The Expanse: A Telltale Series is a positive step in the right direction for the newly reconsecrated developer, capturing the essence of what made its initial efforts so successful in the first place. It's sharp, well-paced interactive media that delivers on the expected premise, telling an original story set in an established universe in that signature Telltale style.
Partnering with Deck Nine (Life Is Strange: True Colours) for this five-episode sci-fi adaptation, the story moves at a steady clip, and it's full of the kind of twists, gut-wrenching decisions, and immediate regrets you'd expect. Compared to the relatively stiff The Walking Dead: The Final Season, the shift to a full third-person perspective feels like a massive upgrade, and the extensive and detailed environments truly feel like (and are) spaces worth exploring.
While you don't necessarily need to be a fan of the original James S.A. Corey novel series or the popular Syfy TV adaptation, it would certainly enhance the experience. Telltale's game is a prequel that comprises a self-contained origin story for Camina Drummer, portrayed by Cara Gee in both the TV and Telltale iterations. In the latter's earlier timeline, Drummer is XO aboard the starship Artemis, second-in-command of a crew that makes a living scavenging wrecked ships in the uncharted edges of The Belt, the expansive asteroid field between Mars and Jupiter.
This necessitates zero-g exploration in the hard vacuum of space, where a surprising amount of the player's time will be spent, along with the expected interactive cutscenes. These sections feel good to poke around in, listening to the banter between the various oddballs who make up The Artemis' complement. There is some light puzzle-solving to be had, but nothing that bogs down the experience. Interacting with objects rewards players with expanded lore through recordings, propaganda, and in-universe texts.
Much of the tension in The Expanse comes from the economic disparity in the year 2347, exacerbated by humanity's first tentative steps to colonise our local Solar System. Inners, or "Inyas" (residents of the Inner System settlements of Earth, Mars and Luna), dominate space-born residents of The Belt, or "Belters", an oppressed class and source of cheap labour for the many and dangerous tasks involved in space travel.
It's a narratively rich universe, and the situation aboard The Artemis is explosive right from the outset, with things quickly turning catastrophic from the first episode alone. The Expanse is full of colourful Belter slang, and the hard sci-fi nature of the setting combines to make the subject universe a believable one. Across the five hours it'll take to see Drummer's grim origin story through to the bitter end, she'll face bloody mutiny, ruthless pirates, and the enormous dangers of interstellar travel, from the profound to the mundane.
A Telltale title lives and dies by its cast of characters, and the crew of the Artemis are an eclectic bunch. As the majority will live or die depending on the actions taken during specific segments, these moments feel appropriately impactful, and a couple of genuine gut-punches await the unwary. Much has been written about the illusion of choice in Telltale's previous outings, and that adage remains true here; events can be changed, even altered radically, but essentially reach the same expected endpoint, but that never stops the marquee moments themselves from being impactful.
The lazy, alcoholic captain of The Artemis, Cox, drives the initial conflict aboard the ship, capably piloted by the cantankerous Khan Tran, whose gruff exterior belies a heart of gold. Maya Costilla is a former Martian marine who revels in the freedom found outside the aggressive culture of her home world, which she occasionally still gets homesick for. Virgil is the ship's medic; mild-mannered and well-educated, his origin is relatively obscure. Finally, twin brothers and the only Belters onboard (aside from Drummer), Arlen and Rayel, are likeable goofballs who harbour some simmering societal resentments.
What was supposed to be a simple job becomes increasingly complex as a chance discovery draws overwhelming attention from various factions with competing interests. We played through the entire thing in two breezy sittings, helped considerably by the upgraded animations and character manoeuvrability, which is something the series has been screaming out for. The presentation is consistently excellent, so much so that we're cautiously getting our hopes up for Telltale's next, The Wolf Among Us 2.
Where The Expanse falls a little flat, then, is more through format than fault. Telltale's The Walking Dead was released in 2012, and even back then, quick-time events and binary dialogue choices were starting to wear out their welcome (Heavy Rain was released in 2010, for context). While a fun way to experience a story, there just isn't much here, mechanically, you haven't seen before. The added exploratory elements are welcome, but the series' appeal has always been its interactive cutscenes and the illusion of influencing grander events. It makes sense for the setting, but we hope an expansion of the narrative aspect of these games will be explored in the future.
Some genuinely gripping sections, ranging from up-close-and-personal body horror to ship-to-ship combat sequences, put pressure on the player and force a reaction. The consequences are predictably dramatic in the moment but ultimately boil down to pushing well-signalled buttons when prompted inside a generous reaction window. Your mileage may vary regarding that gameplay style, but for fans of The Expanse or the glory days of Telltale Games, buckle in for a hell of a ride.
The Expanse: A Telltale Series retains what made the earlier games such a success, for better or worse, and smuggles in upgraded visuals and a tight, well-told story. It's still classic Telltale at its core, but if you weren't a fan of those earlier games, this bold new direction isn't likely to make you a believer.