Man, it’s good to have Telltale Games back. The development crew that worked on decision-heavy adventure games featuring well-established IPs was so strongly entrenched in its niche before being whittled away. I still prefer their The Walking Dead to the TV series. With a significant portion of the development team back, it’s exciting to see what they can do with a newer popular series, The Expanse, which just finished its presumed final season last year. But is this a return to form for Telltale, or are they still stuck in the void?
Compared to its space-faring kin like Star Trek or Firefly, I argue that The Expanse is already an RPG, featuring a plucky core group of four party members, with guests who come and go, who are constantly on quests to stave off threats to a fragile peace between two empires who both want war. James Holden and company even get an airship (is that cheating?). While it seems a fitting setup for a video game, The Expanse: A Telltale Series, much like its decayed grandfather, The Walking Dead, is more of a traditional graphic novel than an RPG, not reinventing the thruster by any measure, with a few quick-time events thrown in to remind you to stay frosty. This story doesn’t feature Holden or any of the Rocinante regulars, but rather a character who comes to prominence later in the series, Camina Drummer, in a story set a few years before the show’s events.
In Episode 1 (of an eventual five), you’re introduced to a new crew on the Artemis, a scavenger ship for which Camina serves as second-in-command to the overpromising Garrison Cox. Soon you meet the rest of the small crew, including my favorite, the no-nonsense pilot Khan, who seems irritated at the notion that anyone would deign to interrupt her while she’s working. Even in the short playtime of Episode 1, you gain a more rounded view of the usually terse Camina, showing her proclivities as a crew member, leader, and friend. Is there also a budding or ongoing romance I detect between Camina and Maya, the Martian representative aboard the Artemis? Time will tell. Telltale accurately brings the show’s balance of a dark and brooding atmosphere with more light-hearted characters and situations to this series. We also get a nasty hello from a new dangerous threat, but their intentions remain unclear.
Though The Expanse TV series in many ways presented itself as Game of Thrones in space, Episode 1 gives a scant taste of the labyrinthine political battle of the show, with Earth, Mars, the Belt, and the OPA all represented in the crew. But you won’t be running to the UNN here. Instead, the game so far more resembles the tense missions the crew of the Rocinante occasionally goes on to investigate and defuse the latest threat to peace in the galaxy. In this case, it’s a scavenging mission, which fans of The Expanse know never goes well.
Telltale games are all about decision-making, and though there are a few decisions to make, including a couple of major ones, it’s difficult to tell what the impact of those decisions will be until more of The Expanse’s story is released. A run through Episode 1 takes about an hour, which isn’t enough time to develop the sort of story where the weight of those decisions will be felt. But as Camina is clearly developing into someone who can lead a crew like the Artemis’, surely even small choices will point to what kind of a leader she’ll be when she eventually occupies the captain’s chair. As the second-in-command, she already takes an active role in keeping her crew straightened out and managing the ship.
A portion of Episode 1 involves exploring the remains of an obliterated capital ship. As if the hazards of a mission like that aren’t evident by the description alone, some dangers have yet to reveal themselves. I’m not sure exploring in zero-g will ever get old, and that’s the most thrilling portion of Episode 1. I was just minding my own business when I was informed I would need to walk up the walls, which the game makes as disorienting as possible, in the best way. Though it’s hardly an open world, the area you get to explore is expansive (ahem), and I enjoyed boosting my way around the debris. It also isn’t a Telltale game without quick-time events, though The Expanse only features a few. Although action sequences in past games were more frantically paced, you have a lot of time to press the correct button here. Is Telltale going soft on us?
Though Camina is the only character from the show featured so far, Telltale’s not going to let you go without throwing some cameos at you. While I enjoyed it when the voices of a couple of recognizable characters popped up (though they didn’t appear physically), I hope their presence will lead to more than a few throwaway lines. It’s exciting to consider the possibilities, but we’ll see how hard this story is willing to go in subsequent episodes.
Telltale games have typically had a cel-shaded look, in the spirit of the comic books and video games many of them are based on. The Expanse is a little something new, as it’s a more realistic look that’s in touch with the live-action show. Yet, the characters still have that unmistakable oddly proportioned Telltale style, with slenderer bodies and exaggerated heads. It’s somewhat similar to the Star Wars animated series, like The Clone Wars. I mostly like the look, though I don’t expect everyone to appreciate it. While the environments generally look great, spacewalks look strange, especially the nearby celestial bodies, which look like they’re made of cardboard. That’s the only visual gaffe I noticed.
Actor Cara Gee reprises her role as Camina from the show, and she’s a good get. She’s excellent at conveying the generally stern demeanor of Camina while providing subtle inflection in certain moments to hint at levity or concern despite the gruffness. The other actors hold up their end in return. The simple background music evokes the show and the space theme. I had hoped to see a full Telltale version of the show’s intro as they had done with Game of Thrones, but the enchanting, haunting introductory piece only plays on the main menu. The control scheme is functional, but again, controlling Camina in zero-g is the highlight of the episode. The Expanse is definitely intended to be played with a controller, and controlling the camera with the mouse for the whole episode would have induced motion sickness as if I had just exited Earth’s atmosphere for the first time.
While I enjoyed my time in space in Episode 1 of The Expanse, a part of me still wanted more. Unfortunately, that’s not only because it was so enthralling that I couldn’t wait to see the other side of the cliffhanger ending, but because it’s so short. On a second playthrough, I picked all the opposite choices of my first run, but the consequences are too far-reaching to feel any difference. Episode 1 mainly serves as a mere reintroduction to Camina and her surroundings, which are new to fans of the show and newbs alike. It’s The Expanse, not The Compact, and I get the feeling I’ll need to see the rest of the series to have a firm position on where it lands.