I'm a staunch defender of Telltale's The Walking Dead's less popular second season. It served as a sort of zombie bildungsroman for Clementine, a coming of age story after the end. But for all the season's strong character beats, it lacked a sense of forward momentum. The third season, A New Frontier, breathes some much-needed energy into the esteemed adventure series.
I freely talk about spoilers from this point. I show at least one major decision from the second episode. Consider yourself warned.
This season focuses on Javier García, a family man who is looking after his brother's wife and their stepchildren after zombies have caused the collapse of society. Javier is a strong protagonist and is given a surprising amount of humanity by voice actor Danny Ramirez. His initial struggles to protect his family are heartbreaking, intercut with flashbacks to before the zombie outbreak. He feels relatable in a way that season one's Lee Everett never felt, although he doesn't have the same world weary weight. Not yet.
We get to watch as the few things that Javi's managed to preserve are systematically taken from him. An early run-in with a survival group called the New Frontier threatens to shatter the meager stability he's built. Unexpected death, strained relationships, and complicated romance all tug at the seams.
This is further complicated by the arrival of Clementine. Exactly how she reacts and what she values is partially dictated through migrated saves. If you don't have a save, you can use a quick editor to mark important plot points and have a Clementine who matches up to the story you've previously experienced.
Clem's certainly a high point in the initial episodes. After two episodes of growth, she's come into her own as a valued ally who provides a strong counter to Javier. Where Javi might cling to hope, Clem doesn't have that luxury. She is a realist, and maintaining a close relationship with her means supporting some harsh, utilitarian decisions. Special shout outs to Melissa Hutchison for making Clem feel both incredibly hardened while simultaneously showing stark vulnerability when her guard drops.
The interactions between Javi and Clem provides some of the best moments in first two episodes. The rest of cast is rounded out by archetypical characters who don't leave a lasting impression the same way characters in the first two seasons did.
A New Frontier has a consistently high level of tension. There's very little downtime here. The plot starts spiraling out of control and never really slows down. This provides a well needed sense of purpose. The episodes offers plot twists that genuinely change how the player perceives other characters. These twists were bold enough that I yelled out in surprise more than once.
The writing is solid here, although it can't quite match season one's emotional core. That lack of heart bites the game in the arse from time to time. Difficult decisions are undercut by the fact that I simply am not given enough time to form bonds with a majority of the characters.
I also never felt threatened by the challenges that were thrown my way. Javier is incredibly competent, and certain moments can feel perfunctory. I've watched Javi march through a community flooded by tears gas while slicing up zombies left and right. Walkers are no threat, and armed gunmen fall against Javi's crack shooting skills.These are great set pieces that are stunning to watch but not exciting to play.
The Telltale adventure games have never been about mechanical challenge, but the first two episodes of A New Frontier highlights more than ever how little the fundamental formula has changed. Something has to be done to shake up and reinvent the actual gameplay.
There's still plenty to get invested in here. Javier's family struggles are compelling, and Clementine remains one of the best characters in recent memory. The season is off to a strong start, and I am very interested in seeing where this series progresses from here.