The biggest challenge that The Walking Dead: A New Frontier faces is differentiating itself, not just from the hordes of zombie games, but from its own predecessors. In the first two episodes, A New Frontier seemed, ironically, to embrace its derivativeness as a point of difference, and used that as a commentary on the state of zombie fiction as a whole. Maybe it was a fluke, but that theme was there nonetheless, and it elevated those episodes above being just another zombie story.
With its third episode, A New Frontier has become exactly that: just another zombie story. Above the Law might be the weakest episode of The Walking Dead to date, lacking much of the humanity the series is known for as it treads water through a scenario we've seen a million times before.
Note: this review contains spoilers for the first two episodes of The Walking Dead: A New Frontier.
Episode 3 picks up immediately after the end of the previous one, and that's the first of its problems. Episodes 1 and 2 came out more than three months ago, and even the usual recap wasn't enough to lift the fog. It doesn't help that there was a lot happening towards the end of Episode 2, and a bunch of new characters introduced without giving players much time to get to know them. I spent most of my time in Above the Law just trying to figure out who everyone was, and trying to remember how we got to where we are.
From what I can gather, Javi and co found their way to a settlement called Richmond in search of medical aid for Javi’s sister-in-law, Kate. It turns out that Richmond is run by A New Frontier, the group responsible for Kate being shot (and Kate’s daughter, Javi’s niece, being murdered). On top of that, Javi’s brother David is one of the leaders of A New Frontier! Sounds like a recipe for some really intense post-apocalyptic family drama, right?
It's not. What follows is a very typical Walking Dead chapter, full of bad luck and shitty people doing shitty things. Even with the familial angle, there's nothing to really distinguish A New Frontier from every other group of violent survivors encountered by characters across the span of numerous comics, TV seasons, and games. There's the psychopathic villain who believes themselves to be making the tough decisions needed to protect their people, the less psychopathic sub-villains who are more sympathetic to Javi’s plight, the throwaway characters put in place to give your something to shoot when things go south - the usual.
That’s all well and good, but Above the Law’s problem is that that's all there is. The first two seasons of The Walking Dead had were similarly riddled with post-apocalypse cliche, but it was balanced out with characters who felt human and relatable; they gave meaning to what was happening by making you care about the people involved. Three episodes in, A New Frontier still hasn't done much to establish the emotional bonds that give Telltale’s trademark narrative choices their weight.
Javi showed a lot of promise early on, but he's become an incredibly bland protagonist, and the supporting cast mostly feels like furniture. Kate is one of the few characters with an interesting arc, as a step-mother navigating all the trouble that comes with that, but her story is mostly used as a catalyst for petty fighting between Javi and David. Gabe finally shows some real development towards the end of this episode, as a teenager trying to process the discovery that his father’s far from perfect, but it's too little too late.
This is frustrating, because great character writing is usually what sets The Walking Dead (and most of Telltale’s fare) above the rest. We've seen Clementine grow so much over the span of two seasons, and now she's been sidelined in favour of a truly forgettable bunch. She barely features in Above the Law, but the couple of scenes where she is present stand head and shoulder above the rest of the episode. I appreciate that Telltale wants to move away from Clementine and tell other stories, but that needs other tales worth telling. Michonne was a very, very different game to the rest of The Walking Dead, and Clementine was nowhere to be seen, but it worked wonders because Telltale built Michonne into such an interesting character and used her to explore new ideas. So far, I haven't really seen much of that in A New Frontier.
That said, I wouldn’t call Above the Law boring. Familiar as it is, the plot is more than serviceable, and it makes for a roller coaster of intrigue, double-crosses, surprising revelations, and tense action. That's backed by great dialogue and voice acting that's as good as ever, and despite my lack of investment in the characters, the episode still gave me choices that I agonised over. The difference is that once those moments had passed, I moved on and forgot about them; they didn't weigh on my conscience like the really difficult ones do.
A New Frontier is also quite a technical achievement. Telltale debuted its updated engine last year with Batman, but now we're really starting to see what it's capable of. One scene shows a group of characters walking under the moonlight, light bouncing off their faces. It's a simple scene, but a powerful one, and that's thanks almost entirely to the lighting and the way it interacts with Telltale’s comic book art style. The lighting system may not be as sophisticated as big-budget games, but it's used to far better effect. I'm looking forward to seeing what else the upgraded tool can do, and how Telltale can use it in their stories.
Unfortunately, this episode’s strengths are all in superficial places. Nobody comes to a Telltale game looking for technical prowess, and plot is only a tiny part of what makes a good story. I hate to say it, but Above the Law falls flat in the places that matter most: the characters and depth that underpin everything else. Without that, the episode is particularly forgettable, which doesn’t bode well for an episodic series that’s already struggling with its release schedule.
Matt received a digital copy of The Walking Dead: A New Frontier from Telltale for review.