Telltale’s The Walking Dead has spun off into standalone stories twice inbetween seasons. The first, 400 Days, was a warm-up act for Season 2, spanning the stories of multiple new characters that would end up making appearances in later episodes, and the journeys they took to get to that point. The second was Michonne, telling the tragic backstory of one of the comic’s most mysterious characters. While these were both high quality games in their own right, there was something essential missing, something that had given the earlier seasons their unique spark, and the reason why so many people had swarmed to the game, growing to love it for all its brutality.
Simply put a Telltale Walking Dead game without Clem just doesn’t feel quite right. Over the past few years, the choices we made as unexpected protector Lee and the girl herself have shaped her into a hardened survivor, just as capable – if not more – of staying alive in a world gone mad as the adults that come in and out of her life. That’s why the choice to shift focus from the character that defined the series to newcomer Javier is so interesting. Clementine’s still around, making a dramatic entrance and establishing herself as a big character for the episodes yet to come, but she’s older. Scarred. When Javier meets her there’s no trace of Kenny, Jane, or baby AJ, much of what she was doing in the time that passed between seasons shrouded in mystery. As a lover of this series since the beginning, I think that this is the best possible choice they could have made – I’ll go more into that in a bit, but for now, let’s talk about Javier.
A disgraced athlete and all-around charmer, Javier’s story starts at the beginning of the outbreak, and in A New Frontier’s opening scenes we see how the end of the world breaks and reshapes his already complicated family life into a group of experienced survivors out on the road. Javier is a deep guy, very much the loveable fuck-up, staying ahead of a massive walker herd with his missing brother’s wife and kids. It all feels so very human – the kids hunker down in the back pretending to sleep while Javier and Kate drive and occasionally pass a joint. They drive, they pick up supplies when they can, and they back each other up. This being The Walking Dead the relatively happy family setup doesn’t last for long and what follows in the two episode premiere is quite simply some of the best storytelling the developers have produced throughout an illuminated career. Clementine’s new role as a secondary character is the truest representation of our choices shaping the story – she’s now an independent person and her outlook, bleak or hopeful, is the direct result of the decisions we made in the past.
Telltale want this game to be a new start, for long time fans or newbies who don’t necessarily want to play catch-up, implementing a story generator that allows you to answer a series of questions to determine what kind of survivor Clementine became. It works like a charm, enabling you to recreate your story so far and at the same time giving newcomers a brief overview of what brought us to this point. Someone who has never experienced a Telltale game before in their life could pick this up and enjoy it. Moving Clementine to the side whilst still telling her story opens the series up to infinite new pathways – including one where she doesn’t survive.
With season two having such a wide spread of endings and determinant characters – the ones who live or die based on story decisions – tying up those loose ends in a satisfactory way must have been a big challenge. Through flashbacks we’re shown what happened inbetween and while it certainly gets resolved it doesn’t quite satisfy, feeling a little rushed, and given that one of the potential characters in question has been with us from the very beginning, it would have been nice to see a little more time spent on it. Tying up all those possibilities in a way that pleased everyone and allowed the story to progress into this new frontier (sorry) would have been an impossible task, so perhaps ripping it off quick like a grimy bandage was the only way.
Nonetheless, the premiere is incredible. Telltale have spent years refining this formula, learning from their other projects, and distilling it all down into a masterful experience that has nowhere to go but up. New Frontier is a huge technical improvement over its predecessors – no more stuttering framerates in terse QTE segments or lagging conversations, all of that aiding the emotional rollercoaster as it speeds along to the messy conclusion. Episode 2 ends with a double gut punch of twists, setting up all the dominoes for a crash of titanic proportions. It’s hard to predict where the story’s going to go next, and very few things are certain as the credits roll. The Walking Dead has been building towards this massive conflux of storylines for a very long time, and after an extremely strong start, I’m confident this is going to be their best season yet.
Episodes 1&2 are now available for purchase on Xbox One, PS4, and Steam, with Android and App Store release dates yet to be announced. Visit Telltale’s website here to find out more about A New Frontier, the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy series, and the rest of their incredible back catalogue.