Telltale’s Game of Thrones Season 1

Total Gameplay Time: 11 hours

Platform: PC

Overview

I got hooked on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels during the first season of the HBO adaptation. I decided that I couldn’t wait for the show, and I tore through the books as fast as I could. (Jokes on me, though, now that the show will finish before the books.) But now that I and many others continue our long wait for The Winds of Winter, I need an occasional Westeros fix. Hence, Telltale’s Game of Thrones Season 1.

Game of Thrones title card
Title card. Copyright HBO and Telltale Games.

Story:  7

The story follows House Forrester, a house that is mentioned in the books. They are banner men for House Stark and sided with the Starks during the War of Five Kings. Unfortunately, the game opens at the Red Wedding.

Following Telltale’s usual model, the story is divided into episodes, six in this case. Each episode follows House Forrester allies as they attempt to hold their House together after the power shifts in the North after the fall of the Starks. The Forresters control a resource known as ironwood, a hard wood that is useful for war craft, but is also difficult to harvest and shape. Ramsay Bolton puts the rival House Whitehill in charge of the Forresters. And the Whitehills are not kind lords. Why would we expect honor or nobility from allies of Ramsay Bolton? Scenes take place at Ironrath, the Forrester stronghold in the North; the Wall; King’s Landing; and Essos as you try to navigate between diplomacy and honor to keep your house intact and to discover the location of the mythical North Grove.

The choice whether or not to stab Ramsay.
This has got to be a trap. Copyright HBO and Telltale Games.

Characters:  8

Throughout the game you play:

  • Ethan, the child lord of House Forrester. A third-born son, he was never groomed for leadership.
  • Mira Forrester, a handmaiden to Margaery Tyrell.
  • Asher Forrester, an exiled son who has become a sell sword in Essos.
  • Gerard Tuttle, a squire to Lord Forrester.

There is another playable character, but I’ll keep that one secret for the sake of those concerned about spoilers. You can shape each playable character slightly through your choices and actions. You can also interact with characters from the show (as this game takes place in the HBO continuity rather than the Martin continuity). For the most part, the characters are interesting, though I feel like the Whitehills sometimes ride the line of “antagonism for the sake of antagonism” much too closely. I wanted to get more into why Ludd and Gryff were so cruel. Even Cersei Lannister gets a few sympathetic scenes in the show and book. I would have liked more for these characters. Thankfully, Gwyn Whitehill is a very interesting character, and I was never quite sure how much I could trust her. I may play through the game again at some point just to see if I can get alternative scenes with her.

Asher listens to Breska tell her story.
Asher listens to Breska’s past. Copyright HBO and Telltale Games.

Presentation: 7

The music by Jared Emerson-Johnson does a good job of feeling distinct while imitating a style that feels reminiscent of the show. I’ve enjoyed Ramin Djwadi’s music for the show, and I think Emerson-Johnson has added to and expanded on the musical landscape of Westeros.

Visually, the game follows the look and feel of the HBO adaptation. However, the graphics have an almost water-color or oil look to them, as if they were trying to create a look of a painting come to life. I applaud their choice to try something different. I often enjoy when games decide to go for stylized instead of realistic, even if it sometimes doesn’t work. I think it largely works here, but I admit that it was occasionally distracting and created strange graphical effects when animated, such as when wine was pouring from a jar in one episode or when a character’s arm moved through a chair. Sure, these types of glitches happen all the time, but they seemed more striking with the contrast between sharp and blurred images created by the visual style.

GoT-KingsLandingGarden
Garden walkway in King’s Landing. Copyright HBO and Telltale Games.

Gameplay: 6

On the one hand, I celebrate Telltale’s story-driven update of the point-and-click genre. On the other hand, it isn’t always fun to play. There are many points during which I wondered why we had interactive elements at all. Sometimes looking at things added to dialogue options, which was great. And then sometimes it felt like I looked at things because it was a video game. I collected objects, but rarely used them. I walked down a hall because, well, it’s a video game, and interactive elements were needed. The quick-time combat was a bit more engaging. And there were a few major choices that I had to make that I know changed how things played out. Those choices alone made me wonder what the other choices would bring. So, if you are familiar with Telltale’s style and enjoy it, you will find more of the same here. If you prefer games that have more gameplay and autonomy, this definitely won’t be your thing.

