The Walking Dead: A New Frontier is a series defined by contradiction. The third season of Telltale's successful narrative game franchise, which comes to a close this week with the release of final episode "From The Gallows", is full of interesting characters the player won't care about. It's painfully human but insufferably cliche. The season is ambitious in scope and underwhelming in execution, stumbling far more often than it succeeds.
A New Frontier follows Javier García, a former baseball player turned survivor when the outbreak of a zombie plague forces him to look after his sister-in-law Kate and her two children, Gabe and Mariana. What starts as a simple tale of a family scrounging for survival builds into a story that has major repercussions for other characters and entire settlements. A New Frontier has a vastly different scale than The Walking Dead's previous seasons. This is the largest the series has ever felt.
The first two episodes, "Ties That Bind, Parts One and Two", deftly manage to balance this growing scope with the series' concern for individual people and their problems. It jumps from past to present, showing Javier's life before the outbreak and focusing on his relationship with his parents and his temperamental brother David. In the present, it introduces a strong central conflict in a militant regime called the New Frontier, which is consolidating power over the wasteland in the name of maintaining order. These two threads come to a head when the New Frontier's rise to power becomes personal for Javier.
By combining large scale politicking and Javier's family concerns, A New Frontier wants to tell a story about navigating the pressures of leadership on a micro and macro level. What kind of father can Javier be to his nephew Gabe? Can he and David manage to reconcile their differences in the face of the zombie horde? Will Javier rise above his baser instincts and become a proper leader, or will he descend into a necessary violence in order to survive? These are interesting questions that the series cannot completely juggle.
A major problem is the role of fan favourite character Clementine. She was the player's anchor to their morality in the first season, and her relationship with protagonist Lee Everett remains one of the most fully realised examples of a father and daughter dynamic in video games. Season Two cast her as the main protagonist, eschewing consequential decisions in favour of letting players decide who Clem was as an individual. But in A New Frontier she exists as a vestigial limb that the series cannot cut loose. Her minimal presence adds little of consequence to the plot, distracting from Javier's story in favour of a nostalgic grasp for the past glory of the first season. She's here only because the series can't find a way to say goodbye.
Clementine is a compelling character that the series needs to let go.
A New Frontier can't capture the first season's emotional depth, but it also fails to retain what made the second season compelling. Season Two was a deeply personal story focused more on character beats that a cohesively structured plot. It moved from random happenstance to sudden tragedy with reckless, unfocused abandon. While A New Frontier takes time to paint all of its cast as human, it rarely gives them the chance to express themselves as the previous seasons did. It moves from from set piece to set piece without giving players much opportunity to learn to care about the characters.
This mistake hobbles the series. The core cast of characters is all set up with interesting, if somewhat cliche, conflicts. Javier wants to be a good person in a bad time, David wants to give up his anger, Kate struggles to navigate her love of Javier and her fear of her husband's abusive ways, Clementine must learn to become a caring and empathetic woman in a time that demands she be also be a ruthless killer. All of these characters have interesting stories, and every single one of them is brought to life by a voice cast that offers some of the best performances in the series. But in the season's haste to be bigger and grander than what came before, none of these personal conflicts ever receive a satisfying conclusion.
Additionally, Telltale's technology has not aged well, even as they have gotten more creative with how players can express themselves through quicktime events and have embraced a more cinematic style full of sharper edits, cuts and camera angles. A New Frontier manages a far more confident visual style that previous seasons while paradoxically seeming stilted and animatronic. As the quality of camera editing has improved, character animations remain somewhere in the realm of puppetry. This combines with vaguely-worded dialog choices that fail to properly indicate tone and creates moments of unintentional comedy that undercut the dramatic tension of the various scenarios.
A New Frontier rarely finds smaller moments to let characters reflect on the chaotic narrative.
Telltale's backend systems also faltered on occasion. Most egregiously, many of my decisions did not properly carry over from episode to episode, nor did my choices from previous seasons make it into the initial parts of A New Frontier. The latter issue is mitigated by a small opening segment that allows you to personalise Clementine's character by selecting major flashpoints from previous episodes, but the former left no solution other than to replay episodes that I'd previously completed.
A New Frontier is a roller coaster ride of successes met with equal or greater failures. It takes time to define the world in stark detail, aiming to expand the series' scope to something as deeply concerned with society at large as it is with individual morality. It crafts memorable characters with clear struggles and goes to great lengths to stress the interpersonal dynamics between them. But it also later abandons the interesting set up in favour of bombast and grandeur that feels at odds with what has come before.
I do not regret my time with A New Frontier, but the emotional core at the centre of the series seems rotten. There are seeds of greatness here, but A New Frontier never gave them the necessary time to grow. The Walking Dead started as a story about people. It was about a convict looking to redeem himself and a child growing up in an unfair world. A New Frontier chases after these figures, but no matter how hard it runs, it always remains firmly in their shadows.