There was a period after the success of The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead‘s first season where it looked like Telltale Games could do no wrong. The California-based studio was on a roll, and had figured out how to adapt the adventure game genre to something that was appealing to modern audiences. Fast forward a few short years and the developer have had diminishing returns. Their game engine has shown its age, fans have grown tired of simply having the veneer of meaningful choice, and Telltale desperately needs to deliver in order to keep the trust of the consumers they won over in 2012.
All of that pressure puts quite the burden upon the shoulders of The Walking Dead: A New Frontier. This new five part episodic series takes place after the events of The Walking Dead: Season Two, which saw protagonist Clementine grow from a kid into a capable survivor in her own right. It’s ostensibly the third season in everything other than the official title, but the name makes sense when the title’s new direction is shown.
A New Frontier opens with a young man named Javier running to reach his home in order to be there for the final moments of his ailing father’s life. He’s too late, however, as his brother David angrily greets him with a closed fist and asks how he could be so immature. Things quickly make a turn for the worst, as they often do in The Walking Dead, but not before the game introduces David’s family, which includes two children (Gabe and Mariana) and a new stepmother. Eventually, the family reunion ends as Javier and David split up (with Javier taking Kate and the kids in a van) in order to rush an injured family member to the hospital, but the groups seemingly never see each other as the game fast forwards to several years later.
One of Telltale’s strengths at storytelling has been getting players to immediately care about the characters on-screen. That really shines early on in A New Frontier, as it shows the new survivors as incredibly human figures. The stress of caring for two teenage kids during such a disaster has taken a toll on both Javier and his brother’s wife, Kate, who didn’t have time to grow comfortable being a stepmom by the time the outbreak occurred. They’re both trying their best, but they aren’t natural caretakers like Lee was in the first season and their immaturity regularly shows.
Naturally, the adults aren’t the only ones affected (and they have the advantage of being able to self-medicate with any marijuana they find) as Gabe, the oldest of the two siblings, regularly suffers from mood swings. Javi tries to dismiss it early on as simply being the side-effects of puberty, as he correctly points out that “the second you start getting boners the whole world starts getting dark.” This seems more like an attempt to set himself at ease than his actual thoughts, and Telltale seems to be planting the seeds of a larger issue that will surface down the line. The idea of dealing with mental illness isn’t something new to the series, as the recent spinoff Michonne dealt with it heavily, but I’m still very intrigued to see how it plays out here.
The first episode starts off relatively slow, as it has to establish a whole new cast, but the anticipation continues to build to when Clementine will appear. It’s no secret that the beloved character is back, and I found myself constantly guessing if I was finally on the scene where she would finally make her debut. It does eventually happen, and much to my surprise, this isn’t the same Clementine I had grown to know over the past two seasons.
Clementine, who was always the kind girl who always believed in the best of people even in the worst of circumstances is now a much more distant young adult. One that’s wary of everyone’s intentions because she’s been betrayed and seen what sort of reprehensible damage humans can unleash when they no longer have to resort to societal norms. The optimist in me likes to think that she still believes in the good of people deep down, but this first episode shows a far different side of her than I’ve seen previously.
Clementine is never truly playable in the first episode, but a flashback sequence does occur that stars the heroine, and takes into account what choices the player made in the past two seasons. I got to see a fitting end to the path I walked where I stuck with Kenny, and while it wasn’t exactly an ending I was thrilled with, I’m glad that Telltale didn’t ignore the difficult decisions that I had to make previously. I’m looking forward to what scenes other players saw by making different choices, but for now I’m happy with sticking to my game’s canon.
While A New Frontier impressed me with its storytelling, it doesn’t have very much to offer up from a gameplay perspective. This very much continues the route that Telltale has taken recently of crafting cinematic stories, and there were very few scenes where I actually had direct control over Javier and could walk him around environments. There were no puzzles at all in the first episode, and I’m hoping that I’ll have to do something other than make tough decisions later on. It’s fine for now, but I’ll be really disappointed if Telltale doesn’t show some growth in that area as well.
Overall, the first episode of The Walking Dead: A New Frontier is the strong start that the series desperately needed after the whiff that was The Walking Dead: Michonne. While nothing is new from a gameplay perspective, I’m already invested in the new characters that Telltale has introduced. I want to see Javi protect what’s left of his family, and I’m even more curious to find out what Clementine has been up to during all this time. So far, Ties That Bind has raised more questions than answers, but that’s exactly what it should be doing this early on.
This review is based on the Xbox One version, which we were provided with.
The first episode of The Walking Dead: A New Frontier is the strong start that the series desperately needed.