Personal Enjoyment: 7

If a game makes me wish I was playing another game, I think it fails to resonate. Sometimes this game made me want to play Skyrim because I wanted more interactive elements (of consequence) and more choice and options for combat and movement. And sometimes it made me want to play Dragon Age because I wanted more choices in how to interact with characters. The dialogue options rarely fit with what I wanted to do, ESPECIALLY in King’s Landing. For the majority of the game, the character I enjoyed playing the most was Asher because he had such a strong personality at his introduction. I didn’t feel like I was playing myself in a game. I knew how Asher would respond. With other characters, I was left to determine who they were, and I sometimes defaulted to my ideal version of a character, which wasn’t available in the choices. And sometimes I wanted one of my Skyrim stealth characters. I wanted to take out the entire Whitehall army with my stealth and Dragonborn skills and bring this conflict to an end.

The loss of autonomy in this game was frustrating, and the choices sometimes felt inconsequential. But then, this is Game of Thrones. The first few episodes of the game were difficult because I was trying to make the “right” choice. But in a world of Ramsay Bolton, there is no right choice. I was able to better engage with the game when I adopted a Bushido approach: I’m already dead, so I don’t need to worry about dying. I can’t win, so don’t worry about losing. This worked since it took away the stress. And when I played as Asher, it was easier. Going in to the final episode, I decided the best option was to assume it won’t go well, so take as many of the villains with me as I can. It may not have given me the “best” ending (should such a thing be available in Westeros), but I lived and died on my terms. And in this world, that is the best anyone can hope for. And I think, at the end of it all, that is the choice in Westeros: Do you cling to life or do you cling to honor?

Final Rating: 7/10

Surprisingly, I am more than willing to play season two, whenever Telltale gets around to making it. The Westeros lore was expanded in this game, and it sometimes did a great job of giving me a fix as I wait for The Winds of Winter.

Let’s go ahead and assume the comments will have spoilers and let me know what you thought of the game and what choices you made?

Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China

Assassin's Creed Chronicles China title screen
Title screen. Copyright Ubisoft.

A one-page game review.

So, maybe a game this late in the series wasn’t the best starting point. I’ve played a few minutes of Assassin’s Creed, but I’ve never finished it. I’ve barely started it. I love what I’ve seen so far, especially the visuals, but there are a lot of control combinations, and I wanted to wait for a time when I’m not trying to get through quite a few other games.

Why start ACC:C, then? I wanted something different, and this game was different than anything else I was currently playing. I grew up on the NES and the SNES, so I’m familiar with old-school platforming (back when we called it “side-scrolling”). I cut my teeth on Mega Man 2 and Ninja Gaiden. I thought ACC:C looked like an interesting update to the platforming games of old, and I like learning about Southeast Asian history. If there was an Assassin’s Creed game set in Edo Japan, I’d be dropping everything to play it.

The game takes place in China in 1526 and follows Shao Jun, the remaining assassin of the Chinese brotherhood. Templars wiped out her fellow assassins. The extent of my Assassin’s Creed knowledge is that the Assassins and the Templars are enemies. (And that there’s a sci-fi element with the animus and recovered memories or something that, at a distance, seems unnecessarily complicated. Maybe I’ll like it when I eventually try out the main series.) Anyway, Shao Jun allows herself to be captured so she can get revenge against the Templars. That’s pretty much it for the plot. The story was a bit underwhelming.

Example of a level in Assassin's Creed Chronicles China.
Copyright Ubisoft.

