First, I want to apologize for having completed this review a little over a month since the game’s premiere. However, I want to say I appreciate you all who continue to read our work and follow our content and hope this review is worth the wait.
Release Date: December 20, 2016
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
*As with any review copy, I want to thank TellTale for providing the review copy for TellTale Season 3: Brave New Frontier to Last Token Gaming.
Because this is a two-episode premiere, my goal is to separately review both episodes to give them in depth examination.
Walking Dead is boring. It’s a cliche-infested franchise that relies too much on the tropes it recycles and never makes significant strides in the narrative. Far too often it attempts to build up tension that feels stretched out and contrived, leading to a disappointing payoff that doesn’t capture the tone the series strives for. That’s because the franchise tries to bill itself as a “character drama within a zombie apocalypse,” trying to emphasize its desire to have fleshed out characters that’ll organically drive the story. Unfortunately, the series continues to falter in that category by writing characters into narrative corners that result in them dying out of necessity rather than out of significance.
While it certainly has certain shades of its franchise counterparts, TellTale’s The Walking Dead has always been a refreshing experience. The moralistic choices feel more genuine and organic, often providing a ground for natural conflict to brew and provide unsettling questions for players to ponder. The story felt equal in driving the game as much as the characters, and made an emotional, immersive experience. Because amidst all the characters introduced in TellTale’s entry into the franchise, there was a centralized focus that was poignant; this was Clementine’s story.
That said, after finishing The Walking Dead: Season 2 I felt like Clementine’s story was completed. Each ending had a sense of closure and finality even with the little room left at the end of each route. So when I was reminded the eventual Walking Dead: Season 3 was coming out, one question came to mind: Where does the story go from here?
The Walking Dead: Season 3: Brave New Frontier tries to answer the question, and does enough to hold off judgment until more episodes. It certainly falls prey to symptoms of the Walking Dead formula — rushed side characters, high body counts, and semi-contrived experiences. However, Brave New Frontier has one thing within its characters and story — heart. Exploring the dynamic of family and self-importance has a powerfully refreshing drive to a series that needs it. Episodes 1 and 2 – Ties that Bind Pt. 1 and 2 provides a decent foundation to what should hopefully be a rewarding experience.
Episode 1 – Ties that Bind Pt. 1
Instead of Clementine being the central character, TellTale’s The Walking Dead: Season 3: A New Frontier introduces down on his luck washed-up baseball player Javier “Javi” Garcia. Immediately, Episode 1: Ties that Bind Pt. 1 goes for brevity with a flashback of a phone call between Javi and his brother David. David is urging Javi to hurry home before their father, “Rafa” passes away. Despite Javi’s best efforts, he arrives too late, and is greeted by an angry David. The conversation is terse, and verbally abusive, a product of grief and frustration of David’s concerning Javi’s distance from the family. This conversation is cut short when Gabe and Kate, Dave’s son and wife, come out to greet Javi. Moments later, Ties That Bind Pt. 1 reminds us this is the The Walking Dead universe, with David’s daughter Marianna coming out to let everyone known Rafa is awake again.
The results are bloody, resulting in Rafa’s wife and David becoming infected. Immediately, we are brought to the present day with an older, hardened Javi tracking a large horde of muertos (walkers) from a distance. Kate comes up behind him, emphasizing the need to keep moving forward to stay ahead of the horde. Upon arriving back at the van, players are introduced to an older Gabe and Marianna in the backseat. After travelling down the road a while, the group decides to stop at a junkyard for a supply run.
In true Walking Dead fashion, the scavenging trip results in finding enough gas to fill up the van and a locked-camper full of supplies. Ignoring the caution a locked door should generate, Javi finds a secret door underneath the camper. The group is able to break into the camper, taking some supplies and eating a few things as well. In equal Walking Dead fashion, Javi has a run in with those occupying the camper outside. A group of three men spot Javi grabbing the gas canister and decide to interrogate him inside the camper.
After unsuccessfully (or successfully) getting Javi to talk about the others with him, two of the men head out to search the junkyard. While being held hostage at gunpoint, both Javi and his assailant uncover where the rest of the group is; in the secret entrance into the camper. As a result, Javi and his assailant get into a scuffle that results in the assailant getting knocked out. The other two men return, unaware of the discovery, and knock out Javi for the skirmish.
Waking up, Javi finds himself being transported to an unknown location by a new person part of the group at the camper. Their car is forced to swerve off road by a tree being knocked down onto the road. As a result, the car is totalled, with both Javi and his captor slightly injured. Both are able to get out of the car with little injury. Unfortunately for Javi, the trend of being greeted by the barrel of a gun happens again to him. Players are then treated to an introduction to an older, harder Clementine holding the gun at the back of Javi’s head.
Javi is able to strike a deal with Clementine to help him get his family back, but seeing that the horde of muertos has caught up they decide to head to another community called Prescott to wait until morning to retrieve Javi’s family. That is, if they survive long enough to be rescued…
Ties That Bind, Pt. 1 is a slow but effective burn that delivers everything needed as an introductory episode. The central character, Javi, is equal parts relatable and distinct. He has enough personality without conflicting with player agency on dialogue choices or decisions. More importantly, the flashbacks provides the insight to address the two different Javi’s we see on screen.
