Game of Thrones: Episode One – Iron From Ice Review – PC/Steam

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After two successful seasons of The Walking Dead and the surprise hit, The Wolf Among Us, it seems Telltale Games has perfected their own niche in the adventure game genre.   Blending exploration, observation, collection, and conversation (lots of conversation), Telltale has created a template that seems suitable for dropping in just about any pop-culture narrative source material and generated months of episodic content.

I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical when I heard Telltale was going to be tackling something with the gravitas and loyal fan base of The Game of Thrones.  There had already been one attempt at a Game of Thrones video game that was pretty awful, but if anybody could pull it off, it was Telltale Games.  And as with any video game based on content that fans know inside and out, I was curious as to how they were going to fit their game into the existing universe of the books and the HBO series.

The first issue to address is “should you play this game if you haven’t watched the show?”  Probably not, as much, if not all of the content is firmly entrenched in the lore of the existing series.   A very good example of this takes place mere minutes into the game as the camera pans up to reveal a stone tower and the title card appears in the lower corner informing you that are at the Red Wedding.   If you have never watched the show then those words mean nothing, but for those who have, your jaw will hit the floor as fast as the controller you just dropped.

Over the course of the series, and even in this episode, you’ll be playing as multiple characters beginning with Garred Tuttle, squire to Lord Forrester who has just promoted you to join the ranks of the other soldiers.  Sadly this promotion takes place mere moments before the treacherous events of the infamous Red Wedding.  Later in the game you will take over for Ethan Forrester and even his sister Mira, who is currently serving as handmaiden to Margaery Tyrell in Kings Landing.

Episode One: Iron From Ice is used primarily to set the stage for the upcoming five episodes – yes “five”, as this is the first Telltale Games series to feature six installments rather than five – there is just that much story to be told.  As always, players are forced to make quick conversational decisions, often under rigid time limits.  By only giving the player 10-15 seconds to choose a response it forces you to actually role-play a bit, making decisions as the character rather than trying to second-guess the designers and pick what you might think is the proper response.  My only issue with this is that the timer starts while other characters are talking, forcing you to listen (and perhaps read if subtitles are on) while simultaneously reading 3-4 other options then having maybe only five seconds left to hit a button when the other character stops talking.  You can always pause the game to take as much time as you wish, but for some reason that seems like cheating.

Thinking fast and talking fast are trademarks of the Telltale game design, and I only call them out on it now because every decision in this game has the appearance of being more than it really is.  For the first time in any Telltale adventure I was uncomfortable, not only with the situations and choices I was being forced to make, but with the end results of those decisions.  It seems that nothing I did or said was right.  I was constantly being chastised by my peers and constantly reminded that somebody was “going to remember that” after locking in my choice.  In a world where pleasing one person pisses off everyone else you ultimately have to take ownership of your own destiny.

In retrospect though, that is how the TV show is presented.   Season after season is nothing more than episodes of bad situations made worse, as the characters dig themselves deeper into their own pits of despair through poor choices because, honestly, in this world, there are no good choices, just lesser degrees of bad ones.  At one pivotal point in this first episode Ethan was called upon to dispense justice on a thief.  There was no question of the man’s guilt, but you were still left with the task of letting him go with a warning, cutting off some of his fingers, or banishing him to The Wall.  With his little brother, twin sister, and the entire town watching, no single choice was going to please them all.  I literally had to stop playing at this point – thankfully this was not a timed choice – and deliberate like a real jury.

In the end I stand by my choice despite the verbal repercussions I suffered later in the episode, and that is the beauty of these games – your choices matter, perhaps only in the moment and perhaps only in an internal soul-searching fashion such as this, but other choices will affect events later in the episode and even carry over to future episodes and even other characters.  I am a firm believer in a single-save-stand-by-my-choices playthrough, but The Game of Thrones is the first game to tempt me to want to start another save file and see just how different this game might unfold with different choices.

When you aren’t making those tough conversational choices you are free to roam around, search and interact with your surroundings.  The game is also interspersed with the occasional action sequence that requires various button-mashing or maybe steering a circular target over a hotspot and hitting a button.  The PC version is playable with a controller, although the analog sticks seemed overly sensitive in these quick-event moments.  Thankfully, the game is forgiving and you are allowed a few misses before you are met with a death screen and sent back to the last checkpoint.

Telltale Games have always had a unique visual style and The Game of Thrones may be one of the best yet, as the game comes to life with a unique living oil painting look that seamlessly blends the animated characters into their stylized scenic backdrops.  You have minimal control over the camera during the exploration moments, and the action sequences and dramatic scenes are shot and presented with the same seriousness and visual impact of the TV show.  The opening title sequence is perfectly recreated Telltale-style, and throughout the game there is plenty of great music that enhances the already-intense atmosphere.  To seal the deal, many of the major characters are being voiced with their TV actors including Peter Dinklage, Lena Heady, Natalie Dormer, and Iwan Rheon – and that’s just the first episode.  Other actors have signed on to play their respective characters in future chapters.

Episode One: Iron From Ice lays down a strong foundation for future episodes, and I am eager to see what happens next.  With five characters to play; all with intertwining stories that ripple with each choice I make, I don’t just feel like a person playing a video game but rather the director and perhaps in some limited way, the author of my own Game of Thrones spin-off mini-series.  I only hope my choices end up truly making a difference, because this is one of the few games that actually had me losing sleep, stressing over the choices I have made or might make again if I choose to replay the game.  And with a game as good as this, that is one choice that won’t be hard to make.

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