‘The Walking Dead: A New Frontier — Episode 1: Ties That Bind Part I’ (PS4) review: The meaning of family

‘Ties That Bind Part I’ a stellar return to form for Telltale

This. This right here is what I talk about when I refer to the talent Telltale Games possesses when it comes to storytelling. By blending a gripping plot with silky-smooth performance and its unique comic-book take on graphics, Telltale dazzles with the release of the first episode of “The Walking Dead: A New Frontier.”

(Note: Telltale released the second episode at the same time at the first. This review covers just the first episode; a review for the second episode will come at a later time.)

“Ties That Bind Part I,” the first installment of the third season of Telltale’s premier series, smartly takes elements from the first two seasons — particularly the triumphant return of former protagonist Clementine — while obviously working toward overcoming former obstacles — mainly longstanding technical issues.

Fans and newcomers alike will find an energetic story that leaves your jaw on the floor in the episode’s final minutes (which there weren’t enough of, but we’ll come back to that). I already mentioned the return of Clementine, but the story this time focuses on a new protagonist with his own family and life-after-zombies problems to deal with.

Unsurprisingly enough, the world starts out simple enough (if a bit violent) for our new character, Javier “Javi” Garcia (voiced by Jeff Schine). Tension is the air, but for once it’s not caused by the undead. The ensuing family drama is relatble and tightly paced, keeping us wondering just when everything is going to go wrong. (A small quibble: Telltale released a trailer not long before the episode came out that showed the first several minutes; if you watched it, you know what happens in the opening sequence, which is a shame because it’s so good.)

Still, it doesn’t take long before Javi’s world begins to fall apart, throwing us back into familiar, zombie-infested territory. By the time the opening sequence ends, it’s several years later, and Javi is doing what he can to survive, along with protecting his brother David’s wife, Kate (voiced by Shelley Shenoy), and David’s two children. If the idea of a cobbled-together family seems familiar to you, it’s because it’s long since been a Telltale staple. Still, it’s an effective storytelling device, and it works effectively here. You can understand the frustrations of having to do something for someone you may not want to or dealing with uncomfortable yet unavoidable circumstances. The major difference this time, as compared to previous seasons, is that this little group is actually family, which isn’t something we get a lot of in this deadly world.

But yet again, before you become too comfortable, danger rears its terrifying head, separating Javi from his family. But fret not because this separation marks the return of a series favorite: one baseball-cap-wearing, gun-wielding Clementine (voiced by Melissa Hutchison). And this time around, she doesn’t care about anyone plight’s but her own. It’s a stark hardening from the compassionate if suspicious little girl we left in season two. Regardless, I know I cheered when she came into Javi’s life.

But the focus doesn’t stay on her for long. For the most part, she serves as a foil to Javi, his charisma and overall trusting attitude to her more violent, untrusting nature. Their trek to find help for Javi’s family (and to serve Clem’s own goals) revels just how different these two are, but how they may come to be a powerful duo as the game progresses. And while some may have wanted a stronger focus on Clementine, it was a wise decision to have her play second-fiddle as we become acquainted with the new kids on the block.

And for those who played the previous seasons on the same console you’re playing “A New Frontier,” the game will pull previous decisions you’ve made and merge them into this story. Your choices alter quite a bit of backstory, casting Clem in different lights depending on how you proceeded through those earlier seasons. For those who didn’t (or who haven’t played the series before), you have the choice to answer a series of questions to best simulate your personal Clementine. Or you can just go in blind, if you choice.

After the technical issues that plagued Telltale’s last release, “Batman: A Telltale Series,” it wasn’t wholly unfair to worry about how “A New Frontier” would handle. I’ve noted before that Telltale games tend to suffer from performance issues; this time around, that wasn’t a problem. No frame rate issues, no stuttering, no crashes, no weird dialogue syncing. Nothing. The entire episode ran as smooth as better.

In the end, “The Walking Dead: A New Frontier — Episode 1: Ties That Bind Part I” is a powerful entry into Telltale’s strongest series, showing players once again that the company is capable of great things when it doesn’t rush. The reintroduction of Clementine, the creation of a new protagonist and a shocking cliffhanger have me on edge as I get ready to play “Part II.” Would it be too much to hope that the worse doesn’t come to pass? Probably.

Four “We know better than to hope” stars out of five.

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