However, the biggest factor that makes Ties That Bind, Pt. 1 succeed is the familial ties that aren’t circumstantially bound. This provides a much welcomed extra layer of depth to each dialogue and action choice. For the player, each decision creates a major question; do I choose what I’d do or what Javi would do? It’s a paradoxical feeling between immersion and player agency. While it can create ludonarrative dissonance, the sensation isn’t adverse or detrimental.
Another strength in the story is the lack of a major “game-changing” conflict. Instead, the conflict is simple and small; Javi and his family find a place to scavenge at an unfortunate price. This small, but effective, conflict ties into what I believe The Walking Dead tries to do; it’s not the walkers that are the enemy, but humanity itself. Sure, the walkers are dangerous and deadly, but they can be taken out easily if careful. However, a human with a gun can often be more vicious, more violent and harsh. Most of the conflicts encountered in Ties That Bind, Pt. 1 involve a gun being pointed at Javi in one way or another.
Unfortunately, not everything in Ties That Bind, Pt. 1 works. While Javi is distinct as a character, he does not feel too compelling or convincing as a main lead right now. If anything, Javi feels like a side character thrown into a role he’s not comfortable with. My feelings are torn on the introduction of Clementine; I’m not sure whether or not her presence improves the narrative or weakens it. Nevertheless, Clementine is back. She’s older and appears much more world-worn. While I like Clementine, and have enjoyed her previous entries into the series, I feel like her presence immediately takes away Javi’s presence as the main character. This is exemplified by the fact that, upon Clementine’s arrival into the game, she never leaves from the story. Instead, Javi is no longer the main character making the major decisions: Clementine is.
Furthermore, Clementine feels forced into the narrative with very contrived explanations of her experience between season 2 and 3. Depending on the choices make, Clementine ends up with the following:
If She Stays with Kenny: Kenny is teaching Clementine how to drive with AJ in the back seat. Clementine, however, loses control and crashes the car. Kenny is thrown from the car and is paralyzed as walkers converge on them. Kenny makes Clementine leave with AJ as he is devoured.
If She Stays with Jane: The two try to name Alvin Jr. (AJ)’s middle name. Jane will also comment on how the family broke in and stole the food (if you turned the family away) or how the family betrayed them and took their food (if you let family stay). Later on, Clementine discovers that Jane has hung herself after testing positive in a pregnancy test, and must decide whether or not to put the reanimated Jane down.
If She Stays in the Wellington: She and AJ are forced to flee as Edith and the townspeople are killed and raided by scavengers.
If She Goes Alone in the Wild: After hunting for food, she is forced to fend off walkers going for AJ, and injures her left ring finger in the process, forcing her to remove it.
None of these endings feel natural and organic in terms of what’s established in The Walking Dead universe. Instead, the endings feels contrived and forced to put Clementine in a situation where she’s isolated until running into Javi. It’s unfair to both Clementine and the viewer, forcing a reason for Clementine to be tied into the third season when her story already felt completed. To me, it comes off as TellTale admitting the new season Walking Dead: A New Frontier isn’t strong enough to stand on its own without a familiar face.
Furthermore, the good ol’ trappings of the Walking Dead universe (and TellTale for that matter) come out in tiny cracks. A lot of the side characters feel rushed, and serve more as plot devices and less as part of the game. Sure, some of their conflicts feel natural and interesting, but they don’t feel like they have enough inclusion to the overall plot. For example, Gabe’s plight feels very simple; he wants to jump from “being a boy, to being a man” as he explains to Javi. Unfortunately, this certainly complex plight is quickly brushed aside with a few phrases that feel generic. As a result, Gabe often feels silent and angry, never really getting a chance to gain some depth or clarity. Ties That Bind also implies that death is going to be prevalent in this series and be used as plot devices. This is especially evident with Clementine’s introduction into the A New Frontier with Jane’s or Kenny’s death, or Wellington’s downfall.
One thing Ties That Bind, Pt 1 doesn’t have a problem with is technical issues. From framerate hiccups to screen tears or even freezeframes that corrupt save files, they’re pretty consistent in almost every episode of each game. For me, it came off as TellTale caring more to release the product without ensuring a proper experience. With the release of The Walking Dead: Season 3: A New Frontier, I’m beginning to think it was due to their prioritization of projects.
The game runs smoothly across the board, providing one of the smoothest experiences I’ve had in a long time with TellTale. Quicktime Events actually feel quick and responsive, framerate feels consistently steady, and there were no screen tears during my playthrough. More importantly, I didn’t have any freeze states that lead to corrupt save files!
Otherwise, the game plays just like any other TellTale experience: picking and choosing dialogue options within a certain amount of time, Quick Time Events during action sequences and point and click exploration. It’s a formula that remains successful and works for the type of story The Walking Dead: Season 3: A New Frontier is telling. The game’s focus is more on telling a compelling story and less on gameplay, allowing Ties That Bind Pt. 1 to shine.
Overall, Ties That Bind Pt. 1 is a solid but flawed introductory episode. It provides enough material to keep the story feeling more grounded and organic than its television counterpart. The story feels refreshing in providing small-scale conflicts that let the characters take control of the story. Bolstered by solid gameplay that isn’t plagued by TellTale’s normal technical pratfalls, Ties That Bind Pt 1 is a solid introduction into another experience fans of the series should dive into. It’s just a shame that TellTale forces Clementine into the game with a contrived explanation to weave her into the narrative.