Reviewed on PlayStation 4
This review contains some light spoilers
In all my years of gaming, few stories have impacted me as much as that of TellTale’s The Walking Dead series. I remember back in 2012 when I first decided to buy the season pass for Season 1 and play through all of its episodes, my 7-year-old sister by my side. We were swept up into the life of Clementine and Lee, some of the most captivating protagonists in any video game; their bond was unlike anything I’d experienced before. In the second season, the two of us grew alongside Clementine. My sister now a little older, she saw Clem as an independent heroine in her own right, and I personally hung on every word as I made these life-changing decisions. Fast forward to present day, Season 3. The console may be new – I moved from an Xbox 360 to a PS4 thanks to the new cloud save function – but the tradition stayed the same: sister by my side, one episode at a time. I’m glad to say that with Season 3: A New Frontier, TellTale has begun a whole new ride for the two of us.
Episode 1: Ties That Bind – Part 1 introduces us to a brand-new character, Javi, an ex-baseball star who consistently struggles to connect with his family. Season 3 focuses on Javi and his story as the centerpiece, while Clementine is put on the back-burner for the time being. I was weary of Javi from the beginning; a neglectful Hispanic-American dude in his 20’s, with a proud past and a nonexistent future. He’s not exactly the poster child of “family values”, even with the tight-knit family he comes from. His naturally arrogant nature doesn’t portray him as very likable from the get-go. Not exactly the kind of guy whose shoes you’re willing to fill for 10 hours. I will note, however, that it is a very welcome addition to have some varied racial representation in games, and I loved the use of the term “muertos” instead of “zombies” or “walkers”. But Javi quickly grew on me, as did his family members Kate, Gabe, and Mariana, who he travels around with for years after the zombie outbreak.
Their relationship is a bit of an awkward one, with Javi always feeling on the outs with his niece and nephew, while having to deal with some sexual tension between him and his sister-in-law, Kate. There is a scene early on in the family’s van where certain choices can affect the way these family members treat you, but other than that there’s the backstory of these characters isn’t really explained. They’re just thrown together, which in a way fits with a stereotypical apocalypse situation, I suppose, but here it just seems random. Meeting a bunch of new people at once didn’t really work in Season 2, and it’s still a hassle this time around.
One of the most interesting characters this season, though, is David, Javi’s older brother. David always fights with Javi, and it’s caused some family issues in the past. Whether it’s based on jealousy or just an apparent lack of compassion for the family is unknown. However, there is a lot of allusion to the fact that David and Javi don’t get along, and Kate and David weren’t doing so well before the outbreak. Years later, David is not in the picture anymore, so we’re left wondering what happened there. But overall, I felt David could be an interesting antagonist, especially where Javi is concerned.
Along the way, Javi’s story takes him on a trip to the junkyard to search for gas, and it is here that the “adventure game” comes out in Season 3. This works as it has before in typical TellTale fashion, and it’s just as interesting as ever. You can freely control Javi, and search around for clues, talking to other characters along the way. I’ve always enjoyed the option of collecting materials for side missions, which can change outcomes later on. For example, at the junkyard I found some batteries, which I could then choose whether or not to give to Mariana for her cassette player at a later time. Having options like these is a nice added bonus, because it proves that even though the overall story may end up similar to the next guy’s, there are more opportunities for minor differences.
Aside from exploration, Season 3 also follows TellTale’s tried and true quick-time-event formula for action scenes. Fortunately, the Michonne miniseries implemented a new system for QTE’s, and Season 3 takes advantage of it as well. Button prompts appear closer to the action at hand, and each time they are pushed, it feels more impactful to the fight. In short, these quick-time-events don’t feel forced, and every blow feels like real gameplay, and not just thrown in. A swipe of a sword or the swing of a hammer no longer feels like you’re just following directions. It’s not a game; this is survival. If you mess up, you die. I appreciate this new style of quick-time-event combat, and it was a welcome addition to the Walking Dead series.
As I mentioned before, another great addition was the inclusion of the cloud save function. For years, I’ve played The Walking Dead on my Xbox 360, afraid to move on to a new console for fear of losing my progress. Personally, I feel starting all over is blasphemous, as this is my story and I’d never want to change the history I’ve created. Fortunately, with the new cloud save I was able to easily move my progress to my PS4. All it took was an update for Season 2, then connecting my TellTale account online, and moving it from one system to another. Another option is beginning again on a new system, but making some choices first. This option is especially helpful for newcomers to the series altogether. Players can choose their path by scrolling through every major choice from the past seasons, shaping their Clementine based on these decisions. This way everyone winds up on the same page, come Season 3.
Being on that same page is worth it, too, because Clementine is a beast this time around. It’s crazy to think she’s still the same little girl we raised in Season 1. Sure, she was a lot stronger and independent in Season 2, but in A New Frontier, Clem is just a total badass. Her “no fucks given” attitude is such a desperately needed thing in the apocalypse, especially alongside a character like Javi, whose life is just falling apart around him. She brings a certain behavior to the table that may come off as rude and standoffish at times but in the long run, her opinions — heavily influenced by what she’s seen in her short life — help out our new protagonists a lot, and you just can’t help but be proud of the girl you “created”. My only gripe is that your ending from Season 2 doesn’t hold up very well. Originally, I crafted my ending so that Season 3 could pick up from where I left off. Of course, with this I fell victim to the dreaded TellTale trap, where my choices don’t really shape the story, and all roads lead to a similar destination. For example, my Clem was denied entry to a town in the Season 2 finale, and she left with Kenny and baby AJ. In Ties That Bind – Part 1, I experienced a flashback with Kenny and AJ, but they’re no longer around in the present day. I look forward to finding out exactly what happened, and how my choices will impact the season, and thus Javi’s story. However, it would’ve been nice if more personal choices carried over, shaping my game further. It was a bit of a letdown.
Unfortunately, another letdown I had with Ties That Bind was the performance. This is a typical problem with TellTale games, as they always seem to run clunky, no matter what console they’re played on. I experienced some stuttering issues, and awkward pauses as my choices loaded different outcomes. Another thing I noticed was the disappointing facial expressions of the characters. It seems like the engine had a difficult time reading the emotions of each character, and there were many times where faces looked more animatronic than lifelike, which took me out of the already cartoonish environment. Fortunately, the zombies look as terrifying as ever. It’s just odd that they’re the high point, as they don’t count as characters, and zombies are quite secondary to the problems at hand.
Ties That Bind – Part 1 was a worthy introduction to The Walking Dead: Season 3. I thoroughly enjoyed Javi and his band of survivors as time went on, and look forward to their story in the next episode and beyond. Clementine is just as lovable as ever, and I’m intrigued by where her story will go next as well. It’s just a shame that my time with her before seems thrown to the side in favor of new protagonists. Just keeping a character around isn’t enough. She needs to be more integral to the plot already put in place. Until that happens, A New Frontier just misses the mark.