The Walking Dead – A New Frontier Review: Muerte
Telltale Games is an interesting enigma in double-A gaming. They’re too big to be your standard indie studio but not quite at that triple-A developer level in terms of the scope or quality of their games. They’ve found themselves a niche by making episodic, story-driven games. Their adaptations of The Walking Dead and Fables (as The Wolf Among Us) launched them into a prestige class above many triple-A developers. Everyone was beating down their doors to get them to make a game of their properties.
After The Walking Dead, Telltale made games based on Borderlands, Game of Thrones, Minecraft, Batman and Guardians of the Galaxy. The only problem is that Telltale has stretched themselves thin on both the creative and technical sides of their business. The Telltale Tool engine is suffering from regular performance problems while the writing quality has been sliding as more is heaped onto their writers’ plates.
The Walking Dead: A New Frontier, the third “season” in Telltale’s TWD saga, might just be a microcosm of the decline of Telltale over the course of just five episodes.
One of the main complaints about the second season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead series was how much agency Clementine had as a part of her group of survivors. She was the pivot point for decisions. She was involved in killing zombies and solving problems. Basically, Clementine was the leader of a group despite being all of ten-years-old and knowing those people for a couple of days. It didn’t work for most gamers.
To solve that in the third season, called A New Frontier, Telltale moved Clementine to a secondary role and created a new playable character with a new family and backstory for this adventure. It’s a good move for anyone who is new to the series or was incredibly put off by Clem being the main character. If you were fond of your previous two seasons’ of adventure and the story you crafted in them, you were probably left disappointed by TWD:ANF.
In A New Frontier, you play as Javier Garcia, an ex-baseball player who was banned for life for gambling on baseball and ends up broke. These facts are mentioned but that part of his fall from grace and these aspects of his personality are never delved into. In fact, Javier’s character could be described as charismatic jock who people see as a leader rather than his ex-military brother, David, who you would think would be far better suited to leadership in an apocalyptic event.
His introduction to the zombie apocalypse was a lot more interesting than Lee or Clem’s. Javi’s father died of cancer but didn’t. Instead, Javi was forced to kill his father after he reanimated, took a chunk out of his widow (for lack of a better term for the wife of a fresh zombie) and tried to chomp down on the rest of the family. The ensuing chaos sees the family separated as David and his mother head to the hospital but never come home while Javi was left waiting there with David’s (second) wife and his two kids.
If you can think of the standard / cliché / trope-ish story beats that you would find in your standard separated family story, you’re going to get it here. There is only one character death that I found surprising but that was done more for shock value. Every trope that you have seen in a Telltale game, including decisions never mattering because even a minor branching path is too much work for Telltale (and that includes Clem’s story between Seasons Two and Three), is present here.
I’ve said in the past that there’s nothing wrong with a predictable story. Story structure has worked for hundreds of years so a hero’s redemption and a villain getting their comeuppance is perfectly acceptable. While Telltale swerved with a couple of characters, only one of those made the story more interesting. There’s one betrayal that doesn’t make sense nor is it really explained and is only there so we get the big bad reveal to the townsfolk and get us to all the action set pieces that Telltale had planned for Episode Five.
It’s a shame because the first two episodes start so strong. It goes back to the well of relationships and family carrying the opening episodes (the first two episodes were released together) with some interesting set pieces and dramatic moments to draw the player in. After the introductory episodes, the clichés hit you in force and the story ceases to be as interesting.
In addition to the story being a letdown, most of the supporting characters were too. Other than Javi and Clementine, there weren’t many interesting characters. Javi’s sister-in-law I just played to that story trope because that’s all she’s really there for. Javi’s brother was just all over the place and, apart from one scene in Episode Five, he never seems to do anything that make sense with any sort of defined character he has or plans and aspirations that he voices to Javi. Clementine’s character is salvaged through flashbacks because she’d just be generically jaded and cynical about people without them.
On the plus side, as a one season arc, it’s a really good story for Javi. For as uninteresting or poorly developed as some of the supporting characters were, as pieces in a short arc, their stories are perfectly fine too. The downside is that the game felt too fast and too padded at the same time. The interesting characters come and go without much time given to their development while the story felt so clichéd at parts that you wish they’d move on to the next scene because you knew what would happen without needing to see it playout.
Telltale’s big problem is that there was no emotion or heart to any of the stories. The Lee and Clem story from Season One was one of the more beautiful and emotionally gripping stories told in video gaming. Season Two’s story was a little all over the place but at least we had the parallels between Kenny, Carver and Clem that I found a compelling character study. None of that was here. A New Frontier was so dull that it had the emotional depth of a dried puddle and suffers for that.
From a technical standpoint, it’s a Telltale game. The animations are stiff and seem to be getting worse in comparison to the rest of an industry that is always getting better. The visuals are fine but no better than previous seasons. There were a few framerate drops and loading takes an absolute ice age but the game didn’t crash or stutter as badly as Batman which is a plus. The quick time events are improved from previous TWD efforts which is probably thanks to the work done on QTEs for Batman.
Telltale also added in a new relationship summary screen at the end of the game. It’s an interesting little summary of your season that can’t be told in the decision summary screens but I feel as though it didn’t accurately reflect how I perceived relationships from playing the game. I haven’t read that assessment elsewhere so it could be a disconnect between me and the game rather than the summary screen and the writing.
By the way, your total play time will be around 7.5 hours which averages out at 90 minutes per episode. That’s close to half the length of the first season. I find it funny that I was reading complaints that the first episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm was too short at three hours long. If three hours is too short, what does that make TWD A New Frontier?
Telltale had a chance to breathe a little new life into their take on The Walking Dead by introducing new characters and a new story. However, it felt like Telltale took this approach because they were lost as to how to handle Clementine with a baby as the player character. It doesn’t help that you’re more interested in Clem if you played the last two seasons so you mentally push Javi to the side anyway.
Taken as a game on its own, A New Frontier is a serviceable story. That said, it’s the weakest of the three Clementine seasons and it doesn’t really add to her tale. The best thing you can say about it is that ANF charts a clear path forward for Clem into The Walking Dead: The Final Season.
The Walking Dead: A New Frontier was played on Windows PC but is also available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, iOS and Android. The review code for this game was provided by Telltale Games. Your impressions of the game may change depending on platform played on, PC specs and if you thought Clementine was perfectly fine as the player-character and protagonist of The Walking Dead: Season Two.