I think it's a testament to Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series – Episode 1: Iron from Ice, that I'm having as much trouble as I am trying to put what I think of it into words. Yes, that's my job, and as you can see from the words on the page in front of you, I did eventually find what I only hope are the right ones, but it was a struggle, and one for the oddest of reasons.
You see, I'm a fan of the show, and proud to say that out of everything I do watch on TV, this is one of the few shows that I am completely caught up on. As a fan speaking to other fans, there is absolutely nothing on this planet short of budget issues that should stop you from picking up Telltale's journey into Westeros. From it's opening moments, they have successfully created their own story within HBO's juggernaut of a fantasy series, even going so far as to appropriate the title sequence and opening theme.
As a fan, telling you that the game begins at the close of the “Red Wedding” is enough to set you on edge without further explanation, adding a layer of dread to the tension that Telltale lovingly borrows for the scene. Revealing that the game tells the story of a house loyal to House Stark explains certain character reactions, and breeds within you the appropriate levels of cautiousness that such a reactions demand. These things form a common language, and Telltale uses them to their fullest effect.
If you're not a fan, however, words like House Frey or Ramsay Snow mean nothing. Sending someone to the Wall sounds like a time out, rather then an icy hell somewhere between honor and penance. If you're not a fan, I'm going to be quite honest and tell you up front that while this is some of Telltale's best work, it hinges on a knowledge of what's going on for its story beats to reach its loftiest of heights. The actual Game of Thrones is a concept that is not as easily explained as “zombie apocalypse,” though the results are often just as bloody. An attempt is made by adding in a codex, and it's even accessible outside of the story, but there is still such a glut of information you're not getting that it feels weak by comparison.
In crafting their little place in what HBO has turned into a fantasy empire, Telltale singles out House Forrester, caretakers of the Ironwood Groves and master craftsman of the wood they provide, making them the centerpiece in a tale that, like everything else in Westeros, probably doesn't end well. Told from the point of view of several different characters, who themselves are spread far and wide throughout the kingdoms, Iron from Ice wastes no time in spelling out the conflict the Forrester's face. It also allows the story to explore a wide range of environments and situations, as well as the chance to introduce major players from the TV series. It would be silly to say that none of this was fan service, as so much of the game presented so far, feels dependent on these moments of recognition acting as a primer for conflict, but they never come off as cheap or forced. For their parts, all the actors from the TV series are used, each carrying their role through voice as easily as they do on set.
What does feel a bit cheap, comparatively, is the graphical engine that Telltale uses. Employed by everything since The Walking Dead, the signature style of their adventure games feels most at odds here, especially when brought up against the tremendous visuals of the TV series. It's at its most noticeable during scenes of high tension, where the words you speak carry as much weight as a sword at your side. Character eyes dart around, unsure and unfocused, while faces seem to slip in and out of subtle emotional reactions. Once scene in particular, of which I will not go into detail, hinges on reading the reactions during a conversation, and I was left feeling both nervous and confused because of the myriad of changing looks and emotional shifts.
It's those same conversations though, where Iron from Ice really shines. There's a fantastic tension with nearly every option you choose, and nearly every piece of dialog comes with a timer, forcing you to pick your way through delicate situations at a break neck pace. While Telltale also includes some action pieces, their tension comes more from the franticness of the quick time events, and less from the situation that causes them. It's a far more straightforward affair when a conversation is held with swords then on the dais before the Iron Throne. Even without the background knowledge of who you might be speaking to, there is little doubt left to the severity of the lives you play with and the sometimes horrible choices that are thrust upon you. I do wish that there was a way to choose the inflection with which certain lines are delivered, as some lines would have had far more impact coming from a place of contempt rather then a bottle of whine, there was nothing that ever tore me away from the moment.
I don't think I've reviewed another game that drew such a hard line in the sand for me. If you're a fan of Game of Thrones, there is no doubt in my mind that you should pick this up. I cannot wait to see where this goes and how the rest of the story fits into the wider universe HBO adapted from George R. R. Martin's novels. If you are a non-fan, there is certainly enough here to make a compelling argument for why you should be one, but I fail to see why you would even care to start. Seeing as I clearly fall into the first camp, I'll spend my days anxiously waiting for the next episode, and hope that you, person with your head in the sand who hates fun, decide to come along for the ride.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!