The Walking Dead: A New Frontier (Review)

Image result for the walking dead a new frontier

Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Reviewed On: PlayStation 4
Copy obtained via GameFly

The Walking Dead: A New Frontier is the third installment in Telltale’s series based on the popular zombie franchise, but it feels more like a spin-off than a direct continuation of the two seasons that preceded it. I’m admittedly late to this one (it originally released episodically between December 2016 and May 2017), but since I have the game fresh on my mind after just completing it in its entirety in one day, I figured I would still write a review anyways.

The most immediate difference in A New Frontier is the departure of Clementine as the main protagonist. Clementine was introduced in the first season as a little girl forced into a bleak and dangerous world overrun by the dead. Players met Clementine right at the start of the zombie outbreak, and the rest is pretty much history. Clementine has been the heart and soul of Telltale’s take on this franchise, so it’s not surprising that fans have come to love her character. Over the course of the first two seasons, players got to teach Clementine about the world around her, shape her morality, and help define who she is and what she stands for in this broken and dying world. Unfortunately, while still present, she’s cast to the side in this season while newcomer Javier Garcia takes the spotlight.

Javier, or “Javi”, is a former professional baseball player who comes from a difficult family and finds himself with a lot of responsibility. His brother, David, disappeared shortly after the outbreak, so Javi has been taking care of David’s second wife Kate and David’s two children from his first marriage, Gabe and Mariana. Over the course of this season you really get to know this family and their different personalities and quirks, and while I do genuinely like these characters, the fact that we aren’t following Clementine directly by playing as her is a bit disappointing.

Again, I don’t think the new cast of characters is bad. In fact, I actually preferred them over some of the cast from previous games. Javier especially is a well written character struggling with the mistakes of his past and trying to be a better person in the present. Although it’s kept rather ambiguous, it’s alluded to early on that Javi was forced to leave baseball due to some sort of behavioral issues, and (in flashbacks shown throughout the season) you get to see how it affected the way his family viewed him. Cut to the present and the immense responsibility Javi has undertaken has forced him to have to better himself and learn what it means to take care of others.

I also really enjoyed the character of Kate, Javi’s sister-in-law. Becoming a stepmother has proven to be a harder task than she realized, and while her relationship with Mariana is solid, she has a hard time getting through to Gabe, who essentially wants nothing to do with her and still doesn’t consider her a mother figure in his life. I’m a sucker for family drama (purely in entertainment, of course) and loved watching the dynamic between Kate and the kids evolve over the course of the season as it goes through its ups and downs.

While it was cool to see a slightly older Clementine (A New Frontier takes place four years after the start of the outbreak) I was sad to see her prominence be diminished. Although she does appear in all five episodes of the season, it felt more like she was being forced in out of obligation. Don’t get me wrong, she plays an integral part at one specific point of the story, but for 90% of the season she just feels like a character passing through, like this is just a pit stop on the way to the conclusion of her real story arc from the first two seasons.

This season is centered around The New Frontier, a group of survivors who have rebuilt a city into a small sanctuary. Javi and his family are searching for a new home and believe that The New Frontier could be it, but it’s not as easy to join as they might think. This community has some strict laws, even stricter leaders, and introduces a very personal dilemma for the Garcia’s.

The majority of A New Frontier takes place inside this community. While there are a few parts that take place in the surrounding area, you become very familiar with this community, their town, and their struggles over the course of the five episode season. This season deals largely with family bonds, power dynamics in groups of people, and the challenge of trying to hold on to your morals in a world that’s becoming more and more dangerous and depraved. While these are all recurring themes from the previous seasons, they’re all topics that are ripe for exploration and still manage to intrigue three seasons in.

While the story is fascinating, it’s also lacking some of the more emotional impact of the first two seasons. That’s not to say it’s bland or unemotional, it just doesn’t reach the heights of the expectations set by the previous installments. There’s still plenty to grow attached to (such as the plight of Javi and his family), but there’s also certain story beats that don’t hit as hard as I think Telltale was going for. The biggest offender is Clementine’s arc, where she’s trying to reunite with AJ, the infant she was left with taking care of at the end of season 2. A huge part of Clementine’s story in this game is trying to figure out why she and AJ were separated and where he is now. Unfortunately, while they do a great job at showing Clementine’s hurt over being separated, they do nothing to make you actually care about AJ, since he has almost zero screen time and you don’t get to know him at all.

This season also felt like the most stripped down Telltale game in terms of actual gameplay. It didn’t feel like there was anywhere near as many segments of walking around, hunting for items, solving puzzles, or engaging in combat as previous games. Searching for items to help you progress was all but scrapped, the few puzzles present basically have on-screen prompts telling you how to complete them, and the combat is the most simplified version in Telltale’s Walking Dead series to date.

Thankfully, the dialogue and impact of your decisions is more memorable. Every character on display in this season is well written and engaging, but it’s your decisions that stand out the most. I felt like some of the earlier games by Telltale made choice an illusion, with the outcome being more or less the same for everyone, with just a few minor alterations on your way there. For the last few games they made before closing (R.I.P. Telltale) there was a more noticeable shift in the decision making process having a more profound effect on your experience. In A New Frontier, you can end up in completely different situations with completely different people and have completely different outcomes depending on the choices you make.

Unfortunately, it’s a different type of decision making that has me the most conflicted. There’s a ton of decisions in design, story, and character elements that seem completely at odds with each other. The introduction of new characters goes over well, since they’re well written and easy to care about, but the lack of focus on Clementine sours the experience. The season largely takes place in one location, which is a departure from the constant moving around of the previous seasons, but it made the one major location have more character and let you become more familiar with it. The extra emphasis on character building and decision makes the story stronger, but comes with a loss with the other gameplay mechanics being stripped down. It’s always easy to praise a good game and criticize a bad one, but games like A New Frontier (which are a weird hodgepodge of good and bad) are always difficult to give a definitive stamp of approval/disapproval on, but I’ll try anyways.

FINAL VERDICT

The Walking Dead: A New Frontier is a strange beast. On one hand, it introduces a new and likable cast of characters into Telltale’s take on the franchise, offers a wide array of engaging dialogue and decisions that have weight, and focuses primarily on one location, allowing you to become more connected to the characters and the immediate events taking place. On the other, it sidelines the main character from the first two seasons that the fans care the most about, resulting in a game that feels less like a continuation of the previously established storyline and more like a spin-off. There’s also a serious lack in actual gameplay, making this an experience aimed more at those who care about plot and character development. If all you care about is the continuation of Clementine’s story, then you’re going to be heavily disappointed. However, if you’re willing to accept a new cast of characters and a larger emphasis on story over gameplay, then I think The New Frontier is an adventure worth taking.

– Zack Burrows

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