Video Game Review: The Walking Dead: A New Frontier – Thicker than Water (PS4, 2017) is Telltale at their very best

Perhaps I was a little harsh in my review of Above the Law. If Telltale’s Walking Dead games were judged on their level of interaction, then they would probably garner average scores across the board. I still maintain that the last episode served as a major turning point and definitely felt like the culmination of what has been in motion for quite a while – Telltale might finally be ‘settling in’, at least with their Walking Dead games. This might be their MO going forward, but while Thicker than Water didn’t quite make me eat my words it certainly got me to substitute  them with more favourable ones. To simplify, maybe I finally ‘get it’. 

In regular fashion, episode four kicks off in the past with Javi and Dave trying to reconnect at some batting cages. We learn here that before the world became permanently infused with the smell of rotting flesh, Dave was about to pack up and leave Kate and the kids behind to reenlist in the army, opting for a world he understood. What I appreciated most about this and scenes like it that have come later in the series, is that it makes you look back on anything you have ever said and done with Kate and forces you ponder over whether you did the right thing or not. It’s such an effective tactic, because later in the game when I was given a very crucial option, I looked back and thought about things I had learned, things I should have done, things I had a chance to make right again. Making you reassess your entire time with the game is a wonderfully inventive ploy that allows your mind to weave each episode together and make them feel more connected.

Back to present day, Javi and Dave are now dealing with the fallout of Joan’s tyranny and find themselves locked up. Dave is taken away and it’s up to Javi to escape and save him. This process doesn’t come without its drama though because Thicker than Water certainly crams it in, bringing a couple of revelations to light. Good too because the season is wrapping up and the last thing any of us want is for the finale to feel bogged down by trying to tie up every little thread it brought into the fray.

I know I have mentioned that The New Frontier has been a pretty tough series in terms of some of the choices you have to make. Well Thicker than Water does nothing to mitigate that. You know it’s bad when you neglect the in-game timer, pause the game and start having an internal meltdown about who you are as a person. At one point I regretted my decision after I saw what its ramifications were, things that I didn’t foresee or that quite frankly I didn’t care about because I wasn’t thinking with a cool head.

For this reason — that is, all of the turning points and moments of extreme importance — I’ve chosen to be light on plot details. I will however drive home how (despite my misgivings about these games in general), whatever it is that Telltale are doing, Thicker than Water is the epitomisation of how riveting and engaging their formula can be. If they are “glorified movies”, then the elements that separate the two mediums are numerable. The choice system for instance, and it’s ability to weigh on you, push you forward or hold you back, make you feel regret or validation — that’s agency and that’s what gaming is. Would I prefer a little more LucasArts in my Telltale games? Sure, but if we keep getting immersive, heartbreaking, adrenaline fueled decisions to make, then I guess choice simulators have a place in this world and Telltale are the gods.

Thicker than Water just does so much right. It builds towards an explosive finale and throws you some guns to fire. A personal highlight for me was watching Gabe’s growth and development. This episode was really bleak too. It throws some real heavy shit at you and expects you to deal with it. One of the most revealing moments was when Clementine tells Javi that she has started ‘bleeding’. It’s a raw, down to earth moment that shatters the image that this season has built for Clem and you suddenly remember that she is still just a kid, only a tad older than when we first met her.

I apologise for the dichotomy of my last two reviews. I like to consider the last episode the change in the landscape and this episode, me finally adjusting to it and reviewing accordingly. Thicker than Water is my favourite episode yet, mainly because Telltale basically took off the kid gloves and beat our conscience to within an inch of its life. It’s sweet, depressing, turbulent, heart-racing stuff and it will play havoc with the angels and devils on your shoulders. As long as Telltale keeps this quality up, I for one am all for change.

Score: 9 out of 10
Highlights: The choices were designed by Satan apparently; Pace and tension stays high; Gabe and Clem growing up; Later dialogue and scenes forcing cohesion through episodes
Lowlights: I’ll go easy on this one
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Release date: Out now
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, iOS, Android, PC

Reviewed on PlayStation 4.