After our recent trip into the outlaw world of Borderlands, we’re once again in Telltale Games territory. Which means another IP given the visual novel / pseudo point ‘n’ click treatment. I first tried this in demo form several months ago only to find it all a bit dull however having grown to appreciate Tales From the Borderlands for what it was, rather than castigating it for what it was not, I come to this with fresh eyes.
Unlike with Borderlands, this is a series I am very familiar with. George R R Martin’s world, in either TV or book form, is far too complex for me to attempt to frame here so if you are new to the series I suggest you go binge the series first. Otherwise spoilers abound.
Set in the aftermath of the Red Wedding, you control the fate of House Forrester, loyal bannermen of the Starks. After the betrayal of those no good Frey’s and the Bolton’s running amok, you find yourself on the back foot, the future of your House in the hands of an inexperienced Lord with threats on all sides.
As with Borderlands the adventure is split into multiple chapters and for the purposes of this piece I have completed only the first, with a more detailed review to come once I have completed the full story.
Whilst a huge fan of GoT, I approached this game with a degree of caution. What broke down my initial resistance to Borderlands was a crackling, witty script with relatable characters and an outlandish plot. GoT on the other hands risks being somewhat po-faced. The question is whether its complex narrative and richly drawn characters can offer the same level of instant appeal.
And the results are mixed. House Forrester is as generic as they come with a check list of cliches; murdered Lord, youthful successor, exiled brother. Indeed the early cast cause some misgivings, the voicing a little inconsistent. It is a sensible choice to base the game around a fictional house rather than attempt to weave a fresh story around established figures but at the same time enough parallels are drawn that you can’t help but yearn for the stoic strength of the Starks or the dastardly dealings of the Lannisters.
Whilst your house is new to the lore, the timeline and associated characters are not and this again brings both positives and negatives. Unburdened by preconceptions the story is free to play out local plot lines amongst family members whilst weaving in and out of the lives of more established players. It is a genuine thrill when you walk into the great hall at Kings Landing for an audience with the Queen, both Lena Headey and Peter Dinklage reprising their roles as Cersei and Tyrion respectively and instantly bringing credibility to those characters. Elsewhere that bastard (in both senses of the word) Ramsey Snow is again brought to life by Iwan Rheon, somehow managing to be as objectionable in digital form as he is on screen, hamming it up gloriously at every opportunity.
This cast of well known characters undoubtedly adds colour to the proceedings but it also constrains. As much as you might like to shove a knife down Ramsey’s gullet you know full well that he will survive the adventure until he meets his designated demise from the established timeline. On that basis the return of old favourites should be seen as the sprinkles on top of the cake and it is left to the egg and flour of the main cast to ensure this rises properly.
The game again relies on the mechanics of occasional QTEs mixed with decision-tree based conversations and whilst these affect the overall story, it is difficult to gauge how important they are in the context of each scene. It doesn’t help that some of the supporting cast are so one note. Do you listen to the counsel of your scheming maester, your diplomatic peace keeper or steel happy swordsman? Having chosen to back one character you will likely stay the course with them, the dialogue options offering little by way of sophistication, the chooses of good, bad or neutral effectively boiled down to individual NPCs. I found myself craving subtlety and verbal conflict, following the argument and choosing who to side with accordingly. Think Dany at Dragonstone, advised by both Ser Jorah and Tyrion. Neither character is inherently good or bad and so your decision to side with them is based on the merits of their argument, rather than being almost pre-determined by the course you have set.
And by chapters end it all seems for naught, the plot inevitably concluding with the same basic events regardless of which options you choose, your decisions often feeling like little more than inconsequential side plots rather than the main story.
A single episode is not enough to judge this fairly by any means. GoT excels at telling unfurling, deeply interwoven stories. As a fan of the series, I have a desire to play further, intrigued enough by the events of the first chapter and the chance to interact with the various established characters. As with other Telltale games though, inherently the limited interaction, unfolding-story style of gameplay may leave some feeling colder than a White Walker’s kiss.
In some ways Until Dawn is at an unfair disadvantage. Having binge played Tales From the Borderlands, Life Is Strange and Game of Thones, I don’t have much of an appetite left for another interactive story. Give me something to shoot, Sony!
In fairness though this is very different, albeit it shares some of the same underlying gameplay mechanics. We are again in QTE and decision based interactive story territory, this time following a group of foolhardy teens in this homage to the slasher flick genre. After the disappearance of two girls the year before, a venture back to a mountain lodge as a winter getaway.
