One criticism that Telltale has faced since their renaissance with The Walking Dead is that their games have become quite formulaic. There’s a lot of talking, some needless quick-time events and a helix story structure that only diverges based on your choices for a short period before following the intended plot. But even with those complaints, Telltale is very good at telling their story.
The problem is that when you release games episodically, there’s an expectation for the climax inside the episode and to build the “season”-long story at the same time. The first two episodes of Telltale’s Game of Thrones have been serviceable as their own episodes but they haven’t rushed to build a story going forward. With Episode Three: The Sword in the Darkness, Game of Thrones properly drives us forward in the season-long narrative.
Spoiler Alert: As per usual for our review of these episodic Telltale games, the details of the episode being reviewed will be kept as spoiler-free as practical. The details of previous episodes and the first 32 episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones TV show are fair game for discussion. And if you haven’t played the second episode, don’t read ahead because the fifth playable character, who I have yet to mention by name, will be revealed since we spend a lot of time with him this episode.
As seems to be the case with these Game of Thrones episodes, this episode also starts with an action sequence and calms down quite quickly into the standard listen intently before a random quick-time event or dialogue option. I know that’s the Telltale formula but I’m finding that it’s being better executed in other games. The Walking Dead (and the one episode of The Wolf Among Us I played) did it better. You felt like you were actually a part of the story or at least doing something that drove the story forward. Game of Thrones feels like there’s a story happening around you and you really don’t matter to the progression of the plot.
This week’s opening brawl started with Asher again, still on the run from those sellswords he and Beskha had a dustup with in the last episode. Once again, Asher storyline is complete B-movie awesomeness. There’s the chase into a dead-end, the hidden passage escape and the subsequent sword battle.
That part wasn’t bad. In fact, the two fight scenes in this episode were great. While they’re the usual click this circle and dodge this direction QTEs that we expect from Telltale, context can make a huge difference. This was blatantly a fight for the sake of fight. Asher’s scenes really seem like something out of an Indiana Jones movie rather than Game of Thrones. They’re action-packed, funny and generally fun.
The highlight is an encounter with a dragon (in which you have to choose to save one of your two travelling companions). While I know this is supposed to be the close encounters with a dragon scene that is supposed to make up for the lack of them in the TV show, I felt this was mostly shoehorned in. With Asher and Malcolm’s goal to find the Second Sons in Meereen, we already know which show story this is going to intersect with. It’s fan service for the sake of fan service rather than doing anything with some actual plot or character development.
At the risk of discounting the other two remaining protagonists, Gared was the other one with an interesting episode. We got more time with him than Asher but it’s still unfortunate that he and Asher are the two best characters with the two best stories but are getting the least time.
Still, Gared’s plot is far too similar to Jon Snow for my liking. He takes his Night’s Watch vows in front of a weirwood tree which is something that Jon did in Season One. Both Jon and Gared aren’t making friends in their early days at The Wall but somehow quickly make friends. There’s also the internal loyalty conflict between helping his House and serving as a brother of the Night’s Watch. We saw Jon go through that twice, really. There was Robb declaring war on King Joffrey for killing Ned and the perceived conflict between his loyalties to the Night’s Watch and his sympathies toward the Wildlings. In Gared’s case, there’s the draw to help House Forrester (which I think is your pre-determined path whether you like it or not) or serve with your brothers as a member of the Night’s Watch.
Gared gets the other big fight scene of the episode which ties back to Episode One. This one actually has a moral choice to go along with the standard QTEs for a Telltale action sequence. Like the first one, I think this one will probably work out to the same conclusion regardless of choice but it should give you a slightly different experience until the story threads converge.
One other thing worth mentioning is Gared actually taking his vows. Rather than playing out the scene in front of you, you have to click out the phrases in the oath to make Gared say them. That’s not particularly well explained until the other brothers get ahead of you so you’re half a line behind at the end. It’s just needless busy work to make sure you haven’t fallen asleep at your keyboard.
For the first two episodes of GoT, Mira’s contribution seemed like it had the potential to be the most interesting. A random handmaiden from the North serving the future Queen who was making trade deals with the Master of Coin while having to deal with the Queen Regent’s disapproval. It has all the hallmarks of a proper Game of Thrones storyline.
The problem is that this seemed to be the weakest of the four stories in this episode when it should be the best. It felt like this episode was mostly recaps of the previous episode. It seemed to be remember that time you met Cersei, remember what you said to Sera, remember your dealings with Tyrion, remember what happened at the end of the last episode. There didn’t feel like there was anything new until the Royal Wedding scene which was mostly interesting because it was a different perspective on a major event in the book/TV series.
Actually, of the four stories, Mira’s is the most “along for the ride.” It seems as though there’s actually no decision that can be made to make anyone happy. Apart from a final decision at the end of her part that may not matter in the grand scheme of things, the whole story seems like it wouldn’t play out any differently regardless of what you say.
Still, the various conversations Mira is in are full of tension and intrigue. While it’s not an interactive story, Mira’s story is very compelling just the same. Well, the dialogue portions of it are. There’s a good story in Mira’s part. Telltale needs to find where the game is in Mira’s tale.
And that brings us to not dead but probably wishing that he was Rodrik the Ruined, Lord of Ironrath and head of House Forrester. Unfortunately, his part in this episode seems almost like a retread of Episode One. No, he wasn’t in Episode One but I felt as though he just substituted for another character and we replayed the scenario in a different location at a different time. It’s not exactly compelling gaming.
But at least there is some forward progress from Team Ironrath. This episode shows the first tangible steps towards the Forresters striking back against the Whitehills. While the Forresters are still continuously getting beat down by everyone that crosses their path, there’s still a glimmer of hope in their eyes. Whether something comes of their optimism or whether it ends as it usually does for the “good guys” in Game of Thrones remains to be seen. At least this game hasn’t been as soul crushing as GoT proper has a tendency to be. Yet.
What may salvage Rodrik’s contribution to this series is the start of a mystery and a little political intrigue inside House Forrester. Should Telltale bring in a little mystery element that makes you work towards solving the mystery and punishes you with real consequences if you screw it up, this could be a fun little twist that would shore up Ironrath’s contribution to the game. If they keep you on rails like it seems that so much of the rest of the game is, all the potential this little twist has would be for naught. Unless they have a brilliant payoff planned for where this mystery goes, this needs to be a player-driven part of the story.
As Game of Thrones: ATGS reaches the halfway point, I can’t help but feel that Telltale is being a little heavy-handed with the browbeating of the main characters. With the exception of the squire and the exile, the proper Forrester characters have just been victimized at every turn and there’s barely a glimmer of hope that they can claw their way out of this situation.
Still, for all the frustration that I’m feeling about the story, it’s not a bad one being told. The problem is that gaming is an interactive medium and I feel as though I’m not really interacting with half of the story. It’s better than the last episode in terms of the plot but hopefully Episode Four adds a little interactivity to Mira and Rodrik’s stories. I’m feeling far too much like I’m along for the ride in those.
It’s funny, though. It feels like if you plucked the best parts of every character’s contributions to the game and combined it into a single cohesive whole, it will make for a great game. It’s just too bad it’s been split four ways.
Game of Thrones – Episode Three: The Sword in the Darkness was played on Windows PC but is also available for Mac OS X, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and iOS. 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 whether you think you’d be better off without an eye or a hand.