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The Expanse: A Telltale Series episode one veers dangerously close to a slightly boring Dead Space

But its tetchy crew just about rescues it

Drummer smiles while holding up a blowtorch in The Expanse: A Telltale Series
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Telltale Games

The Expanse is one of those TV shows that I've started to watch about three times now. Matthew (RPS in peace) and I keep hearing great things about it, but every attempt we make has always ended the same way. We get a couple of episodes in, determined to make it a little bit further than we did before, but there's just something about it that can't quite hold our interest long enough to properly stick with it. One day, though, I do hope to finish the first season of The Expanse, and my ideal scenario is for the episodic prequel game from Telltale and current Life Is Stange custodians Deck Nine to be just the kick up the bum I need to get through it.

The Expanse: A Telltale Series started the fortnightly release of its five episodes on the Epic Games Store last week, and I played through the first, Archer's Paradox, over the weekend. As you'd perhaps expect from a first episode, the plot scales lean heavily toward setup here as opposed to actionable 'so and so will remember that' choices. Still, its centrepiece of exploring a big exploded battleship to find some sort of money-printing macguffin is also like such a sedate, threat-free version of Dead Space that it can't help but feel a little lightweight at the same time - and that's not just because you're floating around in zero gravity for half of it. It does a reasonable job of laying down what I hope is some good groundwork for the origin story for TV favourite Camina Drummer, and her fellow crewmates are a fun, bubbling pressure cooker of personalities just waiting to spill over into conflict, but I do also worry that the game will have the same truncated fate as my attempts to watch the show.

A man speaks to Camina Drummer in The Expanse: A Telltale Series
I'm still not particularly enamoured with The Expanse's Belter slang, but I get that it's an established part of the books and the show, and most of the time it was fairly easy to follow along with what it all meant. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Telltale Games

It begins like any great heist story - the promise of 'a job to end all jobs', and an equal split of the spoils between you, Drummer, and your boss Cox, who's the captain of a Belter scavenger ship called The Artemis. No need to worry about the rest of the crew, Cox assures you - they're just here to get paid. But as the game steadily introduces them to you one by one, it's clear that some of these people probably deserve their own cut - because this job is of course extremely bad news right from the off.

The crew introductions are playfully done. You only really get a single character beat with each of them in this opening episode, but the seeds of future conflicts are sown reasonably well. Your pilot Khan clearly thinks you're a royal pain in her ass, but she's tough as nails and the option to riff off her insults feels like the start of a begrudging but mutual respect. Belter twins Arlen and Rayen, meanwhile, are affable but chaotic humans constantly getting into trouble, and in this episode are the main fulcrums for the bigger story decisions. There's also Maya, who's quite good pals with Drummer, and I suspect their obvious bias towards one another will become a source of contention with the crew later on. Finally, there's the very sound egg that is Virgil the doctor, whose cool head and rational approach to problem solving is a welcome balm amid the tensions elsewhere.

A woman in a spacesuit is confronted by several floating heads in The Expanse: A Telltale Series
When you arrive on the ship, it's clear something's gone very wrong with the previous crew. Here's hoping this isn't a sign of what's to come for you and your own crew... | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Telltale Games

For the most part, each scene barrels along at a good clip, and the crew's well-established banter makes it easy to see where everyone fits in. It's quite heavy on exposition to begin with, but I found myself warming to this lot regardless, even if a lot of the opening episode is mostly on rails. This is a shame, as I was hoping to see a few more narrative beats established, especially as Telltale and Deck Nine have taken great pains to point out there's a more overarching view to the game's plot this time round, making the whole thing first rather than episode by episode after the fact. You can definitely see the embers of potential conflicts here, but whether they'll get the chance to rage fully is yet to be seen. I think I only clocked two or three moments that flagged up the classic 'your-maybe-not-mate will remember this', and the impression it gives is that this might not be quite as expansive as its name implies, or indeed previous Telltale efforts. I hope I'm proved wrong on this point, but we'll see how it goes as more episodes arrive.

An astronaut looks at a dead woman who's scrawled a message in her own blood in The Expanse: A Telltale Series
It's not quite CUT OFF THEIR LIMBS, but it sure is getting there... | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Telltale Games

When you are given the option of responding to someone, the choices are quite binary in nature - do this obviously good thing, or this obviously bad thing that will absolutely definitely come back to bite you in the ass. It lacks those murky grey areas that defined previous Telltale games, and the lack of variety (and opportunities to make them) feels like you're playing a much more narrow and authored version of events rather than choosing your own adventure, so to speak. That said, most choices still felt like they could be valid and viable in the moment. Case in point: I could have been equally rude to Khan on multiple occasions, as her sharp barbs could have easily rubbed me up the wrong way on a first impression, but seeing the option to laugh it off I instantly seized the challenge of making her my bestest best friend by the end of the game. A challenge that I've completely made up for myself, I should say, but one that I hope The Expanse will facilitate further as it goes on.

Crucially, though, I was quite pleased to see that most choices now have binned Telltale's classic timer, giving you ample space to mull and consider your options before committing to a response. Whisper it, but this actually came as something of a relief to me, though some still produce that eternally shrinking bar that signals you need to make a quick-ish-fire decision, just to liven things up a bit. There are also a handful of more action-oriented sequences - such as a friendly wrestle between Drummer and Maya that, in classic Telltale fashion, teaches you how combat works in the game - that require specific quicktime button prompts or jabbing the analogue stick in particular directions to succeed. But these felt like the exception rather than the rule in episode one, and I'll be keen to see how or if this balance fluctuates down the line.

An astronaut floats in space in front of a large, ruined ship in The Expanse: A Telltale Series
The space exploration is fairly sedate, but it's a welcome change of pace from endless walking. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Telltale Games

My biggest problem with this opening episode, though, is what you actually end up doing in it. Exploring a giant exploded carrier ship looks cool on approach, but in practice is quite a confusing space to navigate and pick through as you're floating around in zero-g, and it's not immediately obvious whether the extra scrap you scavenge actually has any pay-off or reward. It's also quite low on drama, apart from one key decision involving your chaos friend Rayen. I mean, there's even an attempt at the whole Dead Space blood graffiti on board this abandoned, and clearly very massacred ship, but the neatness of their handwriting is so preposterous that it can't help but feel like a budget knock-off.

As I say, the crew just about save this for me, lifting its flawed, slightly dull action to mild intrigue on how it's all going to turn out. If the rapid escalation of its crew tensions at the very end are anything to go by, episode two certainly won't be lacking in drama when it arrives next week on August 10th, and I'm hoping there will be a bit more to chew on there. I'll be keeping a close eye on this, and you can expect further episode updates from me as the series goes on.

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