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 and first few episodes of season four of the HBO television series. Those who have not gotten that far (or have not played the previous episodes) should proceed at their own risk!In our review of Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series - "Episode 2", I expressed disappointment that Telltale chose not to twist the knife in the back of House Forrester and took what I felt was an easy way out by bringing back Rodrik Forrester (seemingly from the dead) to take charge of the house and right a ship that had been captainless after Ethan's shocking death.
I take it all back.
Almost as if the story maesters at Telltale heard my yawp of displeasure, they've doubled down on the misery and general helplessness of the Forresters in "Episode 3 - The Sword in the Darkness" and such unmerciful persecution (ironically) makes for one of the best episodes thus far.
Throughout the first two episodes, players have been challenged with trying to balance sticking up for the Forresters versus showing deference to the Whitehills. After the shocking death of Ethan in "Episode 1", the feeling of "there's no way to win this" felt oppressive. The miraculous resurrection of Rodrik in "Episode 2" gave the house the slightest glimmer of hope, but that hope feels all but extinguished as the thumb of the Whitehills presses down harder on Ironrath in "Episode 3".
Just when you feel like the general horribleness of the Whitehills can't get any worse, they find a shovel (or, in this case, a fourth born son) and dig a lower pit in the outhouse. Halfway through the episode I looked down at my notes only to find that I'd scrawled various iterations of "*F* the Whitehills". The delicious trouble with this passionate notion is that for every atrocity they commit, you are presented with an option for swift and vicious retribution, BUT there is also little bird sitting on the opposite shoulder asking, "Should you really push this?" Furthermore, every action (for good or ill) is second guessed by the secondary characters. This Monday Morning Quarterbacking is a helpful reminder of consequences, but occasionally feels forced out of the wrong mouths. The most egregious example occurs near the end of the episode when the youngest Forrester daughter, barely a teenager, looks up at her big brother, the lord of the house, and says something to the effect of, "You haven't brought our house to war yet." I'll be the first to admit that teenagers are capable of amazing things (especially in Westeros), but this dialogue felt as though it was intended to be delivered by a more mature and seasoned character.
While the main story of the occupation at Ironrath is still front and center, the surrounding stories at Castle Black and King's Landing both step up once again with some narrative juice. That being said, their stories almost feel preordained, since they make heavy reference to events that fans of the show will no doubt remember. Many of the events involving Mira at King's Landing in "Episode 3" surround the planning and events leading up to the wedding of Joffrey and Margaery. On more than one occasion, a decision or discussion is put off until "after the wedding" which does little more than render the point moot. The situation at Castle Black is equally diffused of drama as Jon Snow begins rounding up recruits to march on Craster's Keep. From the minute Gared is asked to join the expedition, you know the answer you provide is essentially meaningless. The game series is at its best when players have no idea of the repercussions of their actions (see: every interaction with the Whitehills), but when the events of the game orbit so close to the established lore, it removes almost every ounce of dramatic stakes.
These slight narrative missteps are what make the outright neglect of Asher's situation in Essos all the more jarring. Tasked with assembling an army of sellswords to retake Ironrath, Asher's story is limited to three small scenes that only serve to remind players how he is the most interesting character in the series. Although the end of "Episode 3" teases that his part might be larger in the upcoming "Episode 4", I was (once again) left wanting for more Asher and Beskha... not to mention their developing situation.
As captivating and sating as the story is (especially as the new season of the show rushes towards fans at breakneck speed), the actual mechanics and technical troubles of each episode are getting harder and harder to overlook. Once again, Telltale has several instances of "ten step walks" that do little more than remind gamers that these experiences really only provide a facade of gameplay while leveraging conversational decisions. The inclusion of a small puzzle solving sequence adds a bit of variety to the gameplay, but is ultimately a gimme. The ongoing technical problems of the first episodes also make return appearances in "Episode 3": spotty lip-syncing, repeating audio, hitching and stuttering, and graphics pop-ins are all still an unwelcome distraction. While I respect and admire that Telltale is giving gamers what they want in putting these episodes out at a pace much faster than we are accustomed, a bit of extra time and care in making them a technically solid would not go unwelcome. On the opposite side of the coin, "Episode 3" features two of the better action sequences that Telltale has ever crafted. There is a large part of me that wishes Telltale would take a good look at themselves in the technical mirror and recognize the strengths of their experiences (conversational decisions and QTEs that work in support of a good story) and banish the rest.
As with previous episodes, all of the achievements in "Episode 3" are story-based and unmissable.
If "Episode 2" felt like "a letdown" that was setting up the next episode, "Episode 3" feels like a rush of despair and anger (in a good way) that makes the desire for retribution and justice all the more burning. Fans of the franchise know that such satisfaction is rare (and possibly non-existent), but it doesn't make the yearning for it any less fun.
Throughout the run of the HBO series, Joffrey was the kid everyone loved to hate. We couldn't wait for him to get what was coming to him, but when poetic justice finally came, it almost felt hollow. There's now a new character (or, rather, house) to levy those feelings of bitterness and rage towards. I can only fantasize with wonder and rage at how low and terrible Telltale can take the Whitehills before the Forresters get to take their shot... if they get to take it at all.
The reviewer spent approximately two hours hating on the Whitehills, popping all of the achievements and feeling the fury of a thousand white hot suns. The Xbox One copy of this episode was provided by the developer for the purpose of this review.
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