Telltale Games is the legendary developer that launched a new revolution in episodic gaming. The team has consistently outdone itself with the first two seasons of The Walking Dead (TWD) (adapted from the hit Skybound multimedia franchise) particularly when compared to the likes of the Batman, Game of Thrones, and Minecraft series. One could argue that TWD is the crown jewel of achievement for the team. Sure to further enhance the reputation of the series and the developer is the third season, dubbed A New Frontier, which outshines even the brightest parts of its predecessors in nearly every way, despite the nagging issues the series is known for still snapping at the heels of the five-episode season.
In keeping with the choice-driven nature of the previous seasons, A New Frontier provides players with two unique paths before beginning the two-episode debut: players can import their Season Two choices from a save file, or have a random set of choices from Season Two generated for newcomers to the adaptation. Season Three’s greatest asset is the choice-based system Telltale has refined to near-perfection. Every episode plays out across several sequences. Each sequence usually involves a series of dialogue and/or action choices (although silence or not choosing any action is often valid, too), and sometimes a few quick-time events requiring, (in the case of a PlayStation 4) quick button mashing or analog stick flicking to complete, as indicated by icons or figures on the screen as players encounter them.
The first two seasons heavily featured deuteragonist/protagonist Clementine, the orphaned little girl players were introduced to while controlling ex-convict Lee Everett in the chaos of the zombie apocalypse’s beginnings . Telltale shifted gears for A New Frontier, bringing in Javier Garcia as yet another original character. While players do still fill the shoes of Clementine throughout the season during brief flashbacks, Javier’s storyline features the brunt of difficult choices between what the character values and cares about the most: the family he is born into or the family formed by bonds and trust.
Over the course of five episodes, important, as well as seemingly-unimportant, choices do matter. What is said, not said, done, or not done, all factor into and shape Javier’s relationship with other characters, such as saying or doing something romantic rather than neutral/platonic. By a similar coin, action and dialogue choices can lead to deaths, whether intentional or not. Because choices in TWD, as in both the television show and comics, must be compelling and engaging, A New Frontier’s robust choice system is complimented by superb writing and narrative design. Without giving too much away, depending on player choices all the way to the jaw-droppingly beautiful season finale, the team’s careful thought and consideration into story, world-building, and lore-keeping is on full display. Hating the villain is more difficult this season than in previous ones, after taking into careful consideration the variables and circumstances with which they justify their actions. Season Three thus further bolsters the trend that the best interactive media provides consumers with scenarios that require careful thought and consideration, and are very emotionally-charged. By doing so, Telltale forces players to look deep within themselves and examine their moral compass, and though the player may justifiably believe that a game has no consequence, their choices reflect who they are.
Wrapping up all of these aforementioned elements in a nice bow is a sleek, unobtrusive user interface (UI). Much improved since the earlier seasons, the UI of A New Frontier boasts clearly-labelled button choices, as well as better in-game dialogue to help with making split-second decisions. Dragging a reticle around the screen gives the season, as in the previous two, a point-and-click mood and on a PS4, the PS3 original season’s R1 trigger button has regained the fire/grab/hit function. As important as gameplay is, however, audio and music are just as integral to an excellent game.
Compared to Season One’s awkward use of the resources, audio and music in Season Three are much like the second: more atmospheric and refined than the preceding season. An iconic signature of TWD is the much-maligned and foreboding zombie moan. Without a cast to give life to clever lines on a piece of paper, all they ever will be is words on a page, as was true of the original comics of the beloved franchise until television and video games came into the picture. That being said, hats everywhere deserve to be tipped to the entire cast. Melissa Hutchison, in particular, whose portrayal of the different stages of growing up for Clementine through voice alone, is invaluable in the character’s development and believability, as well as player engagement. Other than through voice acting, Clementine’s growth and progress is conveyed via the music of the saga, and the same concept still applies for this third season, and not only to her. Action, confrontation, elation/happiness, sadness, idle boring chitchat, as well as most of the rest of the range of emotions imaginable are conveyed throughout the game partially by music and songs. Diegetic sounds are well-done too, though lack any true punch. Gut-wrenching, squelching, footsteps, sighs, coughing (due to smoking, no less), laughing, gunshots, stabbing flesh, and many others are pretty much on-par with past seasons.
While music and story are both vital aspects of an excellent game, the goings-on of a scene are, first and foremost, conveyed by what is seen. If visuals fail to match up with the other elements, then players may become confused and less prone to understanding what is going on and why. After garnering the series much acclaim back in season one, A New Frontier once again brings back the gritty art style that the comic books are known for. Displaying particular improvement is the smoothness of the animation sequences where a character is either hit or hitting something. As is true of the past two seasons, Season Three allows for players to choose between standard or minimal display styles, which translates to whether on-screen icons appear to indicate interactive elements. Still present (and seemingly inevitable as a result of the Telltale Tool game engine) is the screen-tearing evident during certain cutscenes.
On a final note, despite the many good things about A New Frontier, the series contains a small yet noticeable number of glitches and bugs, including stability issues and characterization inconsistencies. Quite a few instances exist when what is done in a previous part of the scene or from past scenes is not consistently shown, such as a syringe not containing the liquid the character had drawn up in the previous few seconds. Lastly, despite taking an action that should have destroyed her trust in him, Clementine still winds up choosing to trust Javier following a major betrayal. This course of action seems out of step with the character past choices should have led her to become. Overall, these very minor flaws in the grand scheme of Season Three of Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead take little away from enjoying the game as a whole.
The strong choice-based interactive narrative, clever writing, comic-grungy art style, and haunting/setting-and-situation-appropriate music culminate in a masterpiece of a season worth every penny of the admission fee. Every choice and the consequences they have on each character, particularly Clementine, is laid out to players at the end of the season finale in a beautiful tribute to those lost, those still alive, and those still needing to be found that should not be missed. Telltale has truly embarked on a new frontier in the gaming industry with this remarkable third season.