Version Reviewed: PC
Telltale Games have used a consistent formula for success in recent years: take an existing video game, book or television series, craft it into an episodic point-and-click adventure series that is heavy on the storytelling and reverently holds true to the spirit of the source material, then unleash it on the masses for everyone to drool/obsess over.
And it just… works.
So imagine my surprise and delight when I first learned of Telltale’s intentions to bring George R. R. Martin’s expansive and deservedly epic world of Game of Thrones into their next iteration of great titles, starting with episode one, titled Game of Thrones: Iron From Ice. I was a bit nervous admittedly – this is a huge universe with a complex and intertwining story and a cast of very memorable characters. I heard that there would be some characters from the books/TV show involved, and it put even more of a furrow in my brow. How would the characters, created for this game specifically, play against/with the established characters we’ve come to know and love? Well, let’s find out together.
Full disclosure – there could be some spoilers in this review concerning the books/HBO series. Proceed with caution!
Spinning a Yarn [Story]
Iron From Ice follows the story of House Forrester, family of northern nobles seated in castle Ironrath and loyal vassals to the Starks. The Forresters, cleverly, are skilled in taking the surrounding ironwood lumber and creating weapons and shields unmatched in all of Westeros. Throughout the story you play as three main characters: Gared Tuttle, a squire to Lord Gregor Forrester who is fighting the war of the five kings as one of Robb Stark’s loyal bannermen, Mira Forrester, the eldest Forrester daughter and handmaiden to Margaery Tyrell in King’s Landing, and finally Ethan Forrester, third-born son of Lord Forrester. These characters are put to the test, as the infamous Red Wedding throws the fortune of the family in question, and you play out the fate of each character akin to how the book handles multiple perspectives. Out of fear of giving too much away, I will leave it at that; but there are many twists and turns in the story of the Forresters and many more to come, which is par for the course if you’re a fan of and follow the show or books.
It is with great satisfaction though that I can say the writing in this episode has been spot-on. It feels like a fleshing-out of a side- story from the books that they simply couldn’t fit into the HBO series. Any interaction that a character in this game has with an established character flows just as well as it would have if G.R.R. Martin had written the script himself (which he didn’t, though Ty Franck, his personal assistant, serves as story consultant in this series).
Stressful Clicking [Gameplay]
Even at its most exciting adventure games rarely focus on the gameplay; story-telling and immersion within the universe always gets the most attention. At its least-exciting they’re no more than laborious point-and-click affairs to “play” through. What you usually don’t get in adventure games though, is for them to be stressful or to make your heart race. Playing some of the classics of old, like The Dig, Maniac Mansion, the Monkey Island series, Myst or any other and you can expect to have a consistent BPM throughout. The same can not be said for Iron From Ice.
I’m not going to pretend like I was sitting in cold sweat at any point or anything, but one thing that Telltale has done very right to get the heart pumping is including a timer system with dialogue choices. Every time the game asked me to make a decision or keep the conversation flowing, I felt ill-equipped to make a good call, having to read all three options (with the fourth being keeping silent) and weigh their pros/cons against my feelings at the time in a very limited window. Whether it was being grilled by Cersei Lannister in the Red Keep’s Great Hall as Mira, or being forced to make a difficult decision while a crowd of people look on expectantly, it made the few times that you interact with the game more engaging than they would have otherwise been.
There are some bits of “action” to speak of, but I say that word in quotes since they’re basically quick-time events where, if you hit the wrong combination of keystrokes, you’re forced back to the beginning of the cutscene without much loss to you except the last fifteen to thirty seconds.
Getting a Clearer Picture [Graphics]
Something I thought could have used some more work was the graphical presentation of the entire game. These Telltale episodic games have never striven to push the envelope in terms of knock-your-socks-off graphics, so I am not holding them to an unnecessarily high standard here. But there were a number of glitches or performance issues that were just annoying enough to hurt the immersion and take me out of the game, which is a worse offense than usual as the game prides itself on story and immersion as opposed to gameplay. These hiccups ranged from an drop in frame rate with multiple characters on-screen, jitters or chugging, to articles of clothing clipping through character models and hair rebelling against the laws of physics.
Another oddity to note was the mapping of jaw movement to the voice acting – it was at times like looking at a bad puppet show as their mouth moved up and down oblivious to the sounds they were making. The most notable graphical issue, though, was found in the background. It is difficult to explain as anything other than looking like the full resolution background textures failing to load in particular scenes. They look significantly low-res at times, almost like placeholders, causing some of that aforementioned suspension of disbelief to become impossible as it kept pulling me out of the story. Hanging on every word of Margaery Tyrell like a good handmaiden is difficult when you notice the castle decorators placed shoddy untextured draperies in the back.
Don’t get me wrong – I really like the art style and the way everything meshes together in general with your non-show character blending in with show characters and the like. It’s just that there are, unfortunately, more misses than hits in this arena.
But How Does It Sound? [Audio]
The sound design in the game is satisfying to say the least. The music provides good support and atmosphere when needed, but is never so intrusive as to feel like it was tacked on for the sake of getting someone else into the end credits. The voice acting absolutely shines as well. When you close your eyes, especially in scenes with established characters from the show, you can pretty easily be lulled into the assumption that you are watching an episode of Game of Thrones. That’s an impressive feat.
So there you have it – what have we learned then? We’ve learned that, despite a few flaws, some barely noticeable and some quite intrusive, Telltale looks to have another hit on their hands again. I got to the end of this episode (holy crap) just thirsting for the next fix. I will be very happy to have played this whole series, I can tell. It gets so much right, and is a subject that appeals to me, that there is simply no other way to put it. If you find yourself intrigued at all by the universe of G.R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (or the HBO Show Game of Thrones), and can appreciate a game that doesn’t have you hacking and slashing your way through level after level but rather asks you to help craft a story, then you owe it to yourself to pick this up. Run, don’t walk. Buy the season pass – you won’t want to miss an episode!