Developed by Telltale Games. Published by Telltale Games. Released December 2, 2014. Available on PC (reviewed), OS X, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, iOS, PlayStation 3, Android. Review copy provided by the publisher.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic or watching the HBO adaptation of the story it’s that I shouldn’t be surprised when bad things happen to good people. And yet, I still am. Every time. That I am able to feel real heartbreak playing Telltale’s latest episodic adventure game is a testament to the skill of the writers and designers at the studio. They took the dense subject material of Martin’s world, threw it in a blender, and spat out a tale just as grim and harrowing. It’s an extremely entertaining homage, for sure, but it certainly isn’t fresh or exciting either.
The first episode of Telltale’s six-part series is called Iron from Ice, which is the motto of House Forrester. Set mostly between the 4th and 5th seasons of the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones, the Forresters have already dealt with some of the consequences of Ned Stark’s travel south to King’s Landing and his son’s rebellion. And with the opening moments of the game controlling Lord Gregor Forrester’s squire Gared at a certain wedding celebration, the fortunes of the Forresters are only going to get worse when the stern Boltons take power in the North. The episode is successful at weaving its plot around known events like this, flitting from settings like the Kingsroad, the Twins and King’s Landing while the bulk of the action takes place at the Forrester fortress of Ironrath. In addition to Gared, you’ll also control a few other characters in House Forrester as they grapple with the politics of the realm. In this way, Iron from Ice really does feel like an episode of the HBO show, complete with a rendition of the opening credits sequence.
The graphical style of the game is different than the cell-shaded trademark look of other Telltale games. It looks like you are watching an animated painting, with soft, blended, flickering lines instead of solid black outlines. The effect is pleasing for the most part, even if it may lead to some odd graphical glitches of trees blinking in and out of existence.
The Forresters are generally a likeable bunch, with adolescent twins Talia and Ethan struggling to act strong and the eldest daughter Mira attempting to stay afloat in the mire of the capitol’s intrigues. Honestly though, the large Northern family feels far too similar to the one most people fell in love with on the show. There’s the warrior-like eldest son, the disgraced second son, the dutiful Lady Forrester, the servant forced to go to the Wall and even the boy who doesn’t really understand what’s going on. The supporting cast isn’t much better with the cartoonishly harsh Ser Royland and learned Maester Ortengryn being cut from unoriginal fantasy tropes. Thankfully the word “direwolf” is never mentioned, but I thought of the Forresters as the “NotStarks” anyway.
The real achievement is in utilizing the HBO adaptation’s actors to reprise their roles so excellently. You’ll hear Lena Headey domineer as Queen Cersei and Natalie Dormer embody the autere Margeary Tyrell. Peter Dinklage gets to prove he can actually act in a video game even if most of his performance in this episode is wasted on meaningless one-liners. The real joy/slash/horror is in matching wits with Iwan Rheon as Ramsay Bolton. That guy is just as creepy in a stylized video game as he is in the show. But while the voices match up well, the same can’t be said for the visual representation of the actor’s faces. Tyrion’s head looks too big, Margeary’s cheekbones too high, and Cersei doesn’t really look like Lena Headey at all. There may be an uncanny valley effect at work but the paintbrush style visuals do not deliver a convincing likeness for actors you should recognize instantly. (And why in the Seven Hells does Ramsay Bolton have such a thick beard?)
This being a Telltale game, the real fun is delivered through roleplaying the characters through a generally railroaded sequence of events. There’s not a whole lot of player agency – you can’t change most events from happening. Action is rare in this episode – I never thought I’d say this but I actually wish there were more quick time events to break up the pace a bit. What you can do is make important decisions and stick by them. Do you mete out a harsh judgment on a thief just trying to feed his family? Do you pretend to be loyal to those you hate just to survive or do you stand proud with your convictions? There a lot of satisfying moments – playing the game of thrones with Cersei and Tyrion Lannister as Mira Forrester with Margeary Tyrell looking on in the massive throne room of the Red Keep is downright exhilarating. The script written by Andrew Grant deftly mimics George R. R. Martin’s style of dialogue. Sadly, the “choose-your-own-adventure” kind of gameplay doesn’t work as well when you should have the power of an entire household at your disposal. Some of the scripted events can feel false no matter what your choices are – especially the episode’s conclusion.
Similar to the TV show, much of this first episode was spent laying the plot groundwork for forthcoming installments. While Iron from Ice had a large share of dramatic moments, its real purpose was to make you anticipate the release of episode two – and it does that extremely well. I’m definitely interested to see how the choices I’ve made in this episode will impact what happens in the next. Taken in that light, any of the warts apparent from Telltale tackling this major new license can be safely ignored. Yeah, I’m hooked.
Bottom Line: The first episode of Telltale’s Game of Thrones series isn’t exactly groundbreaking but it successfully draws you in to learn what happens next to the Forresters. The art style and the vocal talents are superb and the new characters feel ripped from Martin’s pages, for better or worse.
Recommendation: Fans of the show or the books will appreciate this adaptation, but if you’re looking for an original fantasy tale, you should search elsewhere.[rating=4]