EDITOR'S NOTE - We'll be doing something a little different with episodic content of this sort from here on out. Rather than establishing individual scores for each subsequent episode, we'll be having a consistent reviewer play each episode and write a review sans numeric score. When the entire season has finished, we'll compile a synopsis of the season and establish an official score.GENERAL SPOILER WARNING - While this review is presented free of spoilers for the game experience, this game does take place near the end of season three of the HBO television series. Those who have not gotten that far (or have not played Episode 1) should proceed at their own risk!Game of Thrones has been built under an attitude that the worst tends to happen, that there are no happy endings, and even the most triumphant turns of purple can ultimately mask the worst of consequences. The bad guys can (and do tend to) win, the plucky upstarts are usually squashed, and David doesn't beat Goliath.
Expectations like that are what leaves Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series - "Episode 2 - The Lost Lords" lacking. Rather than twist the knife of the excellent and jaw-dropping conclusion of "Episode 1 - Iron from Ice", "Episode 2" comes fully equipped with one of the more ridiculous instances of deus ex machina that the series has ever seen. Rather than forcing players to deal with the (shockingly bad) hand that they're dealt at the end of "Episode 1", Telltale basically walks back that sense of hopelessness and pulls a Dusty Finish. In the end, this character revelation makes the excellent end to "Episode 1" feel more like a cheap, emotional manipulation than a family altering tragedy. While the turn may ultimately be good for the narrative, it seems like one of the lazier bits of storytelling that has come out of (the usually excellent) storytellers at Telltale.
Like the award-winning HBO series, "Episode 2" continues the trend of bouncing between protagonists and settings, this time adding in a fourth character to supplement Mira at King's Landing, the Forrester family at Ironrath, and Gared, the new Crow, up at Castle Black. While each story has its merits, the new character and storyline seem to get the short end of the narrative stick. Rather than taking the time to establish this new character and arc, Telltale seems content with sweeping it to the back page and treating it like one of the bastard children of Westeros, without a house name or prestige.
Fortunately, the stories of the other three branches of the ironwood tree make up for the runt of the litter. While the maelstrom swirls around the deteriorating situation at Ironrath (clearly the game's "A" story), Gared's initiation at the wall and Mira's verbal dancing and politicking at court (especially with the most-welcome presence of Peter Dinklage's Tyrion Lannister) do well to spread the attention around and make each scenario an equitable shareholder in the story.
Unfortunately, "Episode 2" is marred by technical and gameplay issues. The episode's opening action sequence hitches and stutters, making the prerequisite QTE's more difficult than they should be. This lag is even worse when loading back into an action sequence after an untimely death. It seems as though Telltale has (once again) realized that action is not their forte, and such sequences are limited and (mercifully) short. In addition to action sequence lag, occasional graphic stutters and pop-ins, and repeating audio, the game also features one of the most patronizing game mechanics I have ever experienced, something I like to call "the ten step walk". Breaking up prerendered cutscenes are occasional sequences where you simply push up on a thumbstick to make your character walk forward about ten steps. There's nothing to look at, no objects with which to interact, it's simply walking about ten steps and starting another cutscene/sequence. I've made no bones about the fact that these experiences are more interactive fiction than "game", but walking sequences like this do nothing but reinforce the fact of how little actual gameplay is present. The game would be better served by simply eliminating such tedious and unnecessary sequences and allowing the game to run on autopilot so that the player could focus on what really matters in these games, conversational choices.
True to the source material, those conversation choices are absolutely delicious this time around. Do you forge a letter to aid your family? Do you stand up to the bullies of House Whitehill? Do you cover for newly-met acquaintances or maintain an honest attitude? If there's one thing that Telltale has seized upon, it's that even the smallest of choices can have large consequences. Unfortunately, the only way to see which decisions might have been important (and how many people sided with your choices amongst the playerbase) is to set up and log into an account on Telltale's website. The removal of the retrospective "Your Choices" feature from the end of each episode takes away one of the vital moments of reflection and dampens the communal experience of the game.
As per most Telltale experiences, the episode's eight achievements (worth 160G) are all story-related and unmissable.
After such lofty beginnings and ambitiously cutthroat turns, "Episode 2 - The Lost Lords" can only be seen as a letdown. While it does scratch the itch of "more Game of Thrones" (especially on the heels of the Season 5 Trailer) and adds a few new wrinkles to the plight of the Forresters, the experience feels as though it is setting up the next episode rather than delivering a satisfying experience. In a universe that is crafted around stark realism, bordering on hopelessness, "Episode 2" basically walks back everything that made "Episode 1" the gut-wrenching experience that it was and replaces it with a sense of general malaise and a call to heroic action... which always goes well when George R.R. Martin is involved. Here's to hoping that "Episode 3" rights (or rather "wrongs") the ship back into place.
The reviewer spent just over two and a half hours with House Forrester, popping all of the achievements and generally being underwhelmed by the story's evolution. The Xbox One copy of this episode was purchased by the reviewer.
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