Developed by Telltale Games. Published by Telltale Games. Released May 26, 2014. Available on PC (reviewed), OS X, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, iOS, PlayStation 3, and Android.
If there’s one thing Telltale Games excels at, it’s developing stories where the consequences are just as engaging as the choices. We all loved The Walking Dead despite seeing the pain our decisions had on the party, and Game of Thrones raised that benchmark to a whole new level. Sometimes, it’s a level of suffering that seemed too high, as we watched House Forrester disintegrate solely for being on the losing side of a brutal continent-spanning war. Confronting loss is one thing, but when every chapter feels like another Red Wedding might break out it’s that much harder to keep players engaged.
But the latest episode, “Sons of Winter”, has a new approach: Letting the player win. For the first time House Forrester is in a position to strike back against its enemies, thanks to new allies with shared mutual interests. Depending on your choices, this chapter is the opportunity to show everyone that House Forrester isn’t as beaten as they first thought. On every front, from Ironrath, to King’s Landing, to beyond the Wall, the Forresters are finally gaining the edge that might help them survive the coming winter.
Of course, victory has its own consequences that will play out in time. And when the episode’s final twist rolls around, you’ll feel a pit open in the bottom of your stomach that suggests everything you’ve struggled for might mean nothing. But the only reason that fear means anything is because you finally have hope – and it’s a testament to Telltale’s storytelling that we’re still invested after so much suffering.
After the events of the first three episodes, things are not looking good for House Forrester. The family is now on its third ruler in mere weeks, their rivals have installed themselves as de facto leaders, and Tyrion Lannister – perhaps their greatest ally in King’s Landing – has just been arrested for poisoning King Joffrey. Their only remaining hopes are the mysterious North Grove and a mercenary army from Mereen, both of which are too far from Westeros to lend immediate assistance. For all intents and purposes, the Forresters are on their own.
Of all the storylines in Telltale’s Game of Thrones, Rodrik’s is perhaps the one most likely to yank on the player’s heartstrings. After being assumed dead in Season 1, Rodrik returns home unceremoniously on the back of a corpse cart trying to ship bodies back to their hometown. It’s only when he manages to drag himself off the cart with incredibly restricted physical abilities that he gets the attention of his family and is nursed back to health. Sadly, his prospects don’t get much better from there.
After the events of Episode 1, Rodrik is now the third Forrester to rule his house in a span of mere weeks. Upon awakening, he returns to a vastly changed house, as the Forrester’s support for the Starks led to their territory being placed under the thumb of their rivals – the Lannister-supported Whitehills. The Whitehills couldn’t be happier to gain control of the Forrester’s lucrative Ironwood trade, but have no idea how to harvest it properly, leading to widespread devastation of the lands.
But it’s the personal drama itself that really tugs on the heartstrings. Rodrik is perhaps the weakest ruler in the Forrester’s history, both physically and metaphorically. He has no authority or military strength to repel the Whitehills – especially since doing so could draw the ire of the sadistic Ramsey Snow. And thanks to his physical injuries, he’s barely capable in a one-on-one match with Gryff, the youngest Whitehill son with a massive chip on his shoulder. But hands-down the most heartbreaking confrontation is with his finance Elena, whose father is reconsidering their engagement in light of the changing political climate.
Through it all, Rodrik’s nobility and inner strength shines through as he fights for his people. The visual of a broken leader slowly rising to oppose a powerful foe is immensely compelling and satisfying, even if the encounters don’t always turn out as you hoped. Depending on your choices, Episode 4 can offer a fantastic climax when you find potential allies against not only Gryff, but his father Ludd. Of all the Forresters, Rodrik’s story in Game of Thrones is the most consistently compelling – here’s hoping Episode 4’s latest twist doesn’t herald an early end for it.
Not that the rest of the Forresters aren’t engaging in their own right. Episode 4 was my favorite portrayal of Mira so far as she finally finds her place in King’s Landing’s hostile social circle. Previous episodes clearly established her as an innocent handmaiden well out of her depth, constantly disappointing either Queen Cersei or Lady Margery. But with a conspiracy against her house underway – one that even personally targeted Mira with an assassin – Mira truly steps up play the Game of Thrones, uncovering secrets with deception to get what she needs.
What makes Mira’s depiction especially satisfying here is there’s more than one way to play the game. For example, the player could choose to be cold and threatening like Queen Cersei, but Lady Margery’s killing-with-kindness approach is equally manipulative – and perhaps more satisfying. Finding a choice that leads to success and turning the tables with a “You’re not threatened by a handmaiden” line makes Episode 4 one of Mira’s greatest victories. The question now is whether any moral compromises she made along the way will have consequences in Episodes 5 and 6.
Gared Tuttle doesn’t have quite as much to do in Episode 4, but that perhaps that’s fair – he’s already spent the past few chapters filling in as this game’s best noble hero. More so than perhaps any other character, Tuttle tries to do the right thing – and usually ends up punished in response. Attempting to save his father’s life gets him sent to the Wall. Tracking down the North Grove will put him in opposition to his Night’s Watch brothers. But that all pales in comparison to Episode 3, when the man who killed his family arrives at the Wall as his latest brother.
As you can imagine, the encounter doesn’t end well – which means he’s now an outcast among the Night’s Watch as well. His only remaining option is to flee among the Free Folk and hope he can find the North Grove. As such, there are very few choices that carry the same weight, but there is some fantastic foreshadowing. No matter what happens to the Forresters, it’s very clear Tuttle’s story will be the most tragic – and depending on what exactly the North Grove contains, his sacrifices could be the most necessary.
That just leaves Asher, perhaps the closest Telltale’s Game of Thrones has to a traditional gaming action hero. All we knew about him in Episode 1 was that he’d been exiled from Westeros following a politically unsound romance. But since then he’s traveled the world and become an incredibly impressive fighter, perhaps even on par with characters like Bronn. But despite his charms and fighting skills, Asher isn’t the sole center of his story – there’s also his partner Beskha, a female warrior who quickly proves herself just as capable and compelling. In fact, by Episode 4 we’re more invested in her story than Asher’s – to the point that players will occasionally feel moved to put her needs over the Forrester’s.
Together, Asher and Beskha follow a more narrative quest – locate and hire a foreign army that will aid House Forrester against the Whitehills. This proves to be no easy task, as Asher first needs to survive his own personal enemies, the elements, and even an encounter with a dragon. But that dragon encounter ultimately puts him before Daenerys Targaryen herself, who will consider lending an army if Asher helps her in the crucial Season 4 battle with Meereen. This leads to Episode 4’s action-packed finale where Asher faces an entire Meereen unit – worried a single misstep will end the assault before it even begins.
Combined, the latest episode of Telltale’s Game of Thrones has everything we love from the show and books – highly-believable character drama, gorgeous locales, and riveting action sequences. No matter what playthrough you experience, the losses you suffered raise the stakes to make every victory – however minor – feel like a massive achievement. But with two episodes remaining and a final twist that I won’t spoil here, it’s still fully possible that the entire house of cards will come crashing down around you. I suspect all Game of Thrones fans will be eagerly awaiting what happens next.
Bottom Line: Depending on your choices, “Sons of Winter” finally offers a payback for every loss the Forresters suffered. Every plotline lets the player experience a satisfying victory against your worst enemies – with the exception of Gared Tuttle, who is mostly setting up the North Grove story for next month. But with two episodes remaining and a last-second twist you might still lose it all – but it wouldn’t be the Game of Thrones if you couldn’t.
Recommendation: This is a wonderful Game of Thrones experience and one of Telltale’s best games yet. What are you waiting for?[rating=4.5]