When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. While you likely know which option you prefer, getting there is tricky, which the bloody Games of Thrones television show makes pretty clear. Seeing it all go down is stressful enough - but when it's suddenly on you to make the decisions that could destroy everything you hold dear? That's a whole new kind of anxiety for the Song of Ice and Fire saga, and that's what you get with Telltale's Game of Thrones Episode 1: Iron from Ice. Its narrative is occasionally jumpy, and you'll miss things here if you neglected to watch the show. But still, it's an intriguing debut that puts you in the hot seat, introducing the Game of Thrones audience to a new kind of unease.
Editor's Note: This review will be updated as episodes are released, but we're holding off on a star score until the season is complete. You can check back here to see a review for each episode as they premiere.
As an addition to the Game of Thrones canon set during the fourth season of the HBO show, Telltale's Game of Thrones follows the story of House Forrester, a clan of Stark bannermen fighting to protect themselves from encroaching enemies after the fall of Winterfell. If anything in that previous sentence confused you, it would be in your best interest to catch up on happenings in the show before playing (which you can do here or here, or just get the highlights). Without some prior knowledge of the universe, it's difficult to get a full picture of the story Iron from Ice is setting up. This may leave players not in the know feeling bombarded, hit with events and characters that are seemingly important, but no clear idea why they are.
While the basic premise (the Forresters are in big trouble and everyone wants to steal their stuff) is covered well enough and the relevant roles are neatly outlined, not knowing about critical events within the show will cause you to lose out on crucial context. For instance, Iron from Ice begins in the midst of a very important event in the GoT timeline that involves a lot of people getting stabbed (as many things in the series do). If you're aware of this event and all that led to it, you don't need any further context for the scene to make sense. If you don't, you'll have to refer to the game's codex after the fact to get the why of the situation, and that sometimes might not be enough.
On the upside, this adherence to the events of the show pays graceful homage to the original material, which benefits the game overall. For instance, favorite characters from the show make regular appearances (Tyrion Lannister and Margaery Tyrell play sizable parts), and the story builds upon an engrossing political battle that's already been put into motion. But function is just as important here as form. In an effort to imitate the show's use of multiple perspectives to tell its story, this season focuses on five characters within House Forrester, showing how their different decisions affect the yet undocumented future of the clan.
Given that the Game of Thrones show is entirely live-action, the leap to Telltale's oil-painting aesthetic may be a bit jarring, and movements in the engine can look comparatively jerky. But the art style is really lovely once you get used to it, despite some janky animations here and there.
This works very well in Iron from Ice, because having access to three different members of the family (third son Ethan, eldest daughter Mira, and squire Gared Tuttle) helps communicate the wide array of influences that are at play. Through Ethan, for example, we can see the state of the Forrester's domain and immediate threats to the family's holdings, while Mira's perspective shows what political machinations are at work in the capital. This gives you the full picture of what's going on as it unfolds, so you never feel as if you've been unfairly sideswiped by an event happening when you weren't on watch. While the narrative can seem too jumpy at times - one scene with Gared lasts about three minutes before it switches to a different character - segments tend to last exactly as long as they need to, leaving you with a sense of understanding and anticipation for what will develop next when you flip to another family member.
While Iron from Ice is effective in using the show's narrative structure to its own benefit, it does an even better job of introducing a sense of familiar anxiety with a unique spin. Fans of the show are used to being worried about the choices its characters make, but its an anticipatory concern; you see that someone has made a bad choice well ahead of time and dread what the results will be. But in Iron from Ice, when you're given the decision-making reigns, it's clear from the start that figuring out the 'right' way to do things isn't always so easy.
One choice often shuts the door to another, or you have to make several important decisions quickly, and you can't see far enough ahead to know if you just messed up or not. This is both exhilarating and scary, as virtually every choice is in some way life-or-death, and you have to make it on the spot. It is perhaps the most effective use of Telltale's decision-based model to date, combined with GoT's high-stakes scenarios, so that things never feel dull. Even when two characters are just standing around talking, I was squirming in my chair, hoping that I hadn't just doomed the entire family in some yet unforeseen way.
Midway through Iron from Ice, a character of high social standing asks Mira Forrester if she is more loyal to her benefactor, who is within earshot, or the king himself. It's a serious question that will have incredible consequences for the Forrester family either way, and it has no timer. I spent many long minutes staring at that screen, terrified to make a choice, but that's the kind of game this is. This episode sets the stage for all that's to come in some intense and bloody ways, and even the most downplayed scenes of political engagement will keep you on the tip of your toes. Though you might be at a loss without a working knowledge of the show, it's still well worth a try to see how effectively you can navigate House Forrester through the trials before them. Oh, and that scene with Mira? I still don't know if I made the right choice. It's uncomfortable, worrying… and a little bit exhilarating, too.
While you'll probably want to brush up on your Game of Thrones knowledge before starting Iron from Ice, it's definitely worth the trouble, creating a nerve-wracking experience that'll keep you excitedly anxious 'til the end.
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