A well-timed stopgap before HBO's latest series of deadly politics comes to our screens, the second episode of Telltale's say-the-right-thing-or-die spin-off more or less continues the high standard set by the first instalment. If you haven't played that or ever intend to, please be warned that we're going into spoilers for episode 1 right from the off. So don't lose your head if you read on.
To recap: House Forrester are falling foul of the assorted Lannister- and Bolton-led coups across Westeros, and have suffered the deaths of their lord and two of his sons as a result. Damn, it feels bad to be a Forrester.
We pick up right where we left off, which is with assorted GoT archetypes - the noble daughter being used as a pawn in King's Landing, the good-hearted young lad sent to The Wall, the grieving family trying to resurge even as the net tightens - being dragged through a casualty-strewn side-story which runs in tandem to recentish episodes of the TV show. If you don't mind awfully, having a quick read of my episode 1 review would save us both a chunk of time right now.
Back? All caught up? I'm sorry about the typos. There definately won't be any in this one, though. OK: the major shift here is that, where episode 1's drama was fascinatingly dependent on the player's reactions to and knowledge of established GoT characters, episode 2 downplays its televisual cameos massively. Now we've come to know the major players in and against House Forrester, we're that much more able to react to them based on what we know (or think we do) of them from the last episode. It's a smart and effective shift: there are now entirely digital people with whom I innately sympathise or innately mistrust, as the case may be. In other words, Telltale's baby is starting to stand up on its own two feet.
That said, this is partly a result of characters falling too neatly into over-earnest (and probably doomed) heroes and boo-hiss baddies. In other words, the good guys are all Jon Snow and the bad guys are all either Walder Frey or random-evil-thug-who-gets-a-knife-in-his-eye-after-three-episodes-of-terrorising-people. The delectable moral ambiguity intrinsic to some of GoT's best-loved characters remains the sole-domain of relatively-brief cameos from Tyrion and Margaery. A possible exception to this is the assortment of bullies and fanatical drill instructors encountered at the wall, but the 'impress 'em and they'll defrost' routine is too well-worn from the early seasons of the show.
But it is coming together as its own story, not just something shoehorned into gaps in the bigger narrative. I suppose I care about the core cast, but much of this care results from the terrible fear that I'm making the wrong decisions rather than because I'm particularly fond of any milk-eyed Forrester. This is where Telltale's game really excels, building upon the choose'n'deal with it formula established in The Walking Dead but very much enhanced by a shot of patented Martin nihilism.
I really do feel as though things will go terribly, terribly wrong if I say the wrong this, if I do or don't pilfer this item or if I do or don't execute this wounded enemy. I was tense for every second of episode 2's approximately two-hour duration (YMMV, as always - I do like to take my time). It has its hooks in me, its risks and consequences feel as real as they need to, and I am often wracked with guilt when a bad turn of events appears to be my fault. It's not easy to pull that kind of thing off, especially in a game which is often simply showing me a cutscene. It's worked hard to be effective, and it's paid off.
The downside of this is that there isn't much breathing room. The first episode had some sequences where I felt I had time to get know some of the supporting cast a little, but while this has no shortage of character work it's always hung around critical decisions you have to make a decision on immediately. It's exhausting. If you'll permit me a meme:
Take it easy, game, take it easy! My poor teeth have diminished by at least a millimetre while playing you. I know GoT's bedrock is things going to hell at a moment's notice, but it has plenty of downtime too, and those are the time in which we most come to the cast. The solution to CONSTANT CRISIS is perhaps to play this in half hour chunks, a luxury a reviewer doesn't really have, but even so, as with all things GoT it's hard to stop when you know there's more of it still available.
There's also some repetition, and it's repetition of scenarios that were already repeated within episode 1 at that. Another confrontation with a bloodthirsty rival lord in the great hall, another dilemma about whether to stand with Margaery or take advantage of her trust, and of course more 'press W to not get stabbed' quicktime events. There's nothing new here, not that there particularly needed to be, but the recycling of situations as well as locations is a bit much.
The aforementioned quicktime events are OK, and they're presented excitingly enough from a cinematography point of view that they don't feel like the impositions they sometimes do in Telltale games, but they're nothing more than conduits to the meat of the game, which is worrying about what to say next. GoT wouldn't be GoT without killings of course, but part of me would rather this gave up the pretence that it was anything more than Game Of Conversation Options and replaced that stuff with much-needed wandering around, poking around downtime.
However, I'm enjoying this series an awful lot. More than I expected, even. It both benefits from and suffers for trying to present familiar GoT scenarios with different characters and contexts, and for that reason it perhaps lacks the specialness of tone that its predecessor Wolf Among Us had. It is far more tense, far more unpredictable and perhaps more coherent, though.
It's also got some spectacular camera work, doing a lot more to make its scenes and environment more cinematic than the comparatively televisual Wolf and Walking Dead. I'm sticking with Game of Thrones, but I'd definitely appreciate some changes to the pacing. I.e. calm down! Sure, feel free to maim and kill anyone anywhen, but give me a chance to look around a little first, won't you?
Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series Episode 2 - The Lost Lords is released later today. You need to buy the full season pack to get it, though.