Monday, December 8, 2014

Game of Thrones: Iron from Ice review


Up until recently, I used to be one of the non-believers of Game of Thrones. Not only that, in fact, I would often mock people for wasting time on it and ridicule their preference to such a degree they'd often stop mentioning said series in my company all together. Perhaps not the most mature move from my side, so I suppose Santa's skipping my place this year.

I didn't care much for the very premise of the series, mainly because I've always detested low-fantasy settings; partly due to the same reasons I avoid Sci-fi: they tend to turn way too depressive and....real. For me, escapism has always been about beating the laws of nature and do the very impossible, and when I heard how much misery could be pressed into a single episode of GoT, I frankly failed to see the appeal. Despite how many boobies they claimed to have.

I managed to avoid GoT entirely up until the end of the fourth season. That's a lot, yes. I suppose it started finding its cracks in, when I started on Breaking Bad and Walking Dead, that both flirt with the premise of sudden death and in general pull the carpet out from under your legs when you least expect it. So, when I finally decided to sit down and give GoT a slight chance (very convinced that this would be pathetic) it didn't take long till I was suddenly finding myself half into the third season, wondering where all that time had gone?


I could go on for quite a while about why I like GoT, and even more so, how that fact keeps puzzling me. It's a strange fatal attraction so many people share for these works that can mildly be summed up as narrative PTSD-experiences that shatter our minds and feelings; yet we keep up with this universe, perhaps because it joins our hatred and for such a long time manages to keep the bad guys alive. All while dangling the possible hope, that they COULD possibly be the next. (I know for sure that the death of a certain someone in season 4 likely caused me to celebrate more than I ought to...)

With such a story to tell...
And so, if you've read my other reviews, you'll know that I'm also a huge fan of Telltale; the gaming company that blessed us with great titles such as The Walking Dead and Sam and Max. When I heard they were going to launch an adaption of Game of Thrones, I was kind of suspicious about it. Mainly because, GoT never struck me as a platform for gaming in the first place. But then, on the other hand, if anyone should be able to pull off the gloom and doom of Westeros, it had to be Telltale. I fondly, and sadly, remember my first playthrough of The Walking Dead Season 1, and how insane an emotional rollercoaster that was. It was one of the few games that made dream, and certainly not in a good way; so with launch a couple of days ago, I sat down and bought the first chapter: Game of Thrones: Iron from Ice.

Where to begin? 
Reviewing Telltale games before they're fully done is kind of like reviewing a book one chapter at the time. It's kind of the cardinal trait of the company, that you'll have to wait for the next episode, which I suppose stays quite true to the original concept.

So, at the time of writing, you'll have to do with the first chapter out of six, and patiently wait for your next meal to be served. This was also the case with The Walking Dead, in which I felt it put a lot of pressure on the individual episodes, that would likely have been alleviated to some extent, had you been able to play them all into one long stretch.

Ramsay Snow. He wants some answers from you...
During this review, I will do my best to avoid any major spoilers, of course.

In the first chapter of GoT, you're introduced to House Forrester. A house loyal to the Starks, whose members seem to serve as the protagonists of the series. Chronologically, the game begins at the same time as the end of season 3 (yes, exactly at THAT ONE EPISODE!) which is also the same event that kicks the game into motion. You start out in control of the young squire Gared, who's quite early in the story flung out into a difficult decision when chaos breaks out, and from thereon you pretty much go with the story onwards.

Compared to, say, the first chapter of The Walking Dead, GoT is different in the sense that this is a strong setup for the rest of the series. You don't stick to one protagonist, but instead get to control three different during the episode, that all tell their story and involve you in their predicament. From the young squire Gared, to his sister in King's Landing and his young brother who suddenly has to take up a heavy burden of responsibility. I found this to be a good structure, that stayed true to the show's premise of constantly switching between various factions, rarely staying with the same for all too long. One could argue, however, that the time you get with all three of them seems short when they all have to be cramped into this single episode, and some of the scenes taking place in King's Landing can feel a bit stretched and tedious.


DO SOMETHING!
That, however, is a minor complaint and in magnitude dwindles drastically compared to some of the elements that annoyed the shit out of me in TwD. Building a swing or burying someone step-for-step was something that likely had a clever idea behind it, but ultimately became a huge detriment. While some of that IS in GoT also (being Telltale and all) I felt there was much less walking around, clicking on random shit most of the time. The story is heading forward and rarely leaves you hanging for that long.

