Review: The Walking Dead: A New Frontier (Sony PlayStation 4)

The Walking Dead: A New Frontier
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Genre: Interactive Drama
Release Date: 05/30/2017
(First episode was released on 12/30/2016)

This latest season of Telltale’s flagship series takes a few key changes in direction. While Clementine, the series’ star, is present, she’s not the main character. Another interesting change was that the first two episodes were released simultaneously, and thus felt like one larger episode when played together. It also fusses with the formula a bit to try and answer some of its most ardent criticisms. It’s nice that Telltale is at least admitting that having you choose to spare or kill someone only to have them die five minutes later anyway is a bit silly.

Anyway, let’s see how this latest season pans out.

This third season is all about former baseball player Javier Garcia, or Javi for short. At the start of the zombie apocalypse (I’m sorry. WALKER), Javi found himself having to go on the run with his sister in-law as well as his brother’s kids. Years later, the group finds themselves on the run from a massive herd of walkers and short of supplies. Javi ends up having to navigate between a handful of opposing forces. First up is Clementine, now slightly older and on her own. Next up is a peaceful town called Prescott and its inhabitants. Finally, and most importantly, is an organization called New Frontier. Things get rocky between Javi’s people and the New Frontier almost immediately. Snap judgments are made, bodies start piling up, and the familiar tone of misery and horror settles in for the long haul.

What really makes this season tick is the connections between the core cast of characters. In particular, this season has a large group that ends up surviving at least until the final episode. That allows stories and character development to play out to a proper conclusion, rather than being rushed to create a “shocking” moment. It makes your decision making feel more informed than ever. If a fight between characters has been slowly building over the course of an entire season, you’re more likely to be able to have a feeling of how you should react than if the two characters had just met. The season finale feels like a proper culmination of a series of stories, rather than a random cluster of action sequences.

As for the characters, they’re mostly well done. Javi feels like a genuine person trying to do the right thing. He wants to protect his family and do right by others, but finds himself consistently caught between two opposing forces. Clementine also comes across as a bit more human this time around, now that she isn’t the point-of-view character. What’s interesting is that some of her actions are based on decisions in the previous games, although don’t get too excited by that prospect. She doesn’t act too differently, apart from one key scene at the end of the game. One character that will surely be polarizing is Gabe. Gabe is Javi’s teenage nephew, and has been fairly well sheltered from the horrors of the walker-infested world. This allows him to get away with being moody, rude, and annoying. It feels like a realistic character, but it also makes him more difficult to care about. There’s also a romance angle between him and Clementine, which could create some cognitive dissonance for players who view “their” Clementine in a certain light.

On the whole, this is a solid story. Some of the bigger plot points are rehashed from the earlier games, and some of the typical TWD problems still exist. You still have to do the whole “does person X or Y die here?” decision. Shortly thereafter, whichever character you saved dies anyway. The fourth episode is also too short, too uneventful, and nothing more than a prop for the finale. If you were hoping for a satisfying segue between season two and three, you’re going to be let down. Moving over to Javi as the main character allowed Telltale to settle the discrepancies in passing. There are a couple of flashback scenes that fill in the gaps of what happened to Jane, Kenny, and/or AJ, but it still feels glossed over. At least with this game, it’s clear that Javi and company will probably not be around for the next season, allowing this conclusion to feel a bit more secure. Clementine ends up on the same path no matter what ending you get, and the game promises her eventual return. Still though, the story works thanks to the Garcia family, and how the various plot strings tie together. The lack of rushed conclusions here really helps the game feel more satisfying.

Visually, this game feels like it’s had a serious upgrade over previous entries. Character models are more detailed, animations are more fluid, and the performance is pretty consistent from start to finish. That’s not to say there isn’t any stuttering or framerate crashes, but they’re far less common than before. The art style is still quite solid. It’s attempt to make 3D models based off of comic book designs is really starting to pay off, and it gives the game a unique feel. There’s still room for improvement, but we’re getting there.

Audio has rarely been a problem with Telltale games, apart from some technical issues. The same holds true here. The voice acting is pretty stellar from top to bottom. There’s plenty of range for emotion here as the story rises and falls, so it isn’t all screams and yelling. Javi in particular is a fantastic addition to the cast, and helps carry the season from start to finish solely on the strength of his performance. Music and effects are what you’ve come to expect. It’s mostly moody tones that help sell depression and zombie snarls. It’s fine, even if it only works as world-building stuff. You won’t be humming any of the songs in the shower.

New Frontier doesn’t stray from the path of season two when it comes to gameplay. For the most part, you’re on a straight forward ride. You watch scenes play out and make your choices when they pop up. Typically, you’ll have four different dialogue options, as well as the option to stay silent. This will effect what the immediate response will be from the person you’re talking to, and potentially change the tone of the conversation. However, it will almost never change the course of the story in any meaningful way. Occasionally, you’ll have a big choice to make. This can be whether or not to shoot someone, who to save, or who to trust in a tense situation. Once again, you’ll just press a button that corresponds to your choice, and the story will largely play out the same regardless. It can futz with specific scenes and dialogue branches though. It’s more about going through your own journey rather than affecting the outcome.

During action sequences, the game becomes a series of quick-time events. You’ve seen these before, and know what to do. You either swipe the analog stick in a certain direction, tap a button, or mash a button. If you fail a QTE, you typically get a gruesome death scene followed by a game over screen. You’ll restart shortly before your failure and get to try again. It fails to be horribly exciting, but it is functional and is done well enough that the action on screen isn’t obscured by button prompts.

If you were hoping for a return to more traditional adventure game mechanics, prepare to be disappointed. While there are a couple of sequences where you can freely walk about, moving forward is typically all about clicking on the right prompt. There are no puzzles in this game, and very little in terms of optional lore discovered via exploration. There is no inventory management to speak of. For better or worse, the franchise is set on the interactive drama path.

Short Attention Span Summary

A New Frontier ends up being an enjoyable continuation of The Walking Dead. It’s focus on new characters and their relationships helps keep the game from feeling like a one-girl show where anyone who isn’t Clementine suffers a brutal death eventually. However, it still manages to advance her character in meaningful ways while building up to the inevitable fourth season. It all ties together in an interesting finale with a variety of outcomes that feel natural based on how things have progressed. If you’ve enjoyed the series up until now, chances are you’ll enjoy this entry. If you’ve fallen off the hype train, this won’t get you back on course, but it might keep you from abandoning all hope.



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