After years of troubles and woes, Telltale is finally back. The company was responsible for some of the most engaging narrative games (or, well, adventures) in the early 00s. Now, with The Expanse, Telltale has been given a second shot at going back to what they used to do best. This time, though, it's taking their emotional stories to space.
This five-episode series was developed with the philosophy that the player does not really need to be familiar with the events of the TV series. The story in the Telltale game functions, rather, as a prequel, but if you are familiar with some of the terms and events, then you will have a much better time than the average player going in blind.
The game follows the story of commander Camina Drummer, a tough-as-nails female soldier hailing from the Belt. These are colonies outside of our solar systems, where Earthers have been consuming resources and exploiting the local population. As a Belter, she looks out for her own people and wants to see them thrive. This is only one of the main driving forces in the narrative, as the “bosmang” will come up against many adversaries, such as pirates and the plotting commander Cox.
- Read more: Telltale's The Expanse interview - Developers on early development and appealing to new fans
We get to explore abandoned ships and talk with our fellow crewmates around the Artemis ship. As opposed to several of Telltale’s past hits, conversations only offer two-option branches. The good ol’ “X will remember that” does pop up to let you know when something will have long-lasting consequences. Still, there is not a lot of context, especially considering how many of the topics refer to events in the TV show that the player might not be necessarily familiar with. Each choice can, potentially, be game-changing.
The story starts gaining traction the moment the crew discover traces of a mysterious Core: an incredibly valuable treasure waiting in an abandoned ship somewhere, and finding it could very much change the fate of the five crew people on the Artemis. Keeping things on a small scale is definitely for the best for Telltale. With each episode lasting not much longer than one hour, there wouldn't be enough time to introduce many characters in the story.
During each chapter we explore a shipwreck, looking for items which can be salvaged and clues to our next objective. This sequence is a welcome break from the usual dialogue and branching choices. While exploring can be entertaining, the moment that Telltale goes for the action sequences, things get weird. Not only do they go back to the tired QTE sequences, but when Drummer has to avoid droid monitors or gets insta-killed, things can get repetitive very quickly. Also, the occasionally imprecise controls of an adventure game in space aren't always suited for quick-react action sequences.
The dialogue introduces many slang terms and vague, hard-to-place accents, which are a nifty shortcut in giving each character a personality. The voice acting provided by the original actress, Cara Gee, for Camina Drummer is top-notch, our friend Maya is also a standout. The other characters don’t fare that well, unfortunately. There are even a couple moments where you can hear microphone clipping, which can be distracting.
The Expanse series works best when just sticking to dialogue and narrative. While the exploration sequences are fine, the quick-react action events would have been better left on the cutting room floor. It is the interactions between the characters that carry the most weight. In the Expanse, a connection between Drummer and some of her crew will start to be unveiled very soon. Perhaps it comes on a bit too suddenly, but then again, with just one hour per episode (and some even shorter), it makes sense to leave the player to fill in some of the gaps to the character’s previous events and interactions.
While I was not a fan of the action sequences, and the exploration sessions could have used a bit more attention, what kept me glued to the screen was the characters, the writing and their connections. Drummer, despite at first glance being a classic tough-as-nails hero, has a personal frailty about her which comes through in certain moments. All the way through episode three I made the most careful choices possible, but ended up not with the consequences I wanted - as it often happens. Tears were shed over that episode three ending, I can tell you that.
The final two episodes, which I will be careful not spoil, seem to be designed to be a direct continuation of the choices you have previously made. There seem to be no major choices in the fourth and, while there is one important choice in the final episode, it seems to be designed to be almost a no-brainer. Unless you really want Captain Drummer to go all out on ruthless revenge, but I don’t think that’s really her character.
On the plus side, in the final two episodes, there is only one quick action sequence. Episode four actually features one of the biggest puzzles in the entire game, which did stump me for a few minutes. In the fifth episode, we finally get introduced to Toussaint, the pirate that teased us in the previous episodes. While she doesn’t get really enough screen time, she chews the scenery and is easily the best part of the final episode. All in all, the ending is satisfying, even though perhaps not mind-blowing.
The Expanse is Telltale going back to what it used to do best: great writing and an emotional story. While the action sequences still need work all these years later, this is a title that fans of great narrative should keep an eye on. If you’re feeling nostalgic over some of the more emotional moments in Mass Effect, then The Expanse is a great way to be reminded that, even in space, tears still hold their weight.
Reviewed on PC. A code was provided by the publisher.
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