In this regard, I may need to elaborate on my sense of action; being involved in decisions through talking and events. While the first chapter does have a share of action, you really are expected to sit through long conversations and make decisions from them most of the time. If this puts you off, you should at least consider yourself warned in advance. Being GoT and Telltale, you'll be forced to make decisions – most of the time on the fly as the timer is ticking. I'm not sure whether it was just me, but compared to other titles, I actually felt you had less time to chose your replies this time around?


It makes for the stressful and tense structure you either love or hate in these games; and while episode 1 didn't have any of those “OH NO FUCK YOU GAME!!!” decisions I felt in TwD, there are a couple of gems in between. 

I tried remaining true to a certain style of play...


Decisions, decisions...
If there is one thing that Telltale does really well, it's the illusion of choice. I'm not saying this as if it's a bad thing, 'cause it isn't. After all, if you had to make a game in which choice truly mattered on a massive scale, the ordeal would be massive. Even some of my favorite holy cows, Dragon Age Origins, are full of illusions of choice. You may chose side A over side B, meaning side A will help you in the final battle, but other than that, nothing. You can't change certain major events, for example; some people are doomed to die. This is something I truly loathed TwD for; for example that some of the people simply would die no matter what you did. Much of the story was simply hard-coded, and some of the choices I made early on were mentioned later but didn't really change anything.

This issue, I'm afraid will continue in GoT. Giving an example would be a massive spoiler, so just allow me to say that no matter what you do throughout the episode, a certain something is bound to happen in the end. Besides from that, it's really hard to say at the moment what impact your decisions will have later on, seeing how this is the first chapter and all. As said, the FEELING is there. When I had completed the first chapter, which took me roughly two hours or so, I couldn't help the nagging notion that I'd set my entire family up for disaster, even though I thought I did so well. In that regard, I suppose the game truly hits its origin fairly well.


DUH-duh-du-du-DUH-duh-du-du-DUH-duh...
This game is made for people who're familiar with the universe. That may go beyond saying, but still; I knew absolutely nothing about The Walking Dead before starting out on Telltale's version, and it didn't matter. It got me into the universe.
As for GoT, I'm pretty sure I would've stopped half an hour in, because this game really is made for people familiar with at least the first three seasons of the show. It goes to great lengths to set the mood, including the by-now-very-famous theme-song from the start and casting the visuals and voices of the original actors quite well.

One thing the game does really well, is truly making you FEEL like part of an episode. This is both terrific and terrifying at the same time. Being greeted by Tyrion Lannister had me jumping with excitement, which was instantly replaced as I were to beg Queen Cersei for help the following moment. The writing is in this aspect really good, and the great names keep to what makes them great all throughout the series. Cersei will leave you with a dreadful feeling that you've been played just the way she planned, and a late meeting with the ever unsettling Ramsay Snow is as volatile as could be expected. You have to navigate your way through these conversations, all the time managing the balance of saying what they want to hear, and yet stand up for your family, hoping they'll just go away and provide you with what you want.

In this regard, the game is an absolute blast and I can't wait for even more of it!

  
No, wait, already?
My major complaint about the first episode is that it feels really short. With so much setup needed, of course I understand this is a premise that's hard to avoid. Yet, I couldn't help feeling a bit let down, seeing how the episode pretty much shuts off as soon as you feel it's getting started. Even compared to the first episode of TwD, everything here felt too shallow in the end and so many points were touched upon, without being fully explored.

In this regard, I suppose it's a kudos to Telltale that I'm eagerly waiting for the next episode, only I hope it will be longer.

Conclusion:

If you're a fan of the show, you might consider this for a good story. If you're a fan of Telltale, you'll pretty much get what you're used to, which is a good thing. If you're a fan of both, chances are really good that you'll like GoT. Only be prepared that it's a very fun, albeit short ride, that will leave you wanting more, being slightly annoyed at it for leaving you just as things were about to get going.

Score: 7/10

Pros:
  • Genuine authentic feeling of being in Westeros and playing your own GoT story out.
  • Original voice actors and music are both a blessing
  • Some rough decisions that will surely come back to haunt you

Cons:
  • Way too short
  • Too much setup that ends just as things are about to get going
  • So far, very limited influence on the turn of events (which is likely due to change later)