show of the same name, the video game’s connection to the comic book series is apparent in everything from the art style present in each released entry in the series, all the way down to a select few of the characters that have managed to survive the unbelievably bleak and harsh landscape the player must confront in each outing.

Telltale recently completed their third trip into the wasteland of the undead with The Walking Dead: A New Frontier. While the game is an apparent departure from the more personal and intimate stories of the original two games in the series, it quickly becomes apparent that there will be more familiar elements here than unfamiliar ones. Does it work, though? Does Telltale create another powerful, emotional story at its core, or has this arm of their gaming franchise lost its flesh-eating bite? Let’s take a look.

Design and Story

When it comes to the storytelling capabilities of this series’ original two games, I can confidently say that Telltale’s The Walking Dead is the only game series that makes me question whether or not I’m emotionally mature enough to actually play them. The choices the games confront you with are often agonizing, and always highly consequential. With an approach that offers branching paths and an adaptive narrative that can be fundamentally altered by even a seemingly innocuous choice, The Walking Dead games and their stories are emotional rollercoasters in the truest possible sense of the phrase.

The third game begins with a look at life just at the onset of the zombie outbreak. We meet our player character, Javier (“Javi” for short), as he comes home to be with his family after losing a significant amount of his money due to a gambling problem, money he earned through a promising baseball career that has now seemingly evaporated. We also meet Javi’s hot-tempered older brother, David, who’s married to a woman named Kate, and who has two children from a previous marriage: Gabe and Mariana.

After witnessing this family’s all too tragic and brutal introduction to the horrors of the zombie virus, we then jump four years into the future. David is conspicuously out of the picture, and Javi, Kate, Gabe and Mariana are all on the road trying to survive, like everybody else. While scavenging for supplies, the unit encounters a group of armed men and are nearly killed until rescued by a familiar face: Clementine, the hero of the series’ first two games. Now a bit older and far more jaded, Clementine becomes a reluctant member of Javi’s group, before the plot takes them down an even crazier road of death, betrayal, surprise, and even a little bit of hope.

Story-wise, the game doesn’t manage to be quite as engaging as the original two, largely because Javi isn’t nearly as vulnerable — physically or emotionally — as the series’ original protagonists. In some ways, this is beneficial: Javi feels less sure of himself but perhaps more impulsive than the first game’s lead, Lee Everett, but he also can’t really match the heightened level of emotional investment that Clementine was able to in the second game. Chances are, if you are anything other than a 12-year old kid, you likely felt very protective of Clementine just by virtue of the fact that she was a child caught in a terrible situation, and the game did a good job of coaxing parental instincts out of the player.

Then — of course — pretty early on, Telltale’s storytellers pull the rug out from under you as Javi and the group endure something that’s jaw-droppingly shocking.

From this highly consequential moment, the stakes for everyone explored in the story are amped up considerably. While Javi doesn’t quite have as much relatable vulnerability as either Lee or Clementine did before him, his more impulsive resolve does help to give him a greater sense of ownership over this story overall. While Clementine is present, you can very much get more involved in the wider, familial stakes that Javi brings to the table, which is of a decidedly different flavor than the stories led by either Lee or Clementine.

Of course, by the time you reach the end of the story, the game makes your final choice the most consequential, particularly agonizing decision you have to make. Choices that you make leading to the game’s climax lead to a different conception of Clementine’s character, and how much she trusts you at the end of the story is what ultimately makes the final choice so pivotal. It’s an interesting, different take on cumulative choices compared to any other Telltale project, which helps give the game design and the story the project tells to be slightly more unique.

Unfortunately, A New Frontier continues the somewhat simplistic and unremarkable graphical shortcomings of several of the latest Telltale games. This is likely a byproduct of the developer’s insistence on publishing their games on platforms that include iOS and Android devices, as well as last-generation consoles like the Xbox 360 and PS3 (while A New Frontier skipped the 360 and PS3). As long as the games are held back by these less-powerful machines, the games will not be able to take full advantage of the power of either the base PS4 or Xbox One, and that’s to say nothing of the PS4 Pro, the upcoming Xbox One X, or a high-end gaming PC.

 Gameplay

 While the formula for A New Frontier hasn’t really changed all that much compared to the previous games, Telltale wisely decided to implement a versatile story import system since this is their first mainline Walking Dead game to premiere on a new generation of consoles. Regardless of which platform you played the second game on and which one you’ve chosen for your playthrough of New Frontier, you can import your Season Two save file to a Telltale-managed cloud and then choose to import it into the new game on any of its many available platforms. It’s definitely a nice touch, especially considering the multitude of possible endings for their second game in the series.

It’s easy to understand why some gamers don’t particularly enjoy the games of this developer, since some gamers choose to openly express that they feel the games are just a series of short or long quick-time events (or QTE’s). This sells each experience criminally short, however, and the latest Walking Dead game punctuates the sometimes-simplistic gameplay with legitimately emotional story beats. Be that as it may, the overall Telltale gameplay formula hasn’t changed all that much in terms of function since the original Walking Dead game from 2012, and even then the formula changed only minimally compared to the prior year’s Back to the Future: The Game.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, since the impetus on the uniqueness of each experience depends more on the way each of the stories are written. So far, Telltale has only had one demonstrable critical stumble over the last six years in the form of late-2011’s Jurassic Park: The Game (even though I personally enjoyed it), but for the most part the writing has more than bolstered the arguably repetitive gameplay execution of each successive release.

While there can be some unique flourishes based on what each QTE does over the course of each game, The Walking Dead series as a whole is memorable because of the choices it presents you, and how those choices then impact the way your character proceeds. By-and-large, every game in the series — including this one — is about making the best out of increasingly worse situations. The games are often emotionally exhausting, but that speaks to the ability of the storytellers at Telltale to relate truly resonant and harrowing tales about surviving a world that only grows harsher by the day…with a glimmer of hope that something better might be just over the horizon.

Overall

The Walking Dead: A New Frontier continues in the harrowing and emotionally-charged storytelling traditions of the first two main games in this series, and help show that Telltale still has “it” when it comes to telling stories in the bloody, messed up world first created in the comics by Kirkman, Moore and Adlard (which, of course, owes a lot to the films of the legendary George A. Romero).

If you’ve found yourself captivated by the previous games in the series, are curious about where Clementine may have ended up after the variety of situations she could’ve found herself in at the end of Season Two, or are just in the mood for an emotionally heavy, zombie-laden game, then it’s hard to go wrong with A New Frontier.

Yes, we’ve been here before, and previous entries are likely a little better than this one. Be that as it may, it’s hard to argue with the fact that even though it’s a tune we may have heard before, Telltale Games is far from being finished surprising you in a world where the dead walk among us. That on its own makes the third trip into this flavor of undead dystopia well worth your time.

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