Telltale Games kicks off the third season of its Walking Dead series by introducing a fresh cast of new characters–a logical start for a season dubbed “A New Frontier.” The story’s lens shifts focus across the country to peer into the lives of a struggling family, rather than the exploits of downtrodden survivors. Yet even with all of these changes and scant undead creeps, A New Frontier’s premier episode will feel familiar to fans of the series. Episode one establishes a heady moral stew loaded with hard choices and heartbreak, and is one of the best additions to the series since it began in 2012.
A New Frontier diverges from its two preceding seasons rather dramatically at times, rolling the clock back to the initial zombie outbreak. Here we are introduced to the Garcia family, located on the West Coast. Javier (Javy to his friends) is the new lead–a likable twentysomething and the black sheep of his family. In the opening scene, Javy races to his brother’s house to see their terminally ill father before he dies. But traffic, due to the outbreak, stops him dead in his tracks. When he finally arrives, he’s too late. Emotionally spent, Javy’s brother David punches him in the face, followed by smack from his newly widowed mother. Once again, in their eyes, Javy failed to be there for his family when they needed him the most.
Where the first two seasons of the walking dead were mostly about forming familial ties with strangers you meet along the way, here we’re dropped into the middle of a traditional family with preexisting issues; stepmom immediately whips out a joint to relieve the tension of life on the run. There’s illicit yet unspoken romance, hatred between family members, and ghosts of past transgressions lurking beneath the surface. Telltale has come a long way from the melodrama of past seasons, which revolved around the too-often-hysterical Kenny. In A New Frontier, Javy, Kate, Gabe, and Marianna are completely authentic in the way that they act and talk among each other, drawing you into their plight and earning much-deserved empathy.
Like its predecessors, this is an adventure that calls for casual interaction with only a few rudimentary puzzles to solve along the way. Nothing here is wildly challenging–although the quick-time-event combat scenarios do seem a bit more involved than in the past. The meat of the game remains the tremendous dialogue and the sheer number of choices that need to be made when deciding upon a course of action. The plot changes depending on what you do, which can have ramifications on everything from what somebody thinks of you, to who lives and who dies. This pumps up the replay value, with different outcomes motivating you to replay the two-hour story and reconfigure your choices.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Walking Dead game without Clementine. The ballcap-wearing heroine of the first two seasons is back, a little more grown-up and much more of a badass than she was at the end of Season Two. Flashbacks reveal pieces of what she’s been through in the interim, and it isn’t pretty. As a result, Clem now totes a combat shotgun, and her character has become something of a mystery, who may or may not be trustworthy. This is a gutsy direction in which to take a character who, up until now, has been the stainless moral center of the bleak Walking Dead world.
Season three supports saves from previous seasons across various platforms, so you can port in your past progress–and Clementine’s–no matter how you played Season Two. If you misplaced your old saves, however, the “Continue Your Story” option lets you custom-craft Clementine’s personality through a series of questions related to the first two seasons’ events. No matter how you go about it, when you choose to continue the saga, and you get flashbacks to Lee, Kenny, and the rest of the gang. Start an all-new game, and you get more generic flashbacks to Clem’s life on the road.
While the game continues with the graphic-novel style of the visuals, they’re not as bound to the comics as they seemed to be in the past. Scenes are set with more cinematic flair, with dramatic camera angles and evocative lighting setting the mood. The earlier games Walking Dead games from Telltale looked great in their own right, but this episode takes things to a higher level, exemplified when you see the Garcias’ van speeding down a road under eerie moonlight, and when Javy rides on horseback to rescue his family as the sun rises over a run-down auto yard.
Telltale has crafted another entertaining chapter in the always-growing Walking Dead story. The Ties That Bind Part I takes the series in a welcome new direction with the Garcia family while still staying true to the moral dilemmas and zombie-chomping action that made the first two seasons so compelling. The New Frontier is off to a great start, and its troubled cast’s harrowing journey is just getting started.