There is some good platforming in this game, and the level design is very interesting. In particular, I love that there are different layers to the levels, which means you can occasionally run toward the camera or away from it to find alternate paths. This gives the game a 3D element that occasionally added alternate paths. I also enjoyed the UX design. The game used splashes of red to show where you could alter your path or interact with objects. Green often designated places you could hide; red showed places you could climb. Avoiding guards was sometimes very difficult, and combat could be excruciating. But I think what I enjoyed the most were the levels where you had to outrun fires that broke out. It was fun trying to navigate the levels as fast as possible, and even more fun when I unlocked the jump/sliding kill moves.  In my first time through these levels, I almost hit the best speed run score, usually missing it by a few seconds. It felt good to get that close on my first try, making me feel that all those old gaming muscles were still there, waiting to be tapped. (It felt annoying to get that close, but miss.)

There are a lot of controls to remember, and I confess that my play style was a combination of impatience and forgetfulness. When I played Dishonored, I did a stealth run, and didn’t kill anyone. In ACC:C, I got impatient and killed as many guards as I could. I got tired of dealing with them. Maybe if I remembered the combos, I would have done better. I probably would have fared better with a controller, but I was using my PC and was feeling too lazy and disinterested to try to figure it out.

So, I guess that is my final verdict. Good visual and level design, but kind of uninteresting and not very engaging from a plot standpoint. But the speed run sections are a lot of fun.

Final Rating: 6/10

Final Fantasy 1 – Retrospective

Final Play Time: 15:22

Final Fantasy logo

Overview

Final Fantasy was the game that saved Square and launched the long-running, extremely popular series. It’s hard to recapture the context of this game and recognize how ground-breaking it was at the time. It feels dated, but this game revolutionized the jRPG genre. I’ve played through this game multiple times, and in honor of this year being the 30th anniversary, I have played through the game once more. Again, this was a groundbreaking game at the time, but this review reflects my experience with the game on this play through.

Story:  4

Final Fantasy starts with a “save-the-princess” trope that soon evolves into story that requires you to revive the elemental crystals and defeat the elemental fiends so you can open a time gate to fight an ancient evil, close a time loop, and erase an alternate dimension where chaos rules. It actually sounds cooler than it plays out. Most of the information on the plot is held until an info-dump prior to the final dungeon and a bit more prior to the final boss. The concept is good, but the execution is a bit weak. That said, I’m happy Square was ambitious with the concepts, and high concepts continue throughout the series.

World Building:  5

As world building goes, there’s not a lot to this one. There are your standard elves and dwarves, kings and queens, and so on. This game feels influenced by Dungeons & Dragons but with a bit of Japanese spin. When the game story introduces us to the ancient Sky People and their lost civilization, the world starts to expand a bit. In fact, lost civilizations with advanced technology become a trope in other Final Fantasy and Square games. But its treatment here is small. It’s interesting, but there’s not much to it. I wanted more lore than I got. But, it was a step up at the time. Compared to the lore in games like The Legend of Zelda (most of which was in the manual and not the game.

Characters: 0

Deep characterization was not really a thing when this game was released. While Garland, the ultimate evil in this game, is said to have succumbed to darkness and hatred, this isn’t something that we ever really see. Again, it is told, not shown. None of the main characters area really characters, merely avatars of the player.

Gameplay: 7

As I mentioned before, this game is seems influenced by Dungeons & Dragons. The most noticeable instance of this is the magic system, which is divided into spell levels, and each level only allows a certain number of casts. Once you have used all available castings, you must rest. Instead of short and long rests, you have sleeping bags, tents, and cabins, each of which restores increasingly greater amounts of health and magic. The combat requires a bit of strategy if you want efficient and quick combat, though in the remake there is less need for this strategy as in the original version (which didn’t re-target monsters as they died). The combat can be fun, but it can also be brutal at times. I spent a lot of time early on grinding gold and XP, and I still struggled against some monster later in the game. Combat can be frequent, too. Sometimes it is hard to go more than five steps without a random attack. This can be incredibly frustrating if a character dies, and you have to go back to a chapel to revive them, but you keep getting attacked. Let’s just say that I learned to hate the Marsh Cave at a very young age. I’ve always felt the game got easier after that. Or at the very least, gold was easier to come by after that.

