It might have taken three of the six episodes in Telltale’s Game of Thrones series, but it finally feels like the game is doing the source material justice. The Sword In The Darkness is quick-moving, tense and full of difficult decisions made by people under unfair pressure. Just like the books and the TV show.
The episode opens in Essos, where Asher is trying to get to Meereen to raise an army of sellswords so he can go home and help his family. He’s accompanied by his friend Beskha and his uncle Malcolm, and pursued by his enemies The Lost Legion. It’s a great opening section: there are actions I took that make me wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t taken them; there are difficult decisions to make, including one where I made a choice I didn’t want to make because I thought it was the ‘right’ thing for the character to do; and those decisions lead to surprising consequences. I was fairly sure what the consequence of my action would be, knowing how events usually play out in A Song Of Ice And Fire, but I was wrong. Something unexpected happened. Not shocking, as is often the case, but unexpected nonetheless. And because I was wrong about what the consequence of my actions would be, it’s safe to say that there’ll be even more unexpected consequences leading from it further down the road. All of which makes me wonder if I ought to have made a different choice.
That’s exactly what I want from this game. I’m not interested in insta-death sections that make me retry a sequence. I want to be constantly wondering if I’ve screwed things up beyond salvage. Right from the start, The Sword In The Darkness gives me that. It’s not all good, mind you. The opening section has more of the dreaded QTE elements, but I really should stop complaining about that. Telltale clearly like them, so they aren’t going away. Ditto with the other things I hate about the series: the ugly oil painting effect and the shoddy frame rate (actually, I’m not certain Telltale like the frame rate, but they’re either unwilling or unable to do anything about it). Having said that, the oil painting effect seems lessened in this episode, and the QTEs don’t seem as frequent or as irritating. Perhaps I’m just used to them now though.
The opening section doesn’t outstay its welcome, and just as I’m wondering whether I’ve screwed up royally, I’m playing as the other characters in swift succession. Telltale’s writers really seem to have found their stride with this episode. Mira’s politicking in King’s Landing is creating more problems than it’s solving, and my attempts to smooth over issues caused by decisions I made in previous episodes are only causing more difficulties for her. Gared’s settling in at the Wall, making his vows, and becoming brothers with the other Night’s Watch, when all of a sudden his uncle Duncan appears to bring the issue of the North Grove up again. I’m glad he did, as I’ve been waiting for that to happen, but since I’ve kept it secret from everyone but Duncan, it places Gared in an awkward position. He’s supposed to have forsaken all his previous ties to House and family, but now here’s this mystery rearing its head and causing internal conflicts for him (and me). And later on another wrinkle occurs that could really cause problems for him in the future.
Rodrick’s situation in Ironrath isn’t getting any easier either. Possibly based on my screwing things up in the previous episode, the Forresters’ situation is more tenuous than ever, and things are getting even worse as more Whitehill soldiers arrive and start throwing their weight around. More difficult decisions need making, and there’s a definite sense that no matter what decision I make it’s not going to solve all the problems. Or even any of them, knowing Westeros. It’s unfair and I love it.
Well, I mostly love it. The few problems I have tend to boil down to situations where I don’t know what I’m choosing between and don’t trust the options I’m given to properly represent what I want to happen.
This happens in other games too – in the first Mass Effect I wanted to arrest a criminal, so chose an option that said something like “he can’t be allowed to just walk away from this” which resulted in Shepherd shooting the criminal in the face, which caused me to swear at the game quite a lot – and it’s no less irritating in Game of Thrones.
The biggest offenders in The Sword in the Darkness are Rodrick’s choices. I never quite knew if he was going to say what I thought the text choice suggested, or if he was going to do something else. It occasionally felt like the characters had been talking about whether to go left or right, and then the choices I was given were between ‘this way’ and ‘that way’. Luckily, this doesn’t happen very often (and I guess it’s possible I’m reading too much into the choices anyway so it may not be a problem for most people), but it puts a bit of a dampener on an otherwise tense and compelling episode for me.
Having said that, I thought this episode was much better than the previous one, and it’s so much better than the first episode that it doesn’t really feel like it was written by the same people. With The Sword in the Darkness it finally feels like things are moving. The choices I made in previous episodes are having consequences, the choices I made in this episode felt difficult and weighty, and when something happened I didn’t want to happen, I was wondering whether it was my fault. In fact, I’m going to have to start another playthrough right now, all the way from the beginning of episode one, just to see if I can make the ‘best’ choices.