Telltale Games has built a small stronghold in one corner of the gaming industry, largely on the back of one style of game. The studio began making games in the style of classic Lucasarts adventures, but in 2011 it began a transition towards something else. The "Telltale Series" is built on a format that resembles the Japanese visual novel, given a Western spin and an episodic release schedule. Telltale has done so well with the format that it's even been picked up by other studios, notably the successful release of Life is Strange from Dontnod Entertainment.
Like the other "TT Games", Telltale has stumbled onto a solid and malleable formula that can be used for a wide variety of properties. Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series, launching next week on April 18, marks the tenth game done in the Telltale house style since Jurassic Park's release.
I have had the pleasure (and the pain) of having played every single one Telltale Series title. Given that and my superior taste, I feel it's time to rank every one of the Telltale adventure games. Well, not all of them. Only the ones in the current Telltale house style, meaning games like Puzzle Agent, Back to the Future, and Tales of Monkey Island aren't included on this list. In addition, The Walking Dead: New Frontier isn't included because the series isn't done yet. Without further ado, let's kick this list off.
9. Jurassic Park
- First Episode: November 15, 2011
The Premise: We're kicking off the list with the worst of the Telltale titles, but also the one that paved the way for everything that came after. Jurassic Park: The Game was a licensed project with Universal Studios, taking place during and a short time after the plot of the first film.
You step into the shoes a few different groups during the original disaster of the park, with your primary characters being Gerry Harding, father of The Lost World: Jurassic Park protagonist Sarah Harding, scientist Dr. Laura Sorkin, and InGen mercenary Billy Yoder. Jumping from character to character, players try to survive the park and get at the core of what happened.
The Take: What happened was a really bad game. It's impressive that this became Telltale's template moving forward because this game was bad from the word go. The characters in Jurassic Park are all rather forgettable and the plot isn't compelling. This is a problem, because the gameplay in the Telltale house style isn't all that engaging, comprised mostly walking around, solving simple puzzles, and quick time events. Everything hangs completely of having an enjoyable, charismatic cast and a grand adventure to go on. Jurassic Park has none of that, living on the fringes of a much better film.
8. The Walking Dead: Michonne
- First Episode: February 23, 2016
The Premise: This is one of the shorter Telltale adventure games, coming in at only three episodes. The Walking Dead: Michonne is a side story to the comic. Players follow fan-favorite character Michonne after she leaves Rick Grimes' group in issue 126 of the comic. It was originally planned as downloadable content for The Walking Dead: Season 2, but eventually it was decided to release it as a standalone game.
The Take: Let me just say that the gulf between Jurassic Park and The Walking Dead: Michonne is wide. The issue here is one of space. With only three episodes, Telltale didn't really have time to establish a strong story.
Michonne herself carried forward her strong characterization from the comics with a great portrayal by Orange Is The New Black's Samira Wiley, but the rest of the cast is just okay. The plot is rather predictable and since there's not a lot of room given, the illusion of choice present in other Telltale Games falters here. Add in the technical glitches and Michonne was more of a misstep than a failure.
7. Minecraft: Story Mode
- First Episode: October 13, 2015
The Premise: Based on the worldwide hit Minecraft, Minecraft: Story Mode is probably Telltale's most family-friendly adventure game. Players can choose a male or female character named Jesse and seek to save the world from the oncoming Wither Storm by reuniting the Order of the Stone. Unfortunately, the legendary heroes don't really like each other anymore, leaving Jesse and friends to travel across the world to bring them back together.
The Take: I really like Minecraft: Story Mode, being that it's one of the lighter and more fun games in the Telltale slate. It feels like the Lucasarts-style releases, including Tales of Monkey Island and Back to the Future. Unfortunately, the lighter tone comes with a pretty straightforward and kid-friendly story that won't surprised anyone over the age of 10.
There was also a significant pacing and release issue with Minecraft: Story Mode. There were a total of eight episodes, but only five are part of the main story, with another three coming as downloadable content. The main story episodes offered a solid release cadence of one per month, but some were real quick in playtime while others felt much longer. The downloadable content episodes also feel a bit extraneous, focusing first on Minecraft fan service and then on revisiting the events and themes from the original five episodes. Then the whole thing just ends without a satisfying conclusion. It feels like Telltale just didn't know where to go next.
6. Game of Thrones
- First Episode: December 2, 2014
The Premise: At the height of Game of Thrones' popularity, Telltale Games offered up a six-episode adventure based on the television adaptation of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels. Since the story is led by the TV show, the Telltale Games' release focuses on House Forrester, one of the noble houses under the Stark banner. The game takes place after the Red Wedding, as members of the House Forrester attempt to navigate the eponymous game of thrones and survive. As an added bonus, the story benefited from the consulting of Martin's personal assistant and the cast from the TV show chipped in to play their characters.
The Take: Part of the problem with Game of Thrones can't be seen in isolation from its overall release schedule. While the first episode launched in December 2014, the sixth and final episode didn't drop until November 2015, with two to three months in-between some episodes. The first few episodes took some time to really get started, so combined with the release schedule, Game of Thrones was off to a rocky start.
I'd actually say this is one of the more ambitious attempts by Telltale Games, with the choices feeling real meaty and meaningful up until the last episode. Unfortunately, it doesn't help that the Forresters feel a bit like the Starks warmed over. The conclusion to the season was less than satisfying and there are some glaring questions - what's up with the North Grove, for example - that can leave players scratching their heads. Given that a second season is coming, perhaps Telltale can build on the solid base shown here.
