The Walking Dead: A New Frontier is the third season of Telltale’s adaptation of The Walking Dead, but the particularly observant will note that “Season 3” isn't there in the title. (With awareness like that, you'll have no trouble in a zombie apocalypse.) Though it's technically a sequel, and Clementine is still a central character, A New Frontier is very much a fresh start. It's a new story with a new cast, and -- so far, at least -- it stands apart from the first two seasons. “A New Frontier” is a fitting name.
This is a good thing. The biggest problem with The Walking Dead: Season Two is that couldn't really detach itself from the first game. It tried to continue a story that was finite and complete, which rarely works out well. It also put Season Two in the unenviable position of being compared directly to the masterpiece that is Season One; it was good, but it couldn't break out of its big sister's shadow. By giving it room to breathe, Telltale freed A New Frontier from at least some of that weight of expectation.
That said, it's not entirely a standalone product in the way that Michonne was. Choices from the first two seasons will allegedly influence A New Frontier in some way or another, and you can import save data across platforms or even simulate major decisions for that purpose. However, I didn't really see much of that in the first two episodes; whatever impacts there are seem subtle.
The far more interesting connection is a thematic link to Season One in particular. That game was about the relationship that developed between Lee and Clementine as they fought to survive, with Lee being a father figure to the innocent young girl. Playing as Lee, you got to be involved in that, deciding what kind of role model you’d be and watching Clem grow over the course of the game.
For the bulk of A New Frontier, you play as newcomer Javier. He’s like Lee in a lot of ways: he’s a kind, compassionate man carrying the burdens of some bad decisions, who meets Clementine through a chance encounter. Once again, it’s a story about Clementine seen through the eyes of someone interacting with her; where what you do and say influences her, but you don’t control her directly. However, where Lee played the parent in Season One, those roles are flipped in A New Frontier.
The game is set four years after the the zombie outbreak, and two years or so after Season Two. Since then, Clementine’s grown into a hardened survivor more than capable of fending for herself. Javier, on the other hand, has been travelling with a group – he’s clearly a survivor, but he’s not nearly as self-sufficient as Clem. As such, Clem becomes a sort of teacher to him, like Lee was to her. It’s a really interesting dynamic, and it plays of the attachment that players have built with Clem rather brilliantly.
The other characters around Javi and Clem are all interesting. Tripp is a fierce yet caring leader who runs a surprisingly successful shanty-town. Kate, Javi’s sister-in-law and partner in survival, has found the zombie outbreak oddly freeing from the mundanity of her old life. Gabe, Javi’s nephew, is a teenager from a dysfunctional family – apocalypse or no, that sucks. You meet plenty of others along the way, but as I said before, the focus is really on Javi and Clem.
What’s also interesting is the state of the world. In the time of A New Frontier, walkers are just a part of life. It’s been four years, the people who’ve made it this far are survivors, one way or another, and zombies rarely offer any surprises. You see this most in the way people fight – everyone takes on walkers with a practiced ease and even a sense of lethargy. They’re not a terrifying threat anymore so much as a dangerous nuisance.
There’s a fascinating meta commentary in that. Even when The Walking Dead: Season One first started, zombies were a tiring theme; four years later, they’ve been flogged to death again and again. Such stories don’t really have much to say that hasn’t already been canvassed. The zombie apocalypse story has become as familiar and dull as the walkers Javi, Clem, and the rest have to fight.
Even with this criticism – intentional or not – at its heart, A New Frontier struggles to get free of the state of zombie fiction that it critiques. It introduces intriguing new characters and relationships, and gives us a chance to see the woman that Clementine is growing into, but it doesn’t ever quite shake the feeling that it’s all stuff we’ve seen before. The “humans are the real monsters” subtext, the “is that person bitten?” drama, the rare beauty of the kindness of strangers – it’s all stuff that’s been done a million times before, and so far A New Frontier hasn’t really found a way to stand out from the herd.
I’m looking forward to seeing what the rest of the season has in store, particularly as far as the relationship between Clem and Javi is concerned. The first two episodes sow some interesting seeds as far as plot goes, and I’m invested enough that I’m looking forward to seeing whether things go. At the same time, I don’t wonder if The Walking Dead is something that needs to stay buried – not because it’s bad, but because it’s run its course.
Matt received a digital copy of The Walking Dead: A New Frontier from Telltale for review.