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!If Ned Stark has taught us anything, it's that doing the right thing isn't always the right thing to do in Westeros. In a world where the worst can and often does happen, the notion of "right" is always somewhat skewed. There is no notion of black and white (despite what a house in Braavos will have you believe), there are only shades of grey, different flavors of compromise between ultimate satisfaction and complete disappointment. While the previous three episodes of Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series have done little but heap shiploads of trouble upon the Forresters, "Episode 4 - Sons of Winter" presents the rare opportunity to start seeking payback and turn the tide in the terrible struggle against the Whitehills, circumstance, and the general doom and gloom of the world. The only question is, will it pay off?
Picking up right where "Episode 3 - The Sword in the Darkness" left off, things couldn't start much lower for the characters in question. Gared was forced to take the life of a fellow Crow, Rodrik is stuck between a rock and a hard place with Gryff Whitehill, Mira is on the outs with Queen Margaery, and Asher hopped out of the frying pan and into the tent of the Mother of Dragons. Fortunately "Episode 4" gives all of these stories and characters their moment to shine.
Ever since "Episode 2 - The Lost Lords", I've found myself wanting to spend more time with Asher and Beskha across the Narrow Sea in Essos. As if having heard the pleas from the masses, the maesters at Telltale deliver on this desire, giving a fair share of time to their arc in this episode. Even better, their portion of the story utilizes some competent stealth sequences to make their mission feel weighty and important. It is one of the best sequences in the series by far. The stealth/combat is so satisfying in fact, that it was almost enough to make me overlook the wild narrative dissonance between Beskha's issues with her past and the mission at hand. I couldn't help but wonder what her hesitancy was to take place in their mission as it affords her the opportunity to expunge some of her personal demons and provide a better future for those like her.
With the exception of the story in Essos, Telltale has cleverly cast aside many of the shackles of the preexisting story, separating the events of the game from the central narrative with which fans of the show are familiar. While there are some very clever nods to the goings on during the current season of the award-winning HBO show, going back onto the unknown road has never been more enjoyable and the weakening of the connective tissue to the events of the show reinjects actual stakes to the game narrative. Without knowing exactly what will happen, the conversations have never felt more tense and the minor victories have never felt more satisfying.
On the technical front, "Episode 4" is not without its fair share of bugs. Like most Telltale experiences, character lip sync is still spotty at best and atrocious at worst while problems with audio hitching and stuttering are a common occurrence. The worst technical drawback was the loading time to actually get into the episode. Before actually playing, the "Previously On" section took so long to load in that I had to wonder if my Xbox One had frozen. This "Previously On" sequence was also the most notable offender for audio and visual hiccups. Fortunately, Telltale has minimized their use of "the ten step walk" in this episode, seemingly saving it for the final moments... when it actually works with the slow building of dread and tension at a final reveal.
Like previous episodes in the series, all of the achievements are story-based and unmissable.
In our review of "Episode 3", I openly wondered if the Forresters would ever get their shot at taking down the Whitehills. "Episode 4" brings that shot into view, teases satisfaction, and gives a glimmer of hope that things may actually turn out OK for the Forresters. While we have two episodes left in the season/series, fans of the franchise know that there are going to be a few more downs and downs coming, but "Episode 4" grants a brief respite of optimism in a jaded, borderline nihilistic world. It stands as the high point of the series thus far and goes a long way to cement the experience as a "must play" for fans of Game of Thrones.
The reviewer spent approximately two hours eavesdropping, sneaking, and gaining a measure of sweet, sweet vengeance, popping all of the achievements along the way. The Xbox One copy of this episode was provided by the developer for the purpose of this review.
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