NOTE: This review is spoiler free of plot details.
Telltale did a great job in convincing us why we needed more of The Walking Dead in 2016, first with the terrific Michonne mini-series and then just under the wire with the two episode season premiere of A New Frontier. The fact that Telltale managed to do so after a disappointing and predictable season two and a long hiatus wherein it seemed like they had grown beyond returning to the series that put them on the map was truly astounding and it was with great excitement that I waited for the third episode of A New Frontier. Given that Telltale was able to stick to a near monthly release schedule with 2016 Batman: The Telltale Series, I figured that most we would have to wait for episode three was two months given that they were generous enough to dole out a unpredidented two-part season premiere. Here we are now though three months later with Above the Law and this episode wasn’t really worth the wait.
While I really liked the two-part premiere Ties That Bind, one thing I did find fault in it was that it was so quick to rush you out of the area that the new protagonist, Javi, found them in. The Walking Dead, whether on TV, in a video game or comic book has never made you feel particularly good, but it was a nice change of pace to exist within an area of somewhat sane people who had managed to carve themselves out a little bit of peace in an otherwise insane world. This isn’t a scenario ripe for creating drama, but it would’ve been interesting to see something happen within the walls of Prescott before it’s attacked and we see yet another group thrown onto the road just like every the other two seasons. Whereas Ties That Bind succeeded in spite of being familiar because of a great cast of characters, Above the Law feels derivative and has me questioning exactly why this needs to exist again.
The best part of this soft reboot of Telltale’s The Walking Dead is the cast who feel a lot more well-rounded and fleshed out than the forgettable group of cannon fodder from Season Two. I’m still surprised that despite wanting to see more of the young adult Clementine, I’m perfectly okay for her to be placed in a support role next to new comer Javi and his family. Clem had to do too much of the heavy lifting character wise in season two which she didn’t have to in the premiere thanks to Lee, so it’s nice to have another character to care about with enough development already that we’re already invested in how his story unfolds. This is perhaps the episode where you see Clem the least, but the moments where she is on-screen, and playable, this time within another flashback, create the most emotional impact of Above the Law and are even more powerful as her recollections of the time between Season Two and A New Frontier in the season premiere, yet it still doesn’t steal the attention away from Javi to make the player wonder he should be the new protagonist.
What I found refreshing is the reintroduction of Javi’s brother, David, into the present timeline having only been seen in flashbacks in the season premiere. In the time before the apocalypse, David was a one-note, unlikable character that was impossible to side with, but it seems like the apocalypse has sobered him up a little it seems. There’s still some darkness lurking under the surface and you’re constantly told by everyone around you that he’s not to be trusted, but at the same time you can see that he at least is trying to be better. This is in stark contrast to Kenny who returned in Season Two who was so unsympathetic despite everything that happened to him that the only reason you really kept him around was because he was nostalgic to you, and to Clem, and little else.
What good character work however is squandered in the advancement of the plot which starting to lose me because of how familiar it feels. Without going into spoilers, as the post heading states, it’s starting to feel already way too similar to Season Two and Michonne where a group of characters enters a town, which of course is run by characters that you know are hiding something. At the very least you feel that maybe those running The New Frontier are on the up and up despite what Clem has said about them, which is much better than Micheal Madsen’s cartoonishly evil Carver from Season Two. A lack of a compelling episode can sometimes be saved by some memorable action sequences, but even the few here are routine and par for the course. The lack of tension presented by the walkers given that this is now Telltale’s fourth stab at this franchise is maybe a sign that they just don’t scare the player like this used to, however as shown in Michonne, you can still frame action in a way that’s can still be interesting even if there’s no fear in the situation.
While playing through Above the Law, I thought to myself how impressed I was about the visuals, in particular the character faces. Javi’s face seemed more for the lack of a better term, dirty, which it would be given that he was on the road and crammed in a van with a family of people, and Kate’s face up close was more freckled than what I’ve seen any character in this series. Given that this is the first Telltale game to not be held back by the last generation of consoles, this maybe marked a new era of Telltale that was more stable tech wise where things like the invisible man fight from the conclusion of Batman: The Telltale Series wouldn’t happen anymore. This is not the case however, as this was the hardest episode of anything that Telltale has ever done to get through, at least for me. On one sitting my game crashed three times at the same part and then I gave up and went back to Horizon: Zero Dawn out of frustration. I returned one day later and thankfully got back past the part that was crashing, only to have the game crash again at a much later part of the chapter.
Maybe putting such a large gap between the first two episodes and Above the Law was not that wise a choice from Telltale as it put high expectations on an episode that it couldn’t possibly hope to meet. While not exactly terrible, episode three doesn’t generate the same excitement for the series like the premiere did and hopefully the momentum will swing back around going forward provided Telltale can keep with a regular schedule in the same way they did with Batman last year. This may be a tall order as next month Telltale will be juggling both The Walking Dead and their brand new Guardians of the Galaxy series, but if they’re going to have such a long hiatus again, whatever episode four is better be able to move the series forward in a new direction or else they’ll not be able to rely solely on The Walking Dead name to keep player interest.