As the first official release from the newly reformed version of Telltale Games, The Expanse: A Telltale Series has a lot to live up to. While the studio’s reputation was mixed to say the best, the original Telltale managed to change the games industry with excellent titles like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us.
There’s no way that Telltale’s The Expanse could ever live up to the industry-altering Walking Dead, but as the first release from the studio, this video game adaptation of the sci-fi drama is stronger than many would expect.
With the entire five-episode season now available to binge in one fell swoop, The Expanse: A Telltale Series is a return to form for the studio. Adapting Amazon’s critically acclaimed sci-fi series, Telltale’s latest is a return to form, creating meaningful dramatic storylines with powerful choices. While these choices can result in a number of huge differences, the overall ending is largely unchanged.
You play as Camina Drummer, the XO of the spaceship Artemis. On a scavenging mission, you find coordinates for one of the biggest treasures in the history of interstellar looting, resulting in not just hours of intrigue, but also numerous action set pieces against bloodthirsty pirates.
Most of the five episodes of Telltale’s Expanse adaptation follow a very similar structure. After discussions with your crew, allowing for a number of “[character] will remember that” moments, you’ll enter a 3D environment to find resources, investigate an abandoned space station or search for clues.
It’s a first for Telltale, a studio that typically limited players to the linear rooms seen in successors like Star Trek: Resurgence. While still fairly linear, outside of the ability to fulfill side objectives like finding mushrooms or power crystals, The Expanse offers vast arenas of spaceship graveyards to fly though in zero-G with high asset quality and gorgeous moody lighting.
While its character models and animations are still rather uniquely unattractive, the environment work in The Expanse is far and above anything Telltale has done since The Wolf Among Us in 2011. Destroyed spaceships are rife with detail and clutter, not only feeling lived in, but also dangerous when the need arrives.
This attention to detail only serves to help the direction of Telltale’s Expanse adaptation. As a title that is 80% cutscenes, the direction here is stellar with the best camerawork from Telltale in years. Yes, prior games like Batman and Tales from the Borderlands also had strong direction, but The Expanse’s framing, timing and overall sense of style is far and above some of the older Telltale titles.
It helps that The Expanse is more of a mature story than most Telltale tales have been since The Walking Dead. Outside of some weird quirky humour from the game’s hyperactive twins Rayen and Arlen, The Expanse can be rather dour, actually letting its darker moments settle and allowing its emotional beats to actually have an impact.
Depending on your choices, some of these emotional moments can be especially heart-wrenching. While nothing can beat the gut-punch of The Walking Dead: Season 1’s ending, some variants of The Expanse’s story can leave you almost-breathless, even more so by the fact that it was my choices that caused the loss that was so shocking in the first place.
Unfortunately, Telltale’s latest adventure falls short in the way most Telltale adventures do: its gameplay. Outside of the fine-enough exploration segments, there are numerous action set-pieces such as sneaking through drones, avoiding space debris and shooting pirates.
However, these set pieces are still nothing more than quick time events, and they’re not even great versions of the often maligned mechanic. There are games that do Quick Time Events extremely well, Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm, Asura’s Wrath and Shenmue come to mind, but Telltale‘s options feel anemic in the moment.
In episode two, you’re tasked with shooting huge missiles out of the sky with a massive turret, a section that could include some frenetic real-time gunplay. That’s not the case, though. Instead, you simply press one button to aim, one button to shoot. The same is true of person-on-person gunfights as well.
It’s a shame, as for the most part The Expanse is one of the stronger Telltale games to release, especially in the last few years. However, the game’s lack of engaging quick time events and flaccid combat sequences makes it obvious that the studio still struggles to fit its strong narratives into the video game form. Again, we’re not asking for deep cover-based shooting or Sifu-level hand-to-hand combat, but combat sequences that make the requirement of a controller to make sense.
Nevertheless, The Expanse is a strong start for new Telltale, and one that should be experienced by fans of old Telltale. It’s not perfect. The studio’s poor action sequences still rear their ugly heads, but they’re forgivable in the long run, if still annoying.
For fans of The Expanse or just narrative adventure games in general, Telltale has created a meaningful narrative that is more than enjoyable. It’s just a shame that the game experience around it is still as shallow as it was over ten years ago.