[Editor’s note: This review encompasses episodes one, two, and three of The Expanse: A Telltale Series]
Within minutes of firing up the first episode of The Expanse: A Telltale Series, you’ll be faced with a series of life-or-death choices. Though some choices may seem trivial at first, nearly all of them result in “[character name] will remember that” appearing in the top-left corner of the screen, leaving you to wonder what exactly will happen if that choice comes back to bite you a few episodes later. These kinds of narrative choices and consequences are a staple of the Telltale brand and, at first glance, one might mistake The Expanse for a clone of the studio’s previous games, reskinned to reflect the appropriate franchise–but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that Deck Nine Games–the studio that developed Life Is Strange: True Colors and is Telltale’s co-developer for this project–has quite literally added a new dimension to the standard Telltale formula. In The Expanse, players can freely explore the three-dimensional game environment, a first for Telltale, as the studio’s previous games provided very little opportunity for exploration and freedom of movement.
This change to a standard third-person perspective works wonders for immersion, especially given the game’s large, detailed environments. The ability to hear Camina Drummer’s inner monologue–something never seen on the show–also plays a huge part in bringing the game to life, creating a sense of connection between the player and the game’s protagonist. In the television show, Drummer is known to be rather reclusive, rarely sharing her feelings aloud. The decision to let us hear her inner thoughts is a bold choice, but it works incredibly well due to the game’s stellar writing and the performance of Drummer’s voice actress.
Cara Gee (who plays Drummer in The Expanse television series) reprises her role once again and Gee’s powerful, emotive performance makes all the difference–it’s hard to imagine the game without her. Unlike the television show, Telltale’s The Expanse allows us to see a new, slightly more vulnerable side of the normally reserved, enigmatic Belter by serving as a prequel that details what Drummer’s life was like leading up to the events of the television show. Interacting with objects will prompt Drummer to audibly share her thoughts on the matter at hand, and this mechanic is an excellent way to introduce Drummer to players who may not be familiar with the show.
Of course, the game also includes a group of new characters, all of whom serve aboard the scavenger ship Artemis alongside Drummer. From the gruff, elderly pilot, Khan, to the contrasting personalities of the Morozov twins, Arlen and Rayen, Telltale’s characters feel genuine, like they could just as easily fit into The Expanse television show or the book series upon which it is based. Your opinion of each character will change wildly as the narrative unfolds, but it always feels like these characters are each growing in a specific direction, not constantly wavering back and forth between trustworthy ally and loose cannon with a hair-trigger. It’s a sharp contrast to the supporting characters of previous Telltale games, like Kenny from The Walking Dead series, who frequently bounced between “helpful companion” and “selfish idiot who randomly turns on me when the plot decides it needs a twist.”
Since Telltale’s The Expanse is a prequel to the television series, Drummer’s plot-armor is thicker than the hull of the Artemis, but her fellow crew members aren’t as lucky. At the end of the fifth and final episode, players can find themselves with no crew members left alive except Drummer, or with the entire squad saved, depending on the choices Drummer makes. Despite being only five episodes long (with a sixth DLC episode set to release this fall), the game’s characters are intriguing and believable enough for players to quickly form attachments, making it all the more devastating when you fail to save one of them.
Aside from the ability to freely roam and explore, the most notable difference between The Expanse and Telltale’s previous projects is the higher-quality animation. Deck Nine’s commitment to striking visuals is immediately apparent within the first few minutes of the game. Instead of the cartoonish, stylized character designs of Telltale’s previous games, The Expanse boasts more realistic graphics and cutscenes that don’t constantly cut to a close-up shot to hide wonky animations–mainly because there weren’t any wonky animations in need of hiding in my time with it. Cutscenes are extremely detailed but even outside of cutscenes, the game’s interior environments feel lived-in and alive, while exteriors set in the vacuum of space feel appropriately enormous for a franchise called The Expanse.
