Thursday, December 4, 2014

Game of Thrones: Episode 1: Iron from Ice review

    I am a huge A Song of Ice and Fire fan. I love the books, I love the show, and I love all the spin-off media except for the 2012 video game. So, I was tremendously excited at the prospect of a "do-over" video game by Telltale Games. If anyone has any experience with morally ambiguous worlds, intense family-relationships, and looming undead apocalypses it's them.

    I was curious how they were going to pull it off, though. Would it be set in the show universe or the book world? Would it follow the events of the show or attempt to do its own thing? Who would it star and how would they keep the multifaceted flavor of the books? The answer to these questions was: it takes place in the show continuity, its related to show's events but a side-story, it follows House Forrester who are the Starks-lite, and it has no less than five different protagonists.

My favorite character is Gared. Poor guy can catch no breaks.
    You only play three of these protagonists in Iron From Ice but it gives three very different perspectives on the events following Season 3's Red Wedding. I was annoyed by this as it spoils one of the biggest twists in the franchise for those who haven't read the books or watched the series. I will give them credit, however, that the realization you're at said event is a nice surprise. It creates a very dramatic opening for the game as well as an immediate hook for the main characters.

    The three main characters: Gared Tuttle, Mira Forrester, and Ethan Forrester show Westeros from the perspective of a lowly squire, a lady-in-waiting, plus a landed but impoverished lord. Each of them is in a position to be close to power but not really wield it themselves. Ethan comes closest and the burden of his station is to lord over a house which might be exterminated at any moment. Telltale works well for a game set in Westeros as it's not the sort of game where you can mow down legions of enemies. Gared is a fairly badass and, yet, taking on three people at once is an almost suicidal proposition for him.

There's a bit of an uncanny valley effect with the attempt to capture the likenesses of actors from the show, sadly.
    The game has a theme, too, which is a reflection of the books and series: the conflict between Honor and Practicality. Is it better to do the noble thing or the pragmatic thing? Does it really matter if you choose the pragmatic thing? Part of what makes Westeros unique in fantasy is, sometimes, there's no right answer.

    A thing I found annoying in previous Telltale Games is they often go the same way no matter what you choose. Here, I had little problem with it because that's another theme in Westeros: a lot of events are inevitable and beyond the power of individuals to affect. A certain character could choose how he was going to face events but, when he was executed by Joffrey, there was nothing which could have prevented it.

    Still, I suspect some of the inevitability could have been better handled. At the end, for example, a bunch of soldiers seemed to teleport into the throne room despite the fact I'd locked down the castle. The surprises which occur in the game, however, are some of the best I've seen in video games. There's a lot of places which really punch you in the gut. If they can keep up this level of tragedy and shock then the game will be a worthy addition to the franchise. Certainly, it's better than the 2012 game.

    That's not to say the game is without flaws. There's quite a lot of them, in fact.

Bullying a highborn servant girl is one of Cersei's hobbies. Of course, it is.
    Much of this game depends on you being a hardcore fan of the show or the book. Who the Starks, Freys, and Lannisters are plus what their deal is never really explained. If you don't know who they are, much of the context for the resulting scene is lost. It's the same with Cersei Lannister, Tyrion, and Ramsay Snow. Unless you know who these characters are, you have no reason to care about them in-story. I feel like in their eagerness to get to the meet of the story, they skipped us a few episodes ahead in the Season.

    Or hell, a couple of seasons.

    The game is a little TOO derivative of the franchise's beginning. The player characters all fit into archetypes from the books/series for the most part. This is the equivalent of a Lord of the Rings game which starts you as a Hobbit in Bree who's aunt leaves her a Nazgul's ring. Some of the details are different but it's still really-really familiar.

    I can't help but think Telltale might have worked a little harder to differentiate the characters from the ones in Game of Thrones. I'm not too fond of Telltale's attempts to capture the actors from the show's likenesses either. They might have done better to try and represent them in the abstract. Finally, this game is glitchier than previous Telltale entries and I wish I'd waited for a patch.

Ironrath is a beautiful location and very much like a product from the books.
     Still, I must give them credit. They've managed to capture the feel of the setting quite well. The North feels like the North, a place of shocking brutality mixed with antique timelessness and natural beauty. King's Landing is well-done, too, as you feel everyone is spying on everyone and a single word could mean your execution.

     Much of the game is set-up for the next chapter but I enjoyed the storytelling. For those of us who are hardcore book or show fans, everyone feels in-character. I could guess how all of the characters were going to react based on my preexisting knowledge, which might be cheating but was a nice change-of-pace from games where the NPCs act however the plot needs them to.

     So what did I think of Iron from Ice? Well, honestly, I think it could have been better. They might have done better having each story done separately before bringing it all together in the end. Poor Gared, for example, doesn't have an arc so much as wanders from one traumatizing situation to the next. There was a point in the game where I was trying to reassure the Forrester's daughter before I realized she was trying to do the same to me for a completely unrelated horrible event. Some quieter or joyful moments would have made the drama more powerful.

     I definitely enjoyed the game and one of Telltale's weaker efforts is above most other games. I'm also inclined to be generous because I'm a die-hard fanboy.


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