Lackluster ending muddles ‘Above the Law’
We’re getting to the point in Telltale Games’ “The Walking Dead: A New Frontier” that things — anything, really — need to start happening. But by the end of the 90-minute trek through the third episode of this season, we’re basically where we started, only facing a very different threat.
“Above the Law,” which marks the halfway point in “A New Frontier,” continues immediately after the two-part season opener, as protagonist Javi tries to enter Richmond with an injured Kate on the ground and his brother on the other side of salvation. The next hour and a half takes us through the dynamics of our survivors finding themselves in an environment where they’re not in control, where every move, every decision is potentially more deadly than if they were facing off against the undead.
Javi, as always, is tasked with protecting everyone, and his sense of morality always leaves you seeing light where only darkness reigns. But other emotions make themselves known in this episode, and despite falling into the cathartic trap of wreaking revenge on those who have caused his family harm, it doesn’t seem particular true to his character premise.
Yes, bad people hurt those he loves, and he has every right to seek vengeance, but the options presented seem much more violent, much crueler than we were led to believe in the first two episodes. I tried to stick to actions that I thought Javi would do in real life, but so much alternatives presented themselves that I felt the game was forcing me to make a monster out of our hero.
“Above the Law” shines when it acts as a lens through which the definition of family filters through. Making heart-breaking choices as Clementine (in her poignant flashback) as to how to deal with a loved one will sear your soul. Deciding how you to want to progress with Kate and the others will give you pause as you ponder what’s not only the right choice, but the right choice that won’t get someone killed.
But “Above the Law” doesn’t always focus on its intense story of family drama. Sometimes there’s revenge (without spoiling anything, in one scene I pressed the triangle button until I saw brain matter) and sometimes there’s politics (I never did seem to gather the true measure of Richmond until it was too late to do anything about it).
But those stories are secondary, peripheral to what really matters here: Javi and Clementine’s stories.
But, to be fair, it wouldn’t be a “Walking Dead” game or TV episode without some human trying to ruin every little semblance of peace and happiness that our heroes scrap together for themselves. To be honest, the entire “Walking Dead” universe makes you hate the vast majority of humanity for the cruel, senseless carnage it can inflict.
So it’s only pleasantly surprising when the game can make a character so interesting, so immersive that you want to continue doing your best to save him. Telltale did it with Clem in the last two seasons, and it’s doing this season with Javi. And as long as Telltale continues to make Javi someone worth investing in, it’ll continue to have a season worth playing (and paying for).
My major point of contention in “Above the Law” is how the episode ends. Telltale is well-known for its cliffhanger endings; it ably leaves you on the edge of destruction or salvation (just remember how “Game of Thrones” unfolded). This time around, though, I didn’t even realize the game was ending until it did. No suspense, no anticipation, just a fade out as Javi is literally knocked unconscious.
Yes, the situation in Richmond doesn’t bode well for Javi and his people, but the episode’s conclusion really couldn’t try any less to make you care.
Oh, and I’m getting sick of saying it (I’m thinking about running a standard disclaimer for Telltale games at this point), but you’re going to run into frame rate issues. We’re talking about the game slowing down so much it looked the characters were talking and acting in slow motion. And that’s if the game wasn’t stuttering so bad I thought it was going to crash. (Is the fact that the game didn’t crash, unlike Telltale’s “Batman,” a plus this time around? Shouldn’t it only be a positive thing if the game was stable enough that it rarely crash, if ever?) Textures pop in like magic (in one scene, Javi’s nephew literally appeared out of nowhere, prompting a shout of surprise from me because one second the room was empty and the next we was just there.)
In the end, the third episode in “The Walking Dead: A New Frontier” excels when it tests the definition of what it means to be a family, but its execution could have use some more polish. The two-pronged tale of Javi and Clem still intrigues, but the internal (and pretty unsurprising) politics of Richmond left me bored. How many more times can someone turn out not to be who we expected? But hey, it’s relieving to see Javi is still good with a baseball bat.
Three “That’s it?!” stars out of five.