Experiencing Telltale's The Walking Dead may be the closest thing many players have to feeling like an actual parent. Watching little Clementine grow up with the series has been a gripping, sometimes emotionally exhausting journey, from acting as her guardian in The Walking Dead: Season One to stepping into her tiny shoes in Season Two. But even if you haven't spent hours guiding Clementine through the undead-filled post-apocalypse, A New Frontier still demonstrates the resonant power of interactive storytelling. With its two-episode premier, this third season finds the right balance between rewarding longtime players who've shaped their own version of the story and welcoming those who might be hopping aboard this grim adventure for the first time.
A harrowing flashback to the first night of the zombie outbreak introduces us to our new protagonist: Javier, or "Javi" to his friends and family. After his recently deceased father pops out of bed and starts biting faces, Javi's forced to flee in the ensuing chaos along with sister-in-law Kate, nephew Gabe, and niece Mariana. Years later, the four are scavenging for gas to keep their van safely ahead of the Walker horde - a similar framework to the protective stand-in parenting of Season One, but with the welcome addition of Kate's input on your decisions. Javi is instantly likable as our main character, with line delivery that perfectly sells his moments of sensitivity, seriousness, or smart-aleck humor. That's crucial, because the best parts of the game boil down to following along with conversations and roleplaying via your dialogue options, which will paint Javi as a cool uncle, stern survivalist, or something sensibly in between.
In fact, most of the actual gameplay is unchanged from the formula Season One put forth in 2012: you mostly talk your way through the story, occasionally given the freedom to explore your surroundings and search for items, or enjoy a quick burst of excitement from a sudden zombie attack (which Javi and his family call 'Muertos' instead of 'Walkers'). The QTEs work as expected: mash a button or move in a direction to avoid danger, lest you meet instant death and get kicked back to a moments-ago checkpoint. The puzzle-solving component of the adventure game framework also seems to be at an all-time low; I can only think of a single instance across both episodes where I needed to seek out a specific item to enable my progress. But it feels like it's for the best that these sections are so easily cleared, because the real meat of The Walking Dead lies in the decisions you make when dealing with the people around you.
The supporting cast is all pretty great, but the obvious standout is Clementine, who's matured into quite the seasoned Walker-slaying teenager, befitting someone who's survived so many hardships. It's surprising and gratifying to see how much she's grown since you've been gone: Clementine's a crack shot with a pistol, knows her way around the bartering system of the new economy, and has a tendency to curse up a storm. Those who've played the previous seasons will notice that she's not accompanied by little baby AJ, which promises to be explained through a parallel plotline as Clementine thinks back to everything that happened before she ran into Javier.
It's great to see how your choices in Season Two resolved via these snippets from the past, especially given the way Season Two so quickly waved off everything tying it to the preceding finale. That said, newcomers might be confused to see so much emphasis put on a side story that emphasizes characters they never met. First-time players are given a preset version of Clementine's past, but if you can't locate your old save files (or just need a refresher), you'll be delighted to know that you can rebuild your memories of Clementine from scratch, selecting the most crucial decisions that helped make Clementine who she is.
Fans of the original comic book and AMC show will also get some extra mileage out of the secondary characters: for better or for worse, Javi's nephew Gabe evokes Carl Grimes' shyness and teenage angst, and the group has a run-in with the eccentric Paul, aka "Jesus". It's unclear how much of an impact he'll have or how long he'll stick around, but like Glenn's inclusion in Season One, it's nice to see a fan-favorite character make a cameo in this original storyline, even if he is voiced by someone else.
If there's anything holding A New Frontier back, it's the way Telltale's trademark engine is starting to show its age. On the one hand, the visuals look better than ever, with superb lighting and graphical flourishes that impart the style of the comic. But some of the animations still look awfully stiff; when Javi's eyes widen in shock, it's like watching the servos activate on an animatronic robot's forehead, and when he's running at full sprint, you feel like you can almost see the invisible conveyor pulling his character model along. Some recurring glitches, like audio lines that jump the gun and don't match up to mouth movements, seem to be practically baked into the engine at this point.
But honestly, it's worth all the technical hitches or ho-hum stretches of gameplay to see how your part in A New Frontier's story plays out. After the disappointing lack of consequence in Batman: The Telltale Series, it's refreshing to delve back into the world of The Walking Dead, where characters can be mercilessly killed off, and your choices can seemingly make the difference between life and death. A New Frontier still retains the series' uncanny ability to lull you into a sense of calm character development before grabbing you by the throat and strangling you with the threat of survivor-on-survivor violence. Instead of being a parental figure to Clementine or playing directly as her, you're buddying up with her as she and Javier take care of business - and it'll be fascinating to see where things go from here.
This game was reviewed on PC.