Personal Enjoyment: 5

I’ll confess, I’ve never really cared for Final Fantasy. It was one of the few games I had on the NES, and it was years before I beat it. My love for the series actually started with Final Fantasy IV (2). That game won me over with the story and characters, and it was because of that game that I later went back to Final Fantasy I. I almost never think about it with fondness. Nor do I think of it with dislike. It’s just . . . there. I appreciate it as the starting point for this series, and I smile at the callbacks. But when it comes to craving a Final Fantasy experience, this first game has never been one I revisit with excitement. It kind of pains me to say all this. I appreciate what it did at the time, both as a game and for the RPG genre, but for me, it is a miss. It is an artefact that has many elements that would carry through into later games. And in those later games, they would often be used to greater effect.

Final Rating: 4.2/10

Dragon Age: Origins (PC)

Overview

Dragon Age: Origins is a game by the renowned RPG developer Bioware. The game takes place in the kingdom of Ferelden, and follows the last two Grey Wardens as they attempt to form an alliance against the Darkspawn. As of this post, I have put over 104 hours into Dragon Age: Origins, most of which was devoted to three different playthroughs of the main quest.

This review contains spoilers for the game.

Dragon Age Origins cover

Story:  8

On an overall plot level, DA:O didn’t impress me much. Ferelden is a world of humans, dwarves, elves, ogres, dragons, and Darkspawn (which are not orcs but can be read as orcs).  While these have become commonplace in post-Tolkien fantasy and so aren’t unusual, I struggled to get in to the game because I’ve seen these tropes time and time again. The true test, though, is what the developers do with these tropes. In this story, the Darkspawn are undead minions of Arch-demons (the resurrected old gods who take the form of dragons). For reasons not currently known, the Darkspawn want to destroy the races of Ferelden. Normally they lurk underground in the Deep Roads, but if they come across an Arch-demon, they gather their forces and invade the surface, an event that is called The Blight. An order of warriors, the Grey Wardens, was founded centuries ago to fight the Darkspawn and lead the races of the world against the Blights. The Grey Wardens are formed from volunteers, however, and their numbers wane between Blights. So, this is your typical good versus evil. The Grey Wardens are fascinating. You are introduced to them through Duncan, who recruits you after tragedy befalls your character. (You have seven different character origins you can choose: noble human, mage elf or human, noble dwarf, lower caste dwarf, servant elf, and forest elf. Each character origin has a different inciting event.) But in addition to this overarching narrative as you attempt to gain support for the Blight, you become embroiled in the politics of Ferelden as Teyrn Loghain orchestrates the deaths of the king and all the Grey Wardens except you and Alistair. His motivations are rooted deep in his personal history in fighting for Ferelden’s freedom from the Orleasian Empire. So, despite some played-out, heroic fantasy tropes, the journey is worth it as Bioware fleshes out a world that is deeper than what it looks at first glance. More on this world below.

World Building: 8

So, the heroic fantasy tropes were a bit off-putting at first. But as stated above, delving deeper into this world propelled it above my initial impression. In Ferelden, elves are outcasts and were once an enslaved people. They have largely lost touch with their old ways, and are working to recover their heritage. However, there is a distinct division in elf society between city elves and forest elves. The city elves are technically free, but tend to be segregated and treated poorly. This was an interesting twist on how elves are typically portrayed in heroic fantasy. But the world building I found most interesting was that of the mages. In this world, magic puts mages in touch with the Fade, the spirit realm where demons exist. If a mage is weak, he or she could become a vessel for a demon, which—depending on the demon—can lead to great acts of evil. Mages are born with the ability to use magic, just as people are born with the ability to use the Force in Star Wars. In an attempt to keep the mage population under control and useful to the kingdom, the Circle of Magi (the governing body of mages) is controlled by the Templars, a division of The Chantry. Thus, magic is controlled by the church. All mages must be sent to the Temple. A sample of their blood is taken and stored for tracking purposes in case they escape. After studying their trade, a mage undergoes a test called The Harrowing, in which he or she enters the Fade. If they survive and return without being possessed by a demon, they become a full mage. Otherwise, they die. If, after study, they don’t show the required control and aptitude for magic, they are made Tranquil through a process that severs their connection to the Fade and strips away their emotions. It is thought that without these things, Tranquil are undesirable to demons.

