The first season of Telltale Games' comic book adaptation The Walking Dead propelled the episodic developer to superstardom; Lee's poignant tale of life after the apocalypse was lavished with end-of-year awards, and is looked upon fondly some four or so years after its original release – despite a laundry list of mechanical and technical foibles to its name. The follow-up series, which starred youngster Clementine in the lead role, received much less critical fawning, however – a shining example of second season syndrome perhaps, as the story was arguably just as strong.
A New Frontier sees the Californian developer returning to the undead infested well for a third time, this time with former baseball star Javier Garcia assuming protagonist duties. Make no mistake, despite the introduction of a new cast – an older, tougher Clem does reprise her role midway through the first instalment – this is a Walking Dead title through and through; you'll be making dialogue decisions in order to further the plot, and participating in schlocky quick-time events to stay alive.
The developer is getting better at directing its games, though. No more is this evident than in the opening exchanges of Ties That Bind (Part One), which actually takes place before the fall of mankind. It's only a short sequence in the grand scheme of things, but the developer hurriedly introduces several key characters, before ripping an already tense family scenario into tiny shreds. It very quickly hooks you into the story of several new cast members, and it looks the part to boot.
Indeed, despite the stick that the studio gets for its creaky engine, it is definitely improving. Environments are much busier and more detailed than they've ever been – a junkyard and city setting are highlights – but it loses its lustre when characters animate. Facial expressions are getting more nuanced, but it can pull you out of the experience when someone breaks into a dodgy sprint or even reaches to pick up an object; these are the limitations of episodic games, we suppose.
It's a good instalment, though. There are a couple of story beats that seem a little too accelerated to make sense – one character inexplicably leaps to your aid after a minute-long exchange, though perhaps her motives will be better explained later on in the season – and the exploration of Clem's backstory seems a little phoned in, but the new characters are strong, and the writing continues to push into challenging directions, like pregnancy and the use of recreational drugs.
The episode concludes strongly, too: a brief moment of respite ruined by the actions of angry and panicked humans. It all sets up a very strong season, with the self-contained arc of Ties That Bind actually split into two parts in order to accommodate all of the exposure. We'll be reviewing Part Two imminently, so do look out for that if you want to know whether the plot builds upon its strong starting point.
The Walking Dead: A New Frontier – Episode 1: Ties That Bind (Part One)'s title may appear to promise something wholly original, but this is the same old episodic adventure that you're already familiar with. That's no bad thing, though, as Telltale appears to be on top form with this third series, setting up a compelling new cast of characters while re-introducing the most important of them all: Clementine. The same old quirks remain, but you should know by now whether the engine issues or lack of player agency will affect your enjoyment. If you're comfortable with the usual shortcomings, then this is a strong start to what promises to be another compelling season.