5. The Walking Dead Season 2
- First Episode: December 17, 2013
The Premise: Picking up some years after The Walking Dead: Season One, Clementine is now a teenager surviving on her own. Clementine has to make her way across a harsh, unforgiving zombie apocalypse. She's attached to a cast of survivors who do their best to make her life hell and get her killed. Clementine is still the best though.
The Take: This was a worthy follow-up to Season One, with players taking on an older and wiser Clementine, which felt like a payoff for everything you did in the first season. The issue here is that most of the plot feels a bit aimless, with Clem carrying everyone else on her back. Most of the supporting cast just seems destined to die, with the game just being a matter of who you think deserves to live. By time you roll around to the last episode, you're left with an anti-climatic ending that treads ground players have walked on before. It's a good season, but it doesn't hit the highs of the first.
4. Batman: The Telltale Series
- First Episode: August 2, 2016
The Premise: Untethered from any past continuity, Telltale Games gets the chance to tell a new story involving the Dark Knight. This is the a Batman at the beginning of his career, still learning where he fits into Gotham City. In addition, equal time is spent on Bruce Wayne and the legacy of the Wayne family. Batman: The Telltale Series also introduced crowd-play for the first time, letting internet viewers vote on the choices made.
The Take: I went into Batman: The Telltale Series not expecting much and came out rather impressed. As a comic fan, I appreciated Telltale blazing their own trail with the Batman mythos. The kicker here is the focus on Bruce Wayne, not Batman: really diving into the fallout of Thomas Wayne's actions, the twisted path of Bruce Wayne's childhood friend Oswald Cobblepot, and seeing what the Waynes mean to the city of Gotham. This is a more human take on Batman and it worked.
The issue that I had with Batman is that ultimately the illusion of choice falls apart pretty quickly in the later episodes. Choices that seem important are shown to have little consequence, outside of a new coat of paint. This is a problem with a few of the Telltale Games, but it was really apparent here. I also think that there were enough plot threads to work with without the shift to the Children of Arkham later in the season There's just too many plot threads and not enough space to give everything breathing room.
I realize part of this sounds harsher than my take on The Walking Dead: Season Two, but I feel the highs are much higher here. Telltale has a clear direction they wanted to go, the execution just wasn't up to snuff.
3. The Walking Dead Season 1
- First Episode: April 24, 2012
The Premise: This is the real beginning of modern Telltale. Based on The Walking Dead comic series by Robert Kirkman, the game tells the story of a few survivors of a zombie apocalypse. Former university professor and convicted murderer Lee Everett is freed on his way to prison by a lucky zombie outbreak. From there, Lee meets a young girl named Clementine, who he takes under his care. Lee and Clem meet with other survivors, seeking to find sanctuary and Clem's parents.
The Take: Who knew Telltale had this in them before? What worked in the first season is the strong relationship between Lee and Clem. He's a former professor who committed a terrible crime and Clementine forms his moral compass, as the living source of his redemption. Lee knows he killed a man and he'll probably have to kill more to survive, but Clementine's survival is all that matters.
While the supporting cast is solid, Lee and Clem's relationship is the core of the entire game and key to the game's satisfying, but bittersweet ending. What Telltale sometimes misses in other games is a strong and emotional motivation, but The Walking Dead is where they absolutely nailed it.
2. The Wolf Among Us
- First Episode: October 11, 2013
The Premise: Another comic adaptation, this time based on the Fables comic books by Bill Willingham. Players step into the scuffled shows of Bigby Wolf, the sheriff of Fabletown probably best known by his old title: the Big Bad Wolf. A woman has died and someone in Fabletown is the culprit, meaning the grizzled Bigby has to get to the bottom of it. Hard noir, but everyone is a storybook character.
The Take: Woo, Telltale had some heat on this one! If the Walking Dead was a surprise, The Wolf Among Us showed that the studio knew what it was doing. The scope is small, but there are so many layers. The relationships between Bigby and the rest of the Fables, including Snow and Bluebeard. The discontent and despair of the lower Fables, contrasted with the underworld or the sneering elite Fables.
Bigby was an existing character, but the Wolf Among Us gave players the chance to really determine who he was, with some of the most meaningful choices in the company's history. If sticking the landing is a common problem with Telltale's episodic games, Wolf Among Us is free from that issue, delivering the best episode in the series.
1. Tales from the Borderlands
- First Episode: November 25, 2014
The Premise: Tales from the Borderlands was an odd one. The series takes place in the Borderlands universe as established by Gearbox Software. You take control of two protagonists: Hyperion employee Rhys, looking to get a sweet promotion, or con artist Fiona, seeking the big score. The story is told by Rhys and Fiona, who are relating their differing points of view to an unseen stranger.
The Take: Tales from the Borderlands is simply the finest game that Telltale Games has produced. Between the dueling protagonists, Tales has a rip-roaring story, full of humor, action, and a good degree of emotional resonance. The transitions from the present - with Rhys and Fiona in captivity - to their past adventures is done with amazing style. It feels like a great television show, with great editing and directing.
Tales from the Borderlands is actually funny, whether it's in the dialog, the asides, or even the text entries scanned from Rhys' cybernetic implant. It's a grand adventure mixing the modern sensibilities with classic Western serials. The main characters are strong and their supporting cast is a joy to be around; the character interactions are a highlight here. And since you like and care for the characters, the touching moments between them actually land with surprising impact. The Telltale formula is rather simple and can be picked apart easily, but when it's executed well, it works.
Tales from the Borderlands still hasn't been topped.