The game’s biggest visual triumph is undoubtedly the characters’ facial motion-capture and animations. Previous Telltale games often struggled with facial expressions, leaving characters looking stiff and strange. But Deck Nine’s animations are smooth and realistic, with characters often sharing knowing looks that make you wonder what they’re thinking, or having brief exchanges with Drummer that consist solely of body language and facial expressions. The positive effect of these moments cannot be overstated–every frame of every cutscene is executed with purpose, and between the characters’ lovable (and sometimes love-to-hateable) personalities and the developer’s determination to create cinematic cutscenes, it often feels like you’re directing an episode of the television show, not just playing a game.
But one of the game’s strongest features is that, above all, it achieves its goal through a story that is strong enough to stand on its own. Some cutscenes have awkward gaps and pauses between lines, but it’s a rare occurrence, and you’ll never meet an NPC who spends a solid three minutes word-vomiting exposition at you before sending you on a fetch quest, which is a major plus. When it comes to both dialogue and actions, Drummer is almost always faced with only two options, but surprisingly, those options never feel like binary “good” and “bad” choices. Drummer isn’t simply good or bad, a renegade or a paragon–she’s just Drummer, a woman who has had to make incredibly difficult decisions all her life. It’s rare that you’ll come across a choice where one option immediately feels like it’s the obvious “right” choice, unless you’ve found environmental context clues that point you in (what appears to be) the right direction.
[Cutscenes are] executed with purpose, and between the characters’ lovable (and sometimes love-to-hateable) personalities and the developer’s determination to create cinematic cutscenes, it often feels like you’re directing an episode of the television show, not just playing a game.
Despite the game’s narrative arc hinging on various dialogue choices, The Expanse strongly adheres to a “show, don’t tell” policy, using environmental storytelling in a way that makes the game’s levels fun to explore even when there’s no loot to be had. It’s always worth taking a look around, especially when on board the Artemis. In fact, the Artemis is where you should do the most looking around, as objects Drummer can inspect often reveal helpful clues that make difficult decisions much easier. If Drummer notices a defaced poster on the wall, the next time you inspect it, there may be more graffiti added to it. If she comments on an unsecured item in a crew member’s quarters and returns later, it will likely be lying on the floor in several pieces due to getting knocked around in zero-g.
Unfortunately, zero-g movement is the game’s biggest flaw. It looks gorgeous and realistic from a visual perspective, but in practice, using Drummer’s vac-suit thrusters sends you floating across the infinite expanse of space at roughly the same speed as an exhausted tortoise. The suit has two speeds: slow, and slightly less-slow. When you’re hunting down an item for a side quest in a massive ship graveyard, the realization that you need to backtrack is likely to be accompanied by a frustrated groan due to the amount of time it will take to retrace your steps. If you drift too far into space, a notification appears, informing you that you’re leaving the safe zone. This, combined with the dark and often disorienting locations Drummer must explore early on in the game can make some levels more frustrating than they need to be.
Another weak spot is the collectible mechanic. As you progress through the game, you’ll be able to collect various valuables scavenged from derelict ships. Drummer often comments on what the item is, and which NPC crew member might find it useful. But there’s no inventory for these items to be seen in, no opportunity to give them to anyone, and it’s very difficult to tell if they’re just there to give completionists something to do, or if they actually affect the plot. The main collectibles you’ll need to worry about are made very obvious–they appear as side quests in the game’s mission log, and are separated from the scavenged loot. The biggest problem here is that each level has a point of no return at the end, but it’s never clear what exactly will trigger it. In Chapter 2, for instance, the main quest tasks you with finding three fuel sources, and also gives you two side quests with additional items that are important to specific characters. But if you complete the main quest before locating the side quest items, you’ll immediately be thrown into a cutscene and will not be able to return and continue your search unless you restart the episode. A simple prompt asking you if you’re ready to leave once you’ve completed a main quest (which often consists of several stages, making it even harder to discern how close you are to finishing it) would instantly solve this problem.