For fans of the horror genre, particularly the teen-slasher type, this is an absolute riot. The group of characters tick every genre stalwart you could hope for; the weird loner, the love struck hopeful, the couple who split and got with other partners, the jock etc. The stand out from the group is Hayden Panetierre, forever the Cheerleader from heroes, as Samantha but some of the other faces also look vaguely familiar. The setting too is wonderfully generic, an isolated mountain lodge, accessible only by cable car, located near an old sanatorium with a vengeance-obsessed killer on the loose.
In the early stages the tone is perfect, that blend of cocky swagger from the group combined with simple jump scares and underlying threat. You take control of different characters at different points to complete specific tasks or move events forward, from tracking down a deoderant to use with your lighter to unfreeze the lock to a snowball fight between two these-guys-are-bound-to-die lovers.
Conversations are not time prompted like GoT and usually offer a conciliatory or antagonistic option. Clearly you can play through multiple times to investigate them all but the source material unlocked something in me where, against my usual conciliatory nature, I actively sought opportunities for conflict to try and isolate characters and get them bumped off. Not sure that’s the best path completing the game but it was far more fun to start a love rival spat than to get all huggy.
I’m a couple of hours in and, aside from the prologue, everyone is still breathing. It’s surely only a matter of time until someone takes an ill-fated, lonely, night time walk that culminates in their grizzly demise. And that’s what I’ve enjoyed about the experience. The characters might be horrendously shallow compared to something like Life is Strange. You don’t bond with them, you aren’t invested in them but that makes it all the more fun to antagonise everyone and then sit back and enjoy the consequences.
Graphically this is more in line with what I expected Telltale’s games to offer. The motion cap is excellent, Panetierre’s character a super likeness of the actress. And it does not impact gameplay, your avatar moving freely and realistically. The voice cast is generally enthusiastic, embracing the cheesiness of their characters. A slight nit pick but I did notice a couple of times where the dialogue came out sounding tinny, betraying that it was recorded in a booth. A minor issue to be sure but in a game that otherwise does such a good job with its atmosphere it jumped out like one of the scripted scares.
And now for something completely different.
A social quiz game, this manages to hit all my hate buttons without me ever pressing X, not least for including an exclamation mark in the game’s name. But dammit, I’m a
barely competent amateur professional, time to suck it up and reach those areas other games reviewers fear to tread.
Yes it’s a quiz game but the gimmick here is that you need to download an app on your phone or tablet to play. As few as two of you can play but for maximum ‘hilarity’ grab a group or go online. Set up in the app is as simple as a few button presses and you’re soon up and running.
Now regular readers will know that I like to fly solo in my gaming but that wasn’t possible here, so I dragged Mrs Gently into the action. We kick things off with a scenario involving a bus, a sleeping passenger and the awkwardness that results. Both Mrs Gently and I had to (independently) decide what my reaction would be (wake or cringe, shout or leave) with points awarded for matching answers, submitted by flicking the answer from your phone to screen like a digital ninja. As the round progresses we get to show off our art skills, drawing what we think the beautiful passenger looked like (I drew Mrs Gently, natch) before deciding who’s scribble was best. Finally we end with a gurning round, using our phone camera to grab a less than flattering selfie.
With two players, this is basically just a glorified Mr & Mrs but you know what, it was actually quite fun. The second round of questions we faced, now aimed at Mrs Gently, set things up in a different location but otherwise the questions were just a variation on a theme. I wonder how quickly the shine will wear off if variety is not maintained. Whilst we’re griping, as crappy artists neither of us much appreciated the drawing rounds whilst the narrator fast becomes an annoying buzz.
On the plus side, set up is simple and connection lightening fast. Neither of us experienced a network drop out or failure to register answers in our limited playing time.
Not really my cup of tea but if you’re having one of those ‘OMG when did we get so old?’ dinner parties with couple friends, this is well worth dusting off for some easy laughs.
PS3 owners get a double helping with Tokyo Jungle and Darkstalkers Resurrection whilst PS Vita owners were treated to the ridiculously named Element4l and Don’t Die, Mr Robot.
I’ve been saving the PS3 games for their own feature another day and you know what, I’m going to do the same with the cross-buy Vita titles too as part of their own Indie-rific write up. There, that’s something to look forward to, isn’t it.