All of these elements (and many more I have not mentioned) elevated DA:O above the heroic fantasy crowd. While the Darkspawn themselves never felt like anything but a generic evil to me, the history, politics, and human machinations gave new flavor to this old formula.

Characters:  10

Without a doubt, the characters make this game. Over the course of the game you can team up with ten playable characters (1 is available via DLC and 1 is referred to as a secret character, and is available late in the game). Each character has a distinct personality and responds positively or negatively to your actions, dialog choices, and gifts. As characters grow to like you more, they unlock bonuses, but if they dislike you, they may leave the party. It’s a fascinating mechanic, and definitely builds and fleshes out mechanics started in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. But as much fun as role-playing the relationships can be, what is more fun is the banter. As you walk through forests, ruins, and cities, the characters talk to one another. It’s fun to listen to Alistair beg Wynne to mend his socks, to Leliana criticize Alistair’s cooking, to Morrigan’s cynical comments to Leliana, and so much more. I frequently stopped my journey to the next location just to listen to the banter. You genuinely build a comradery with these characters, and I long for more stories with them. Knowing that future games don’t feature these characters in leading roles is a disappointment. But, if future games have characters this strong, I’m sure I’ll cope.

Gameplay: 8

It took me a while to figure out how much fun this game could be. I came from a jRPG background. More specifically, I came from a Final Fantasy background. I was used to grinding and maxing out characters, and that was how I approached DA:O. This approach was wrong. This game rewards building a cohesive party rather than maxing out individual characters. There is a level cap of 25 (I think), and so it is not possible to max out a character with all available skills for their class. Once I figured out that strategy was necessary (and once I discovered the Arcane Warrior specialization), this game became a ton of fun. Mage builds offered me the most enjoyment because of their sheer power. In most other games I tend to focus on a type of ranger build (stealth + basic combat focusing on long range + item crafting). In this game, I prefer to let the other characters focus on combat and stealthing while I break out the heavy area-of-attack spells to direct the enemies where I want them. And when I learned some spells combine and enhance one another . . . yeah, I may never go back to a non-mage build in DA:O. Creating a cohesive party is the key to succeeding in this game, and it is so much fun. Beyond that, the level design is great in ruins and buildings. The forest designs don’t quite work for me, and the fields/roads are also underwhelming. But these are all vast improvements over KotOR, which was the previously played Bioware game. While this game doesn’t offer you the level of freedom of an Elder Scrolls game, Dragon Age: Origins gives you plenty to do and quests have satisfying variety. You can play as selfish or as selfless as you want, and your choices will carry over into future games, as I understand it. I look forward to playing the DLC as well as Dragon Age II and Inquisition to see how the world develops.

Personal Enjoyment: 8

I spent over 104 hours (so far) in this game. Not bad for a game that, initially, didn’t impress me. But, after delving in and out over a few months, I hit a streak around Orzammar (the dwarf kingdom) that kept me going non-stop. Suddenly, everything came together for me, and I was hooked. I felt like cheering as Alistair gave his speech to the assembled army against the Blight. I loved the moment where I lead my team through the gates of Denerim as crowds of soldiers cheered. I (ahem) cried as I made the choice to sacrifice myself in the fight against the Arch-demon, allowing Alistair to live and be king. And then I played through the game two more times in a year-and-a-half. I think that is high praise. So, why not a ten? There are still moments where the game lags for me. There are places where I have to force myself to play through them (specifically, the Dalish quests). And again, I really wish there was more on the Darkspawn. I want to know more about why they do what they do. Everything else is so well thought-out, the Darkspawn seem a bit lacking in comparison. But, there are two more games and a lot of DLC missions. These could have the additional depth that I want.

Overall, though, I wouldn’t spend over 100 hours in a game if I didn’t enjoy it. I admit, my first playthrough I got to a point where I just wanted to get to the end of the game, but the last few hours were so good that they prompted me to immediately start a new class build so I could play the game again. The journey was worth it, and I expect I will play through this game more times in years to come. I can’t wait to continue seeing how this franchise develops.

Final Rating: 8.4/10