Like the shambling hordes for which it’s named, it’s impossible to keep The Walking Dead down. From Robert Kirkman’s ongoing graphic novel series to the long-running television show to Telltale’s adven… err, interactive storytelling experiences, zombies are everywhere! After two full seasons, plus a single bridge episode and a mini-season in between, Telltale has now completed their third five-part series pitting the living vs. the undead (and vs. the other living). Though the new season is subtitled A New Frontier, this iteration of The Walking Dead covers a whole lot of familiar ground. It looks a little glossier than ever, but otherwise this is essentially more of what we’ve seen before. Whether or not you consider that a good thing will depend largely on your appetite for revisiting the same themes with the same choice-driven, gameplay-lite approach that we’ve come to expect.
This season could well have been renamed “Los Muertos Vivientes”, as there’s a decidedly Spanish flavour this time around. Or it could be called “The Walking Dead: Family Edition”. Not in the fun-for-the-whole-family kind of way, of course. If anything, this season further ups the ante on an already gory and violent series with even more decapitations, dismemberments, and pulpy bashed-in-skulls. But where previous Walking Dead games have focused largely on strangers coming together, A New Frontier centers around one particular household desperately trying to cling to whatever final vestiges of familial bonds remain in a completely broken world. This is the very definition of a dysfunctional family at the best of times, and here they’re facing the worst.
The main protagonist is Javier, a young man whose extended family we see both physically and emotionally torn apart in the opening flashback scene. Fast-forward to today, and Javy is on the run with his sister-in-law Kate along with the children of his volatile brother David, having been separated from him in the initial confusion. Although others feature prominently in subsequent events, this is very much their story as we follow the four of them from the frying pan into the fire and back again repeatedly. Having survived this long on the run, soon they’ll find themselves trying to fit into a heavily-fortified town called Richmond. Its walls may be holding out an unprecedented “herd” of walkers, but it’s also holding in a growing and potentially deadly dissent. Conflict everywhere? Yup, this is The Walking Dead, all right.
Javy is a former baseball star who apparently skewered his own career in a gambling scandal. This backstory never really seems all that significant, but it does make him handy in a fight with an aluminum bat. Kate is a down-to-earth young woman simply trying to make the best of a horrible situation, though she may actually be better off being free of her husband, while Gabe is a brooding young teen and Mariana a remarkably grounded and surprisingly optimistic youngster who’s content enough to listen to music on her headphones and find some occasional chocolate. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about them, other than their circumstances, but it’s a family you can find yourself rooting for – knowing full well that in The Walking Dead, that may be a bad idea.
The other playable protagonist will be instantly recognizable to series fans, as young Clementine returns from the first two seasons. She’s a little older now, just entering adolescence (and all that entails for girls her age), though of course she has always been forced to be way more mature than her years. She’s also more hardened than before, with some serious trust issues – an entirely reasonable development in a savage world where simply staying alive is a day-to-day struggle, and any attempts at community have ended up with betrayal and heartbreak. A far cry from her earliest days under the protection of Lee, here she is comfortable swearing, stealing, and threatening people as need arises, all in the name of survival. Clem plays a vital role in Javier’s story once they meet up on less-than-friendly terms, but we also get glimpses into her past as we begin to piece together what happened since last we saw her.
In my game, the flashback sequences consisted of Clementine and baby AJ, whom Clem had taken under her wing at the end of season two. I say “my game” because A New Frontier gives players the chance to import saves from the previous season to resume the same narrative thread, or to create your own backstory with a series of decisions before you begin play (you can also have choices randomly made on your behalf). Having a sieve-like memory for details, I could barely recall how my previous actions had played out, and I found the initial options to be very difficult to choose between. I ended up with the “lone peacekeeper” role, so it’s possible your mileage may vary with different decisions made. Presumably none of it impacts present-day events, as AJ is conspicuous by his absence from the start, but it may well offer up some flashback variety.
As usual, the ever-present threat of walkers is a constant source of tension, but while the zombies may be the brainless monsters, it’s the worst of people who are often the heartless ones. There are upstanding characters too – or at least those willing to cooperate so long as it suits them – but soon enough you’ll find yourself caught in the middle of both personal and political conflicts with no cut-and-dried answers and no way to appease both sides. Timed choices are really the main gameplay element once again, and certain decisions are way more important than others. Some threaten the very foundation of your fragile little family, while others have literally life-and-death consequences – not just in terms of who survives, but who you personally kill at times, and in what fashion. The story will always circle back to the same narrative direction, but the heaviest of these choices will surely cause you to ponder tensely as the dialogue timer all-too-quickly winds down.
Many smaller decisions are once again “remembered” by the affected parties, whether for good or ill, though it isn’t always clear from a single playthrough how each choice impacts your relationships. I know some people resent Telltale games for the illusory nature of such choices, but I don’t mind so long as I feel the weight of my decisions the first time through. Not unlike life itself, you only get one crack to make spur-of-the-moment decisions, and must then live with the consequences without ever knowing how things might have turned out otherwise. And that is true here, more often than not.
Even some of the lesser choices have actual story ramifications, however, so they aren’t entirely cosmetic. Beyond the obvious what-happens-next reactions, Telltale has also taken a cumulative approach to player choice. While no one decision is likely to tip the scales in favour of one result or another, in some cases a pattern begins to emerge over time. Will you be accepting and supportive of Clementine, or fuel her initial distrust? Should you follow through on your growing romantic feelings towards Kate? Can you be a loving father to Kate’s kids, or continue to be the irresponsible slacker who once sought the easy way out? You don’t need to be 100% consistent in your answers, but they’re certainly being tracked and your roleplaying tendencies will win out in the end.