James Stephanie Sterling
Game of Thrones – A Telltale Game Series Episode One: Iron From Ice Review
A little too “licensed,” but an otherwise robust introduction to a Telltale-flavored Westeros.
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Format: PC (reviewed), PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Released: December 2, 2014
Copy supplied by publisher
There was very little doubt that Telltale games, having more than proven itself with The Walking Dead, would be up to the task of presenting an authentic game set in the unforgiving world of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. The fact that Game of Thrones is getting the Telltale treatment is certainly nowhere near as surprising as the announcement of Tales from the Borderlands, but I must confess it had earned a significant amount of my cynicism. Aside from the fact that everything surrounding the game had been so quiet until now, I was rather disappointed to see that Telltale had used the HBO television series as a base – not because I dislike the show, but because I wanted to see a cel-shaded take on the books, complete with Telltale’s all-original character designs. The imagination this studio has, being allowed free reign in Westeros, was exciting. An HBO-licensed game? Not so much.
Evidence of my fears were made apparent pretty quickly in Iron From Ice, the premiere installment of this six-part episodic series. Our story starts on the eve of the Red Wedding, as soldiers joke incessantly about Jaime Lannister – an indication of the namedropping to come. Indeed, characters that have no business getting mentioned are awarded a quick nod regardless, giving us clumsy references to Brienne of Tarth and Bronn of the Blackwater for the sake of mentioning them. While Westeros a huge and storied placed, with scores of noble houses and thousands of names to check, this game gives us a significantly smaller and unbelievably connected world, due to the need to cram in recognizable names and faces for the license’s sake. Would Cersei and Tyrion Lannister both take time out of their day to seek an audience with a handmaiden? It seems odd that they would, and the scene is confirming in its awkwardness, but that’s the concession we make when we have a handmaiden as protagonist and there’s screen time required for Lena Headey and Peter Dinklage.
I’m just waiting for the moment a character looks directly at the camera and says, “Why, it’s Jon Snow, from HBO’s award-winning series Game of Thrones! Valar morghulis, everyone, Valar morghulis.”
Telltale with fetters is still, however, good Telltale – at least according to this debut episode. Indeed, while Iron From Ice is undoubtedly restricted by the need to wear its licensing deal on its sleeve, an original story is still told, and though the plot sometimes seems haphazardly bolted on to established events, this tale of the beleaguered House Forrester is engaging nonetheless, promising to take us to some shocking places over the course of the series.
Told from multiple perspectives, the first episode gives us three Forrester-aligned protagonists to play with – honorable squire Gerard Tuttle, Margaery Tyrell’s handmaiden Mira Forrester, and the young lord of Ironrath, Ethan Forrester. From their three points of view, we get to see events on the Kingsroad, King’s Landing, and the seat of Forrester power respectively, as the loyal bannermen to House Stark deal with the fallout of the War of Five Kings. Specifically, Episode One revolves around Roose Bolton’s recent appointment as warden of the North, and a sequence of events that puts the house firmly on the wrong side of his bastard son Ramsay Snow. As three distinct characters with wildly different roles, players will be hit with some tough choices that quite adequately reflect the harsh and unjust world of Game of Thrones. If there were any worries about this game not being authentic to the property it’s based on, let them be allayed the very first moment Lord Whitehill appears to drop C-bombs after his men get done slaughtering an innocent family.
Indeed, there’s a terrific sense of fear when interacting with certain characters. Already knowing how unhinged Ramsay is, his imminent arrival is something we get to genuinely fear as Ethan, and the aforementioned meeting with Cersei – while narratively hard to swallow – is suitably intense. Even though we’re given a transparent whirlwind tour of recognizable cast members, it’s hard not to buy into the story Telltale weaves, especially when dealing with Ethan’s tough choices as the new lord of Ironrath. When it’s focusing on telling its story, Iron From Ice feels most genuine. Ironically, those scenes not involving established characters are undeniably more authentic, since it’s here that Telltale gets to be sincere and craft an original story in an established world, using the crapsack realm of Westeros as a most fitting framework.
There are some terrific action sequences in Telltale’s typical quick-time-event idiom, with one climactic battle for survival near the beginning, and a particularly nasty encounter with the Boltons and Whitehills shortly after. As usual, keeping one’s head involves pressing directional buttons and mashing keys during struggles where applicable. Simple, but sensible, and characteristically pressuring. Being Game of Thrones, dialog is no less nerve-wracking, with the classic “They will remember that” warning for one’s choice of words bringing with it a more threatening tone than any other Telltale game – after all, how many Thrones characters do you really want recalling the things you’ve said? In the brief window of time one has to answer questions, there are some agonizing decisions to be made, and the option to remain silent in the face of queries can be a welcome one indeed.
One thing I hope to see more of in future installments, however, is a little charisma for the main protagonists. Throughout Episode One, Ethan, Mira, and Gerard feel more like featureless windows into Westeros than characters in their own right, here to react to the established cast or otherwise propel the overarching story forward. Of the three, Ethan gets the most development and garners a lot of sympathy for his difficult position, but right now, the only original character with a striking persona is the current primary antagonist, Lord Whitehill. He does make for a good foil, though, and I foresee him quickly earning a place as someone we’ll love to hate.
The art style is a little more “realistic” than Telltale’s usual visual presentation, but everything’s been given a subtle watercolor appearance, as if the people and places are paintings brought to life. The result isn’t quite as striking as the likes of A Wolf Among Us and its ilk, though it certainly has its own charm even if it takes getting used to. Notably, I didn’t notice any glaring technical problems. The issue of stuttering graphics and twitchy camera transitions is a recurring one for this particular studio, but I noticed nothing of the sort this time around. Hopefully that’s something we can see continue, as those problems have always undermined otherwise beautiful experiences. The voice acting is pretty solid, though nothing spectacular – the main cast do their jobs without really capturing my imagination, and the Lannisters feel just a little bit wooden as voice actors – Dinklage is at least better here than he was in Destiny, so we can be thankful for that. Iwan Rheon’s reprisal of Ramsay is, however, an utter delight, with the actor able to channel charismatic sadism in a recording studio just as easily as he can in front of a camera. His scenes not only make actual narrative sense, they’re simply delicious in their nastiness.
Iron From Ice is a strong start to the series, which some promising narrative setups, a believable atmosphere, and one particularly shocking moment that made my jaw drop. I won’t say anymore, due to those ever-feared spoilers, but suffice to say that Game of Thrones – A Telltale Game Series is not going to pull any punches, and aims to be just as unforgiving toward audience sensibilities as the TV show (and, by extension, the books). I do hope we see the playable characters get a bit of a personality injection, but I think we’ve got a favorable introduction that lays out its pieces in such a way that Episode Two is only going to be fascinating.