NOTE: This review is spoiler free of plot details.
Coming off of episode three of A New Frontier, I can’t say I was that excited to jump back into another episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead. After the strong two chapter season three start and a three-month hiatus, anticipation was built and then destroyed by a very safe chapter that was plagued with frustrating, game crashing bugs. This was followed by the season premiere of Guardians of the Galaxy which started off incredibly strong and was a refreshing change of pace from what I’m normally used to from Telltale. It’s amazing what one episode can do to change your mind, as after playing Thicker than Water, a chapter that would have been a satisfying season finale, I’m back to being excited for the next, and last episode of this season, of The Walking Dead.
This season of The Walking Dead has had somewhat of a rhythmic formula to its structure: a flashback with the Garcia’s, plot, a second flashback with Clem, and then back to the main story leading to a conclusion. Normally “formulaic” is something that’s taken as a negative, but in the case of this season, it’s a structure I very much like. I’ve said in reviews of previous chapters that I’ve liked the brief time spent in the past before the apocalypse and that continues in Thicker than Water. The flashback this time around deals with Javi bonding with his brother David and it shows how good of a job that Telltale has done with developing more rounded, three-dimensional characters. In the opening episodes you couldn’t imagine yourself ever siding with David, but now seeing his time before, and also in the present with Javi, you can see a redemptive arc for the character despite every character saying how uneasy they feel about entertaining David’s suggestions when you side with him should you choose to do so.
Thicker than Water also gives a lot of development to the entire supporting cast, all of which are new save the returning Clementine, changing your opinions on nearly everyone. Gabe, David’s son and Javi’s nephew, who previously was a stereotypical whiny teen who just wanted to follow in his father’s poor example, is more conflicted and starting to see things more from Javi’s side which was not really the case before. You also see more of a softer side to David’s otherwise no-nonsense warrior lieutenant, Ava through interactions with Clementine leading up to her arrival at Prescott in the season opener.
Speaking of Clem, the flashback segment where you play as her once again further helps bridge A New Frontier with the more traditionally numbered seasons that came before it. In my game which builds upon saved data from the last two season as I bought and replayed them on PlayStation 4 (I previously had played on Xbox 360) I was surprised to see the grisly fate of one character realized and the legacy of another. I don’t know how this works for those who are going into the season without any of that past data, but it made me glad that I replayed both season leading up to the launch of A New Frontier. Not only does the sequence offer more closure on the gap between seasons, I’m not really if another flashback will be part of the finale, but it really blends the old with the new, making Clem feel more in sync with the story of the Garcia’s than ever before. I’ve liked Javi and his story, but have always really wanted to spend more time with Clem and with Thicker than Water, Telltale strikes a good balance between the two without taking away from either character’s story and their stake in the present events.
This newest chapter is light on any meaningful action set pieces, but it more than makes up for it with some of the toughest choices ever done in a Telltale chapter. In both seasons one and two, decisions were never easy but yet it always felt that one was the way in which mostly people went as evidenced by the statistics in the end. Upon concluding Thicker than Water, the decisions were as close to the fifty percent mark than I’ve ever seen before with only a few going to one extreme or the other. This is the best way for Telltale to structure their narrative, especially in something based on The Walking Dead, where there’s no clear path from the choice you made to the end. One of the final decisions in the chapter will have huge ramifications on the finale. A lot of the choices here are mere catalysts for future developments where making the initial choice is the easy part; Dealing with the consequences is the hard part and it makes you excited to return to this world unlike chapter three.
In my review of Above the law, I sadly had to spend time talking about technical issues, in particular the game crashing four times in two play sessions. I’m not sure what Telltale has done to iron out these issues, but this, along with the Guardians of the Galaxy premiere, have been the most stable Telltale episodes I’ve played in quite some time. Thicker than Water had no stutters in the frame rate and thankfully I was able to complete this chapter in one sitting with no hiccups.
In one episode Telltale has accomplished a lot. Not only have they truly merged the old with the new in the ongoing narrative, but they’ve also brought a sense of tension back to The Walking Dead that has put the series back on track before its hopeful conclusion next month. If Telltale chose to end things here, I wouldn’t really have been that upset given the point where this season has escalated, and hopefully that momentum keeps up in the finale should Telltale continue doing another series in The Walking Dead universe after A New Frontier.