Telltale's Walking Dead Games Find New, Perplexing Form with A New Frontier

Games Reviews The Walking Dead
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Telltale's Walking Dead Games Find New, Perplexing Form with <i>A New Frontier</i>

The Walking Dead: A New Frontier is the latest game in Telltale’s Walking Dead franchise, a videogame spinoff series of the popular comic book and television show. While it isn’t labeled as such, A New Frontier is the third “season” of these Walking Dead games, and as such it is resting on a lineage of these adaptations that stretches back to the critical success of their first foray into this universe in 2012.

I enjoyed that first season a lot. It was a smart, interesting version of a zombie story that kept its focus on human life against a backdrop of a complete breakdown of society. The second season wasn’t for me, and I ended my review of that game by suggesting the unthinkable: This formula in this particular game form might have only worked one time. It might be impossible to capture the magic in successive sequels. Enter the first two episodes of The New Frontier, the third go around for The Walking Dead narrative within the framework of the Telltale game (technically their fourth Walking Dead game, though, after last year’s Michonne prequel).

I’ll say it plainly: I have no idea what these games are any more. It’s a real terminological problem. When I play an NHL game, I can tell you that it is a sports game emulating the real-world practice of a sport. When I play The Witcher 3, it’s clear that I am in the realm of the action role-playing game. The strength of the first season of The Walking Dead game series was that it so neatly and efficiently paired a more cinematic storytelling experience with dynamic camera angles and long dialogue segments with the more traditional model of the adventure game. It was grindy and clunky having to find batteries or sneak around without making a sound, but it also made everything feel nontrivial. I had skin in the game to keep Lee from getting chomped on by a zombo. I had to do things.

A New Frontier has a lot of things that are good about it. It’s set a fair few years after the breakout of the zombie apocalypse, and it centers on a disgraced, Pete Rose-esque baseball player named Javi and his family. This game plays with time a bit more than the previous ones did, and we’re given multiple flashbacks to the time when the dead began to do their walking. Javi’s father died, came back as a zombie, and things sort of spiraled from there. In the present period, Javi is trying to keep his niece, nephew and sister-in-law just ahead of a giant herd of zombies. They come upon a garage, get out of the car, and try to find gas. Things go bad.

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In the first episode, I think there are two moments total when I was not locked into the game’s cinematic camera. And that’s fine, I guess, but this is what I meant when I said that I don’t know what these games are now. There was a time when they were well-made adventure games with a smattering of not-too-hard puzzles. The second season abandoned that a little in order to amp up the psychological tension, and that was fine; it leaned more cinematic, more horror film, and trading some of the puzzle elements for that seemed like a decent value proposition.

A New Frontier is close to abandoning any kind of traditional adventure game form. It’s basically an interactive movie where the gameplay is centered on the player as an actor: how do you want to play Javi? Is he a complete asshole or a wormy sadsack? Is he mean to the kids? Does he threaten people? Within those parameters, the game is brilliant. The game’s writers have done a great job of honing Javi as a character, and each choice feels organic to his entire being. It’s an accomplishment to make all of those different emotional registers ring true.

I don’t have a problem with these games morphing into something else, but it also means that I begin to evaluate them differently. I have different expectations of how games tell stories, what I want them to do for me, and over how long. Like television shows, games have the benefit of the slow burn. The first two seasons of The Walking Dead were successful at what they were attempting to do because they had the dull space of adventure game puzzle time to get you into these characters. You could wander and talk. You could get a feel for who Lee and/or Clementine were at that point in time.

In trying to be more like a movie, A New Frontier abandons most of that downtime in favor of constant action and development (some choice GIFs here and here if you’re interested). It also means that I begin to compare it with a movie instead of another game. Would I be better off just watching a zombie film for two hours? It’s not something I think about when playing through The Last of Us, but the closeness of A New Frontier to these other media formats brings forth comparisons that might not be in the game’s favor.

However, that’s something to see for the entire season. I can say that this season is much less emotionally manipulative than the last (although there’s a moment that is par for the course in that regard late in the first episode). Clementine, a key character from the first two games, also has a massive presence here, but in these first two episodes she recedes into the background a little more than I thought she would. Ultimately, these first couple episodes show a promising beginning, and I’m excited to check out the rest of the season when it appears.

The Walking Dead: A New Frontier Episodes 1 and 2 were developed and published by Telltale Games. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Mac, iOS and Android.

Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.