The new season of Telltale’s video game based on The Walking Dead is the third to date, but it’s also designed in part to appeal to new players. It has a cast made up of mostly new characters — series star Clementine returns, but in a supporting role — and it takes place years after the events of season two. But even with some new faces and a change of scenery, the game still maintains what has made the series so memorable: a focus on making nearly impossible decisions under some of the most stressful circumstances imaginable. It’s tense in the best possible way.
Season three, dubbed “A New Frontier,” debuted yesterday with a double-episode premiere. It doesn’t waste time getting started, immediately throwing you into the tragic backstory of new lead Javier. During the earliest moments of the zombie outbreak, his sick father dies, only to come back and attack everyone. One of the first things you see Javier do is kill his own father to protect the rest of his family. Fast-forward a few years, and what remains of Javi’s large family is just him, his sister-in-law, and his young niece and nephew.
The group are constantly on the move, driving a beat-up van while avoiding a massive herd of the undead. Early on in the first episode, the quartet stop at a junkyard to scrounge for supplies and attempt to siphon some gas from wrecked cars. But it doesn’t take long before things go bad. Eventually Javi is separated from the group, and finds himself at the mercy of a group of what seem to be bandits. At one point he’s handcuffed in a forest with a large gun poking him in the back.
This setup works great, and avoids one of the problems with series like this, namely that they can get too caught up in their own history. This can make them impenetrable to new players, or even those who may have forgotten what happened previously. Over its first two episodes “A New Frontier” manages to both stand alone as its own story and build off of the previous seasons. Javi and his family are a fresh narrative start, while the sudden appearance of a much older, and significantly more badass, Clementine helps tie the story to the rest of the series. This means that it’s a great entry point for newcomers that doesn’t alienate existing fans. (You can also still import your choices from previous games to connect them even further.)
Even with all of these narrative changes, though, “A New Frontier” feels very much like past seasons of The Walking Dead, as well as any other Telltale game for that matter. The game plays out like an interactive drama. There are some light puzzles to solve, and action sequences in the form of button-mashing quick-time events. But the real meat of the game comes from its dialogue and choices. Often you’ll get to choose what Javi says, and several times in each episode you’ll have to make a big choice. These decisions influence how the story plays out. As in past seasons, these choices can be painfully difficult: sometimes you’ll have only a few seconds to decide if someone lives or dies. You’re regularly thrust into lose / lose situations.
What made this formula work in past seasons was the characters. You were often overwhelmed with horrible situations, but characters like Clem and her one-time guardian Lee made you want to push forward to try to get them to safety. That feeling still remains for me in “A New Frontier,” even with the new faces. Though obviously troubled, Javi is a likable lead, one who tries to make the best out of an awful situation. He’s reminiscent of Lee from season one. I’ve only spent a few hours with these characters, but I already feel a strong attachment — which made the inevitable shocking death sequence hit very hard. The Walking Dead has never been afraid to kill off characters, and that hasn’t changed for season three.
And even though she plays a more supporting role this time around (she’s only playable in brief flashback sequences), Clem is easily the highlight of the two-part premiere. On the surface she’s cold and detached — if you’ve played the previous seasons, you’ll of course understand why — and even a little scary. Despite being a young kid, she dispatches zombies with brutal efficiency, and doesn’t back down when armed goons screw her on a deal. She’s the kind of person who can say something like “I already dug a grave” while maintaining a stone-cold glare.
Telltale’s formula may not have changed much since the first season of The Walking Dead debuted, but it still works when coupled with the right story. There are some issues — moments where what Javi says doesn’t really match the dialogue choice, or the multiple ill-conceived shooting sequences. But two episodes in, and “A New Frontier” has that same stressful-yet-addictive quality that made the series such a hit in the first place. The choices are as hard as ever, and I already feel pangs of regret because of the decisions I’ve made. The episodes also tease plenty of secrets, including a mysterious new group and a shocking reveal to close out episode two. The season is off to a strong start, and it looks to be going to some dark and fascinating places.
The faces may be different, but the zombie apocalypse never really changes.
The first two episodes of Telltale’s The Walking Dead “A New Frontier” are available now on PC, Xbox One, and PS4.