The Walking Dead has always been more about the living than the dead. The zombies are just the setting; it’s the characters that give identity to this series and drive its stakes -- that create the interesting and sometimes brilliant moments.
While the first season of Telltale Games’ adaptation of the apocalyptic series set a high bar that still hasn’t been surpassed, The Walking Dead: A New Frontier holds up to the rest of the series, surviving its flaws through its new, diverse, and compelling cast. It suffers from some inconsistent writing and recycled plot aspects, but it expertly blends the light and heartfelt moments with the darker ones to weave a heartwarming story about the complexity of family and leadership. While it ultimately feels like a side story in Clementine’s larger arc, the game’s main characters are some of the most interesting the series has had yet, making this a season worth playing beyond just seeing what happens to Clementine.
A New Frontier follows Javier Garcia, an ex-baseball player with a troubled past who tackles the present with optimism and at times witty humor. His brother David serves as his foil; he’s a soldier with a far tougher heart who tends to confront the obstacles in his life with anger and a no-nonsense attitude. Perhaps these sound like cliches, but there is a richness in the characterization of these two that makes their dynamic unpredictable and enjoyable to watch unfold.
When David disappears after taking his terminally ill father to the hospital after a muerto (the name ascribed to the walkers in this season) bites the dying man, it’s up to Javier to take care of David’s family as they escape their hometown to look for safety. Along the journey, David’s family becomes Javier’s own as he becomes a surrogate father figure to David’s children, Maria and Gabe, and develops a complex relationship with Kate, David’s wife. They meet a variety of different people on their journey, and while a few of these characters, like Gabe and Eleanor, unfortunately suffer from inconsistent writing, the cast is overall likable - especially Javier and Kate.
These characters are brought to life by the game’s vibrant colors and fluid animations, which although not perfect, are reflective of Telltale Games’ progress in the visual department. Faces are more expressive than they were in past seasons, so the emotions the characters experience are conveyed with depth and clarity. Combined with the stellar voice acting, it’s easy to immerse yourself and feel the tension in the season’s most emotional moments.
It’s important that these characters be interesting because this time around, Clementine takes a back seat from the spotlight and returns to being a companion. By saving Javier from a group of gang members, she establishes a natural friendship with him and is a constant presence throughout the game in both the present day and the flashback segments that show her life from the end of season two until now. Despite not being the character you follow in this season, she still feels like she’s still in control of the narrative, moving it forward and making this feel like just a chapter in her larger character arc. For as interesting as Javier, Kate, and David are, the game doesn’t seem to trust them with leading the narrative for long.
Gameplay in A New Frontier is much of the same as before albeit with slight improvements. Fighting sequences demand that you pay close attention as they require you to press multiple buttons and do different actions in a limited amount of time. Telltale Game’s style doesn’t incorporate much more than quick time events, but these events now feel a bit more action-oriented. It’s simple stuff that neither adds to nor detracts from the game’s quality.
Major choices have further evolved from selecting who lives and who dies to more nuanced scenarios in which you shape your relationship with the characters around you, and how you nurture or break your bonds with different people has consequences later on. This superbly ties into this particular season’s central themes of family, unity, and leadership. Rather than shining most during the moments charged with adrenaline, A New Frontier is best during the quiet moments in which characters are allowed to reflect.
Unfortunately, those moments feel few and far in between amidst the fast pacing that exists to take you from one major choice to another. The season does a great job of developing its cast in ways that make you care about them, but it contains some of the same problems the series has always had: just when you start to care about a character, often is that when they are killed off for shock value.
The game doesn’t let you stop for a moment to consider the weight of these deaths, either. In the last episode, a major death happens and the characters deliver one or two lines before they move on and never speak of the character again. In another instance, a character that the season spends a considerable amount of time developing dies off-screen, making their arc feel unsatisfyingly lacking in a resolution. While people in the universe of The Walking Dead must continue to move forward in order to survive, glossing over major deaths lessens the impact of these characters and the choices that came before them. It reduces many of them to mere plot devices rather than people you should care about, and it makes the choices you once agonized over feel pointless.
Another problem that this season encounters is the reuse of old ideas. Slathering zombie guts all over yourself to avoid getting attacked by walkers was already used in the first season; focusing on the gruesomeness of stitching an open wound was unbearable to watch in the second season’s first episode, but had way less impact here; the execution of a poignant scene at the end of the season feels a bit too familiar to a previous season’s finale. With Clementine being a constant pull to the glorious moments of the series' past, the series needs to move forward with her and its future characters and do more of what it hasn’t already done before.
The Walking Dead: A New Frontier may not always bring fresh ideas to the table, but what it does bring contains a lot of heart and charm. The cast is incredibly diverse, giving the spotlight to a Latino-centric cast but containing characters from different backgrounds and walks of life. Although some characters are inconsistently written, they all manage to be compelling enough that together, they create some of the most interesting moments without needing the help of Clementine. Clementine herself has established in A New Frontier that she is more than worthy of being one of gaming's most beloved female characters, displaying a growth and complexity that few female characters in the past have been allowed to have. With the series finale releasing next year, I hope Telltale Games pushes the boundaries of what she and the series itself can do and be.
Versions tested: PlayStation 4
Disclaimer: A copy of this game was provided to RPG Site by the publisher.