Still, the game shines in just about every other category. One particularly impressive feat the developers somehow managed to pull off was making Drummer’s words and actions believable, no matter which choices you make while playing as her. Whether it’s amputating an innocent man’s leg in the middle of a spacewalk or deciding to “space” a troublemaker (read: toss them out of an open airlock with no vac-suit), Drummer executes whatever option you choose in a manner that doesn’t seem out of character for her, even when the options presented are polar opposites. Though Drummer’s dialogue response options are usually limited to only two choices, these options almost always work flawlessly when it comes to authenticity. The dialogue choice descriptions are short, but The Expanse avoids forcing the player to choose a line of dialogue based on a misleading description–Drummer doesn’t blurt out something entirely unexpected in a tone you didn’t intend for her to use. You won’t find yourself thinking, “I didn’t mean for her to say it like that,” an issue often seen when RPG dialogue options are too short or too vague.
The game’s writing is, without question, its greatest strength. You’ll laugh out loud at everything from snappy comebacks to humorously penned datapad entries. But just like the television show and book series, the game’s sense of humor thankfully does not suffer from a Marvel-esque need to throw in a self-conscious joke every time there’s a moment of tension, instead managing to stay perfectly balanced in the “Goldilocks zone” when it comes to comic relief. Moments of levity are there when appropriate, but intense scenes are given time to breathe–as are tender moments between Drummer and her love interest.
The chemistry between Drummer and Martian ship mechanic Maya Castillo is palpable from the moment they meet. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether Drummer will pursue her romantically, and given the fact that Maya’s the only romanceable NPC in the game, pursuing her seems like a forgone conclusion. In most RPGs, romance and survival aren’t inherently tied together. In The Expanse, romance is a moral conundrum from the moment it presents itself. The Artemis is a small ship–people are bound to find out, and crew members will often allude to the idea that one person or another is being shown favoritism even before you have the opportunity to pursue Maya. Other realistic dilemmas also result from this potential romance. If you don’t respond to Maya’s romantic overtures, will the offer be gone for good, or will Drummer get another chance to make a move? The game gives itself room to evoke these questions of morality and logistics by focusing on a single relationship. One would think that Maya’s presence alone means it’s meant to be. Perhaps it is, but the game’s atmosphere constantly communicates reminders that every move Drummer makes has a butterfly effect on the rest of the game. The biggest romantic dilemma most RPG protagonists typically face is choosing which NPC to woo. But The Expanse forces you to answer better, more interesting questions. Not just, “Am I interested in her?” but “Is this a good idea right now? Is it a good idea at all?”
Telltale’s Expanse is a masterclass in narrative design, and subsequent playthroughs will reveal that, unlike some of the studio’s previous offerings, almost every single choice the player makes does have a unique outcome. The Expanse doesn’t present you with the illusion of choice, where you’re constantly making decisions, but only a few of them actually matter. It cleverly utilizes environmental clues, subtle facial animations, and other non-verbal hints to allow you to find answers to your questions, rather than spoon-feeding you expositional dialogue. Whether your goal is learning more about Virgil, the ship’s secretive medic, or simply figuring out who stole Khan’s BBQ sauce, Telltale’s Expanse leaves no stone unturned, and no loose end untied.
More than that, The Expanse has what I’ve been searching for in Telltale games since The Walking Dead Season 1: soul. Characters don’t feel disposable, death doesn’t feel inevitable, and happiness doesn’t seem as hopelessly out-of-reach as it does in Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, which makes for a refreshing change. The Expanse is not populated with throwaway characters who already feel doomed to be a victim for the sake of drama, or soulless zombies who can be killed without a second thought. If you fire a weapon in The Expanse, you are changing the life of a real human being, and the game makes sure you know it. Because every NPC companion can be saved, being unable to save one of them (or having to make the painful choice not to) hits hard, even if that character poses a significant risk to Drummer or the rest of the crew.
In a world of enormous RPGs with seemingly endless side quests and huge maps, The Expanse: A Telltale Series is a refreshing change of pace, and proves that sometimes, less is more. A great RPG doesn’t necessarily need to be a 60-hour adventure; it just needs to convincingly drop you into another person’s magboots. The Expanse does that and then some, forcing you to make difficult decisions that will haunt you long after you’ve finished playing.
https://www.gamespot.com/reviews/the-expanse-a-telltale-series-review-choices-that-matter/1900-6418098/?ftag=CAD-01-10abi2f The Expanse: A Telltale Series Review – Choices That Matter