Release Date: March 18th (Xbox One, Season Pass), March 28th (all other systems)
Developer: TellTale Games
Publisher: TellTale Games
Genre: Third Person Perspective, Platformer, Action-Adventure
System: Xbox One (Reviewed), Xbox 360, Playstation 4, Playstation 3, PC, Mac, Android, iPhone
“Don’t fix what isn’t broken” — a moniker used far too often to imply doing the same thing because it’s currently working great. A turn-of-phrase used when describing various concepts like a band’s sound over a stretch of albums, or a sports team’s strategy when on a winning streak, etc. Sooner or later, what is perceived as good enough evolves into a question of if beingl repetitive or complacent? Ultimately, it becomes a question of remaining complacent until it’s no longer effective.
On paper, Episode 3: Above the Law should be another great experience from TellTale. The episode hits all the beats we’re all too familiar with from a Walking Dead midseason episode. A main antagonist is fully established amidst a very dangerous predicament for the main cast. Themes about family, trust, and humanity are brought out and dialed up a notch. Characters pushed even harder, close to the breaking point. Consequences from previous decisions are hitting at an alarming fast rate, amplified by the increasing body count. The story is beginning to get to the morality, rattling point, attacking the core of the player’s choices to raise questions incredibly difficult to answer. However, when playing the experience, I found myself numb and detached. Even within the next couple days I normally take to reflect on the journey thus far, I found myself not invested in what I’d experienced so far.
Episode 3: Above the Law is the split in the road for me on TellTale, I’m just not sure which direction I’m taking.
Family Reunions Were Never Quite Like This
Above the Law follows the trend as the previous two episodes by starting with a flashback. 4 months after the start of the apocalypse, Javi and Kate are scrounging the neighborhood for a rumored full propane tank. In typical The Walking Dead storytelling mechanics, they find an empty propane tank and have to eliminate a walker (muertos from now on). Fed up with their current predicament of having waited months for David to come back, Javi and Kate have to make a decision; do they stay in a neighborhood diminish in supplies, or take their chances to find a better place?
Immediately after the flashback ends, the episode picks up at the end of Ties that Bind Pt. 2 where David and Javi reunite at the entrance of Richmond. Javi hands Kate to David telling him to get her to a doctor or else she’ll die. David, along with Gabriel, take Kate immediately to the doctor while the rest of the crew is taken to Quarantine. Eventually, David get Javi out of Quarantine to see Kate. It’s during the walk to see Kate that Javi tells Dave about the fate of Mariana, and who the culprits were.
After seeing Kate, Javi and Dave go to meet the rest of the leaders of the New Frontier. During the exchange, players must face the first consequence of their when Max (the person who first caught you siphoning the gas from their van in the junkyard) comes in to give his testimonial. Because of this testimonial, Javi and crew are sent out of the settlement and into the wild. However, inside of the bag that David packs for the crew, Javi finds a map giving them a location to meet him at. What the crew finds at the location is something far more sinister than anticipated, and raises questions about who can be trusted.
Reading the synopsis back, Above the Law sounds like a great midseason episode full of hooks and suspense. There’s a lot of character development and growth for our main protagonist Javi, as well as his brother David. Even other characters like Tripp, Eleanor, and Jesus get a little more time to be developed and fleshed out. There’s a very touching moment that occurs between Javi and Tripp that solidifies the camaraderie between the two (even though in real life the amount of time it’s taken for them to build such a rapport is too damn short). There’s a lot said about each character in very little writing that doesn’t tie up the writing.
The episode’s reveal of a far bigger enemy is also effectively set up and discovered in a natural, organic pace. All of the beats leading up to the moment feel concise, coherent, and purposeful. Above the Law’s writing feels focused and has little to no filler throughout the story being told. The writing also has this really nice blend between setting up side stories without sacrificing from the main plot. TellTale also effectively ties in the themes of love, friendship, and the human condition to create an all around solid package of writing.
Yet, that’s the problem with Above the Law and what I worry about with The Walking Dead: Season 3; it’s everything we’re used to and does nothing to change the formula. These are themes that we have explored in the previous two seasons (The Walking Dead Season 1 does the best job exploring it hands down) and hits the storytelling beats stronger. These are characters that feel real, and dynamic, but lack the power or resonance felt with previous characters in the universe. Javi is a decent main protagonist that players can empathize with and relate to. However, his character’s development and story trajectory has less strength than Lee’s. Tripp, Eleanor, Jesus, none of them really carry the same weight as Kenny, Duck, or Carley. Maybe it’s unfair to make the comparison, but there’s been a lot of disconnect I’ve experienced with the cast surrounding Javi. I don’t care for them like I cared for the crew of Season 1.
However, that could also be because of my biggest issue with The Walking Dead: Season 3: A New Frontier: Clementine . Don’t get me wrong, Clementine is a great character that fans have gotten to see grow significantly…but I feel like her story ended with Season 2. No matter how contrived the road leading up to the conclusion for Season 2 was, it felt like it had finality. There wasn’t a need to create yet another reason for Clementine to be part of the game (and continue putting her character through misery and heartbreak). The inclusion of Clementine feels incredibly forced in Season 3: A New Frontier and unnecessary. Her inclusion into the game also takes away any strength or ability for other characters to shine. Javi especially suffers from her presence in the game: even though he is the character players control, his ability to provide immersion into the game is eliminated with Clementine being his sidekick in the game (because let’s face it, she is).
To me, this comes off as disingenuous by TellTale to both their fans and to their writers. Disingenuous to the fans because TellTale’s The Walking Dead: Season 3: A New Frontier doesn’t get the chance to make itself stand out with it’s own identity. The characters are never given a chance to prove themselves as people players can get behind on their own merits, and only do so because of Clementine being in the picture. Clementine’s presence is disingenuous to the writers because it comes off as if the company doesn’t have confidence in their writer’s to grab players into the game without having someone familiar. Clementine may be a fan favorite for the franchise, and TellTale could have brought her in because of that. However, it still comes off as if TellTale doesn’t have confidence in itself to be able to provide new characters to get behind.
Ultimately, Above the Law is equal parts gripping and boring. It’s everything we’ve come to expect in a TellTale product without doing anything to tweak the formula in any way. For me personally, it raises questions on how much more juice TellTale’s The Walking Dead formula has left before it’s dry.
No Hiccups, No Problem
Gameplay wise, Above the Law is a step in the right direction for TellTale from a technical perspective. The frame rate hiccups, screen tears, and game freeze states that often plague TellTale products is nonexistent. From beginning to end, the game runs smoothly and provides a glimmer of hope that TellTale is taking notice about the technical hiccups that have been consistent in their products. Above the Law also does a good job with the Quick Time Events (QTEs) that provide some very tense, adrenaline-laden tension.
Overall, from a gameplay technical perspective Above the Law is a solid, clean experience that hopefully is a step in the right direction for TellTale.
A Cautionary Experience That Has Two Paths
TellTale’s The Walking Dead: Season 3: A New Frontier is now at a crossroad with Above the Law. On one hand, they can continue down the road that’s already been explored numerous times because of how successful it’s been. My fear is that TellTale will continue going with the same formula they’ve used during the last two seasons and the three episodes of season three. Or, they could branch out and try some new things that might not work, but it provides something different. Otherwise, Above the Law is a competently made experience that is a true The Walking Dead experience…it’s just boring.
As the experience currently stands, my recommendation would be to hold off on purchasing this game until all five episodes are out.