Iron From Ice
“Holy shit…”, the words slipped out of my low-hanging jaw. Stunned and shocked at the brutal conclusion, I tried to reason how my decisions ended this way, until I remembered, “when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
As each year rolls around to April it’s time for another season of back-stabbing (literal and metaphorical), heart-wrenching, curse-inducing, cast-trimming season in Westeros. The hit novel-turned-show is one of the biggest properties around, but aside from a disappointing RPG outing in 2012 has failed to successfully break into the videogame space. Until now.
Following the point-and-click adventure nature of both The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, we follow alongside the narrative of the fourth season of the show with the first episode, Iron from Ice. The gameplay mechanics are simplistic: as you either walk around selecting things to look at or interact with, react to a quick-time event, or choose what response to vocalise, however, it’s what you do with these actions that decides how your story unfolds. Your words and subsequently your actions define the outcome.
The compelling natures of Game of Thrones is that nearly every decision has you wondering whether you’ve made a grave mistake. You’ll be regularly reassured by other characters as to what they think of your decisions which is welcomed as it doesn’t leave you in limbo too long before you must make your next potentially threatening decision. You assume the role of a trio of characters within the House Forrester – Gared Tuttle, Ethan Forrester, Mira Forrester – and it is their tales that we play.
And what an exciting story it is. Without wanting to spoil the outcome, it’s a thrilling opening chapter filled with terrible consequences. The tempestuous nature of Game of Thrones lends itself fantastically to the Telltale Games architecture, where decisions are key and their outcomes are usually distressing. Not being able to go back and rectify your actions (without a do-over) can lead you to condemning an innocent man or upsetting someone powerful. Regardless of whether you have a direct impact on a situation, the narrative flows with you pushing it one way and then another, it feels organic and natural, as a result.
They, they can’t have done that…
Before the end of the opening episode, it felt more akin to another episode of the popular show which is surely high-praise to Telltale. The visual style retains the studio’s previous tone, but without any real noticeable improvement over previously known issues. Lip-syncing is still appalling, facial animations are, at times, comical, and there’s some terrible aliasing and blurring effects between the characters and the backgrounds. Thankfully the general style is a pleasant one – and the story a gripping one – that they really only act as disappointments rather than annoyances.
Telltale have crafted yet another wonderful point-and-click adventure title, but one that probably exclude most who have no prior knowledge of the world of Westeros. Key characters are integrated – such as Margaery Tyrell, Cersei and Tyrion Lannister, and Ramsay Snow; all of whom are voiced by their TV-based counterparts – which is great for fans of the show, but will likely leave anyone with no background on these characters bemused.
A fine opening episode Iron from Ice is, and one easy to recommend to anyone with an interest in Game of Thrones; where no decision is truly right or wrong, but will just lead you down one of many terrible paths. If the following five episodes are of a similar quality then Telltale will have produced yet another stellar season to add to their already impressive catalog.
Why…? why…? I thought I chose well…
The Lost Lords
Still shocked by the outcome of Iron from Ice, episode two takes a more political angle than the shocking opener. The Lost Lords is so surprisingly tame with regards to surprising deaths that I was genuinely wondering when it was all going to kick off. That’s not to say the episode is disappointing, but what’s in place of the usual destruction feels like filler after a superb opening episode.
Two new characters are introduced following the fallout from Iron from Ice as the miserable tone of Game of Thrones kicks in and every turn you take feels challenged and, more often than not, the wrong one. It accurately represents the harsh life in Westeros though, but it can be incredibly draining never seemingly able to please someone. The four-pronged narrative of House Forrester is beginning to take shape around some key plot points of the core story. With each of the plots revolving around these pillars, means that there’s a lot of build-up with little pay-off – which will likely arrive in the coming episodes.
The consequences of some of your choices from ‘Iron from Ice’ start to take form, such as whether Margaery will help you, or how your Sentinel will treat the Whitehill soldiers. However, with the change of characters brings discontinuity that leaves the episode feeling a little lost and slow.
Mira fails to have any scene as comparable as the audience with Cersei; Gared’s story remains cryptic and lacking in substance; meanwhile, Asher – who was teased in the opening episode – becomes a new playable character in more action-based scenes and adds a refreshing change of pace.
Visually the addition of Essos grants a pleasing palette change, although the lip-syncing remains awful. Overall though, The Lost Lords meanders along, failing to capture the excitement of the opening episode despite an interesting political focus. It feels like we’ve put down a series of jigsaw pieces with no real idea how the puzzle will look in the end. Hopefully, it’ll feel more worthwhile down the line.
The Sword in the Darkness
If Iron from Ice was the much-needed opener and The Lost Lords, The Sword in the Darkness is the first episode that truly feels as they Telltale are getting their teeth into Game of Thrones.
Unlike The Lost Lords, no new playable characters were introduced this time around allowing for a more settled approach. A few new participants are thrown into the mix (some familiar, some not) which opens new possibilities for House Forrester, but your actions in this episode feel as though they may define the remainder of the season. As expected, all routes lead to a dreaded outcome filled with death and despair, but at least you feel as they are striving towards something – finally.
The episode opens, as with The Lost Lords with Asher’s tale. The pace is frantic and, even if there is no timer against you, it feels as though you must be swift with your actions. You are presented with a major decision within the first five or so minutes of the episode which caught me off-guard and made me make a snap decision over option A or option B. By placing such a choice during an action-oriented scene ensured you went with your gut rather than over thinking the scenario. Whether this will be good, in the long run, depends on your choices.
Whereas Asher’s outing seems to be more violent and high-paced, the events at King’s Landing with Mira are perhaps the most interesting elements of the season so far. Trying to balance your relationships, or lack or, with Margaery, Tyrion, and Cersei is beyond difficult and it feels as though a wrong answer at any point will spell the end. You’re caught in the middle of three exceptionally powerful characters, all the while trying to save your family as best you can. It’s here that the delicate politics of Game of Thrones shine through and make for some of the most nerve-racking but exciting scenes.
Whereas I feel I know how to play as Mira, Gared is still a bit of a mystery. Although his involvement in the coming episodes seems clearer now than before. His allegiances are put to the test, will you side with your family or your brother at the Wall? It’s Gared’s story arc that also shows the sometimes too clear cut nature of some of Telltale’s decision branching. Actions unfold in such a way that I can predict how they may have turned out if I’d have chosen differently, which cannot be said so clearly of any of the other characters. It’s a shame, as the question behind whether you made the right choice or not is one of the best elements of Telltale’s storytelling.
Finally, at Ironrath, the friction between the Forresters and the Whitehall’s reaches new heights. Here is where it feels as though your actions can dramatically influence future events, even if your resolve is tested time upon time. Rodrick seems like a character who understands the greater good so I play him as such, I only hope that the smart choice turns out to be just that.
Unlike the meandering The Lost Lords, it seems that the season has clear direction. How that plays out remains to be scene, but The Sword in the Darkness has at least kicked the season up a gear as we hurtle towards some form of likely oblivion.