Just like the never-ending undead apocalypse, Telltale's The Walking Dead is becoming less stable as the seasons drag on. In Season 3, given the subtitle 'A New Frontier', the series begins to stumble under the ambitions of its creators. They're aiming higher, but their storytelling edifice, including the Telltale Engine itself, isn't always up to the task.
A New Frontier continues the established pattern offering a new protagonist for the season. This time around, you follow former baseball hopeful Javier Garcia. The first episode of five actually tries to anchor us in Javier's life before the zombie apocalypse, within the confines of his close-knit family. Everything goes horribly wrong because it's The Walking Dead, a series that lives in a constant state of death, pain, and despair. Javier is left as the steward and protector of his sister-in-law and her two children.
Jumping to the present day - which is a few years after the end of The Walking Dead Season 2 - the primary conflict takes on a larger scale, as the eponymous New Frontier tries to establish order. The militia group has control of Richmond, Virginia, using their might and position to enforce a tenuous and sometimes unjust order on the populace. When Javier's group of survivors ends up in New Frontier territory, the conflict with the militant group hits close to home. The season is a mix of the family dynamic and a larger political power play, the latter of which feeds into the overall scope of the game.
There's a few problems that pop up fairly early on. The first is one of expectation, not necessarily an issue with what Telltale Games is doing here. Clementine returns in a New Frontier, older and more capable, if not necessarily wiser. In the first season, you followed Lee as he took a young Clementine under his wing. In Season Two, Clementine was shown as a self-sufficient survivor with her interaction with Kenny illustrating the innocence she left behind. Here, the story is Javier's, but Clementine looms large.
I understand why the choice was made. The character of Clementine would eventually creak under the strain of incredulity if every season thrust her into the spotlight, as the focal point of every conflict. The story here is one that relies heavily on the interplay between Javier's family members to ground the overall war. Clementine is tangential to that and trying to force her into that role would feel out of character. (Her plot is about finding a bit of the trust and humanity that she's lost.)
The issue is she's always there, stealing the spotlight from the season's main thrust. She's driven and knows what's she's doing for the most part, but Clementine isn't supposed to be the point here. This divided focus between Clementine and Javier causes the overall experience to fracture a bit. The season ends with a hook that teases a renewed focus on Clementine again in the future, but if you're wanting to experience this story from her viewpoint, A New Frontier can be a disappointment.
The second issue is one of pacing. Given the increased scale of the proceedings, the story in A New Frontier jumps quickly from situation to situation. There are a number interesting characters that form the core of this season, but many are just grist for the mill. Worse, there are some solid potential subplots for the characters that aren't a member of Javier's family, but most of them aren't followed upon by time the season wraps up. It's a season where the character writing and voice acting has improved, but there's not enough room for those characters to breathe.
When it comes to Javier's family in particular, they're good characters, but half of the time I found myself wanting them all to die. (See: Kenny in both previous seasons.) Javier is a good protagonist; you feel sympathy for his trials and the normal life he's lost. But then you have the perennially-in-trouble sister-in-law, the angry brother, or his annoying nephew. (Javier's niece is cool!) Seriously y'all, leave this man alone. Go jump into a pack of zombies!
There are some good moments here, especially between Javier and Kate, his sister-in-law, but as I said, the pacing is a bit too quick. On top of that, some party members, like Javier's nephew Gabe, make some mystifying decisions in the name of forcing harsh consequences for player choices. I think another episode would've allowed a bit more time to explore other aspects of the family members instead of drilling down to their core points and traits. There's also some themes brought up that simply aren't addressed by the game.
As I said in my Guardians of the Galaxy review: Telltale, it's time to update that engine wholesale. You can tell that the creators are becoming more confident in how they want to tell the story. There are more distinct cuts, the camerawork is stronger, and even the quicktime events feel better here, probably on the back of work done in Batman: The Telltale Series.
Visually, the art style that Telltale uses looks great in stills and in certain situations. That said, the character animation still feels pretty wooden overall, with expressions that transition poorly or movement that feels like a janky puppet show. The backgrounds feel a bit sparse at times. Given that this engine is being used across so many series, I think it's time for Telltale to put in some R&D and spin up an all-new iteration for future projects.
As the last episode wraps up, Javier is left in a satisfying place, even if some of the family feels more like a cog to get him there. In the grand scheme of all three seasons, A New Frontier feels like a side story in Clementine's overall tale and Clementine is pushed towards the future with a more concrete goal. Despite that, I remain positive overall about A New Frontier.
Yes, the pacing was a bit off, some characters got the short shrift, and the technology that underpins all Telltale Games continues to struggle. But I appreciate the studio's desire to do more with The Walking Dead this time around and their storytelling methods are getting better, with some great character writing, voice acting, and camerawork. A New Frontier is an uneven experience, with highs consistently punctuated by various lows across all five episodes.
Telltale's The Walking Dead continues with its third season, A New Frontier, which shifts the story to a new character and a larger scope. Unfortunately, our new hero spends time fighting for the spotlight with series mainstay Clementine. In addition, the pacing is fairly fast, giving characters little room to breathe. Telltale reaches farther with this season, but stumbles in equal measure.