It’s a credit to Telltale that the studio has produced games in The Walking Dead and Fables universes that feel perfectly in sync with their paper-based influences. The studio not only nails the look of those properties, its writing is also consistently great, drawing high praise even from Robert Kirkman and Bill Willingham.
That’s just as well, as the gameplay in Telltale titles generally oscillates between ‘minimal’ and ‘frustrating’. The same is true in the studio’s first stab at Game of Thrones, and other Telltale trademarks return: on-the-spot decision-making, expressive faces, mouse lag, and the occasional awkwardly wooden animation or look.
However, the story that’s told in this first of six season-one episodes doesn’t have the momentum or – for the most part – the drama of those prior Telltale games. It’s simply not particularly gripping, however thrilling it is to be interacting with George R. R. Martin’s beloved characters.
This episode’s brand-new story – which runs parallel to the events of the TV show’s third season – has the player controlling multiple characters closely associated with House Forrester, a Stark ally based in the north.
The first is son of a pig farmer Gared Tuttle, an aspiring warrior who squires for Lord Gregor Forrester. As the game begins, Gared is caught up in a battle that immediately precedes the events of The Red Wedding and Lord Frey’s hostile takeover of the North. When Lord Forrester is killed, Gared is tasked with returning to the Forrester stronghold of Ironrath with a sword and a secret message.
The Lord’s death has repercussions for the second playable character too. Young teen Ethan Forrester – previously only really interested in playing the lute – is elevated to the position of Lord of Forrester House following his father’s death. Thrust into control of a panicking populace at Ironrath, Ethan must earn the respect of his advisors and protect his banner’s resources from a hostile neighbour, while quickly preparing for a visit from the psychopathic Ramsey Snow.
Lastly, down in King’s Landing there’s Mira Forrester, a handmaiden to and close friend of Margaery Tyrell. Aware of the danger her family is in up north, she is anxious to find a way to help them without compromising Margaery, who is already under fire from Cersei Lannister for having a Northerner in her employ.
This trio are at the heart of the biggest problem with Iron From Ice. None have any personality at all, so it’s difficult to care what happens to them, or to be drawn into their troubles. There’s no Clementine or Bigby here, just three panicked people whose inner workings remain absent for the episode’s two hour duration. After two playthroughs, you won't know much more about any of them than what’s conveyed at the game’s beginning. The surrounding NPCs fare better, particularly the prickly Lord from long-time Forrester rivals the Whitehills, but the game only really crackles when familiar characters appear. Naturally, they are all expertly voiced, with Lena Headey's Queen Cersei a particular standout.
Iron From Ice also suffers from a lack of clarity around the main objective of the Forresters beyond ‘survive’. Simply put, no-one is given much to do except fret. The challenge of setting up the stories of three protagonists in short order isn’t the culprit either, as – uncharacteristically for Telltale – there are a couple of redundant scenes and a bit of flab storytelling-wise.
The blame can’t and shouldn’t fall solely at the feet of writer Andrew Grant, who also co-wrote the first episode of The Walking Dead’s second season. While the game’s ‘living oil painting’ aesthetic is muted yet wonderful, the violence – another Game of Thrones touchstone that’s always shocking in the TV show – has been robbed of any impact by an absence of puncture wounds or gore.
Instead, swords pass through character models in unconvincing fashion and blood spurts from wounds as invisible as the wine chugged during the game’s opening scene. Elsewhere, an abundance of mouse lag screws up QTEs and hinders general play, and the game’s menu UI is buggy and unresponsive.
Game of Thrones is a massive and intricate work, and although its talky nature suits Telltale’s narrative adventure format, the series’ story is a slow-burn buoyed by breasts and blood, and none of those elements are convincingly represented here.
There are reasons to be optimistic. The source material is rich, there are some tantalising plot threads left hanging here, a few of the new characters are decent, and the episode at least ends with a bang. Above all, Telltale has an impeccable record with its last two properties. But in a way, that only makes the lifeless arrival of Iron From Ice all the more disappointing.