As someone who really loved the narrative-focused Telltale games of yesteryear, playing another opening episode in their instantly recognizable style reminded me just how much I’ve missed them. Good ol’ zombie Telltale picks up right where the original incarnation left off, as the studio’s newest licensed project, The Expanse, is full of drama, tough decisions that leave lives hanging in the balance, and NPCs who will certainly remember your choices. Though there are many notable improvements to the look and feel of the expected Telltale system, The Expanse largely follows in the footsteps of earlier projects, at least going by the first episode, and that comes with advantages and disadvantages in equal measure.
In case you didn’t know, The Expanse is a wildly successful television show based on novels written by James S. A. Corey, and its DNA has all the makings of a series ripe for a Telltale game. There’s deeply troubling political turmoil, war, uneasy alliances, betrayals, and just about everything else you’d want players to worry about as they make their next dramatic decision. Much like The Walking Dead before it, the setting mostly serves as a depressing playground for the developer to pile on high-stakes tension and imminent tragedy. But the science fiction flavor affords for some interesting new moments, like scavenging for scrap in the vacuum of space, or shooting your fellow crewmate out of an airlock for doing you dirty.
Aside from the theatrical new setting, not much has changed from the familiar episodic formula. You’ll walk around exploring the world (or in this case, spaceship) and solve small puzzles in between the real meat of the episode – building up or irreparably ruining relationships with your comrades as you careen towards impossible decisions with far-reaching consequences. In the first episode, I had the opportunity to choose how to deal with a disloyal crewmate and was forced to pick between procuring valuable supplies by dismembering a friend, or losing those supplies but keeping 20% more of said friend. Per usual, making choices and watching the story unfold are an absolute joy. I didn’t realize just how much I missed these bite-sized episodes every couple of weeks.
There are some minor but noticeable upgrades too, like the fact that The Expanse looks and sounds better than any Telltale game before it. It’s not a mindblowing leap forward or anything, but there’s a very tangible jump in quality that’s certainly welcome. In the gameplay department though, the improvements are somewhat heftier, as the episode I played had me floating through space and magnetizing to the sides of a derelict ship in search of scraps. It’s by no means enough to excite those who aren’t drawn in by the story that’s clearly still the main attraction, but they’ve definitely come a long way from the janky tank controls of The Walking Dead Season One.
The only concern I’ve got is that, after going dark for so long, recreating the Telltale magic without changing up the formula too much might not be enough to recapture people’s interest. It certainly felt good to be playing high quality, narrative-focused adventure games again, but without any major surprises to shake up the Telltale recipe, it mostly felt like business as usual. If you were expecting Telltale’s return to blow you away with amazingly improved gameplay and graphics, The Expanse is more likely to be a moderate upgrade than anything revolutionary. For me, that’s fine – I loved Telltale games to begin with and am happy to see them keep the party going, but I don’t see it winning over a ton of new players who weren’t already convinced.
The first episode was only an hour long and only gave me a small taste of the characters and drama that surely lie ahead, but I’m already committed to seeing the series through to the end and basking in Telltale’s glorious revival. Besides, I gotta see how my crew reacts when they find out I straight-up murdered one of their friends.