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!One of the great strengths of Telltale games is that they're solely focused on your choices and how they impact the story. For better or worse, these experiences have basically boiled themselves down into a modern day "Choose Your Own Adventure" book. Through four episodes, Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series has been building choice after choice as players attempt to navigate the deadly waters of Westerosi politics and conflict. After having played the most recent episode, "A Nest of Vipers", let me say with some degree of confidence that all of your choices were wrong and the ones you have yet to make will probably turn out that way as well.
After gaining a modicum of revenge and a glimmer of hope for a bright outcome in "Episode 4 - Sons of Winter", "Episode 5" continues the roller coaster trend of taking the Forresters down a peg and then kicking them to make sure the message sets in. While each player's choices and experience may be slightly different, the overarching drama keeps boiling back down to the simple notion that your choice, whatever it may be, is ultimately the wrong one. In my playthrough, I was chastised for one character being duplicitous while another character was reprimanded for being honest. On top of the omnipresent notion of second guessing, the overwhelming feeling of, "Ya done messed up, chief," hammers the story and does little more than beat down the player.
...but that's Game of Thrones for you, right? Fans don't read these books, watch these shows, or play these games to be patted on the back and told that everything's going to be alright, do they? Of course not. If anything, this series is about a nihilistic lust for power and the terrible things that people will do to gain and keep it. The unfortunate thing about nihilism (and by extension, the game's story) is that those without any power or leverage are often trampled. Through six episodes, the Forresters have tried to scratch and claw their way back into the game, if only as a minor player, and through six episodes every step forward has been greeted by two steps back.
As the penultimate episode for this series/season, "A Nest of Vipers" again dances that fine line of one step forward and two steps back but does manage to do what George R.R. Martin has been so thoroughly criticized for not doing on both screen and page; it starts to bring the characters together or at least to destinations of consequence. If nothing else, "Episode 5" sets up the proverbial - and, if the iconic credits are to believed, actual - game board for a final confrontation in "Episode 6".
As I lamented in our review of "Episode 3", the reliance on existing narrative and characters saps a good deal of dramatic tension from many of the scenes. Fans know that Ramsay Snow is still alive (and now married) on the show, so attempting to kill him and indulging his "threats" of marriage are nothing more than wasted time. While it should be expected that Telltale would draw from the well of the hit HBO show, investing dramatic stakes into characters that fans know the futures of seems to be an especially poor choice for narrative development. At its best, this game series has diverged away from the Lannisters and Boltons and focused more on the direct tension between the Forresters and Whitehills, but "Episode 5" seems content to have the tension of the larger houses and families butt into a story that doesn't need them.
Par for the course on a Telltale experience, "Episode 5" is plagued with a number of technical hiccups that run the gambit from odd and ultimately extraneous pop ups during QTEs to terrible lip syncing and stuttering frames. That being said, none of these issues were game breaking and didn't hamper my ability to complete the experience. Furthermore, "Episode 5" relies on action sequences more than almost any earlier episode and pulls them off with aplomb.
As with previous episodes, all of the achievements in "Episode 5" are story-based and impossible to miss.
At this juncture, fans who've bought into this game series owe it to themselves to see it through, but I can't help but feel that Telltale is imitating the tantalizing and oft-parodied abuse of GRRM all too well. With the constant second guessing, heart-breaking choices, and general feeling of dread and terribleness, it's hard to see a positive outcome around the corner for the series... but that's to be expected. This is Game of Thrones, and when you play the game you either win or you die. With one episode left, I'd say that proposition is about a 50-50 bet.
The reviewer spent approximately two hours being told to sit there being wrong in his wrongness, popping all of the achievements and suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The Xbox One copy of this episode was provided by the developer for the purpose of this review.
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