The first episode of Telltale’s Game of Thrones series was an uncharacteristically middling effort from the celebrated studio. It simply felt too low stakes and unengaging to sit alongside the sprawling yet tense web woven by the books' author George R. R. Martin. Fortunately it is but one episode in a season of six, and its follow-up, The Lost Lords, is its antonym – a pleasure from start to finish whose sharp plotting could have come from the pen of Martin himself.
There are surprises from the start, as the tenuous situation at the Forrester home of Ironrath is temporarily lightened by a flicker of unexpected good news. The Bolton-led Whitehill soldiers are acutely aware of how crippled the player’s Stark-aligned house is though, and Lord Whitehill sees an opportunity to all but destroy the Forresters and take their precious Ironwood. Allies are needed, and time is running out.
One such ally could be found in Forrester bad-boy and Ironrath exile Asher, who we find working over in Yunkai as a sellsword. Asher’s an immediately likeable and exciting character, and so is his partner-in-crime, the strong-willed and capable female mercenary Beskha. His behaviour doesn’t appear to have improved, but it does seem to have kept him alive in the beseiged city. When word comes of his family’s troubles, he’s immediately eager to get home, but it won’t be as simple as strolling onto a boat.
Meanwhile, former Forrester squire Gared Tuttle has arrived at Castle Black where he aspires to become a ranger, but a couple of new characters threaten to derail him from that goal imediately. Finn is a straight-up bully of the kind that’s common in the Night’s Watch, while Cotter is weak yet sympathetic character who found himself at The Wall after he stole potatoes to feed his sister.
Elsewhere, the trials of Mira Forrester at King's Landing provide the episode's highlights. A handmaiden to Margaery Tyrell, she helps the queen-in-waiting prepare for her wedding, but also plays political games with Tyrion Lannister – when she’s not getting up to mischief with her fellow handmaiden Sera, or meeting a mysterious stanger after dark.
Not only does The Lost Lords see the series' story escalate in short order, the episode is much more handsomely drawn overall than Iron From Ice. The spare style from that episode has been replaced with lush and detailed backgrounds, with the gardens of King’s Landing looking particularly exquisite.
The episode feels better-animated too. It's largely free of the marionette-style movement and awkward pauses that can remove the weight from characters in Telltale's proprietary engine. This gives the violence – which made the game feel like "Lego Game of Thrones" last time out – far more impact, although it probably helps that there is much more brutality on display too.
Not all technical hitches have been ironed out, though: during one gameplay segment, clicking either mouse button (which was mandatory) caused the game be minimised, and only a complete reset and restart of that section would allow progress. Later, the whole game simply crashed – although perhaps my rig needed to gather its wits after a particularly heart-stopping passage of play.
Fortunately, the thrills to be had here make these complaints feel like trifling concerns. The direction, this time from frequent The Wolf Among Us leader Kent Mudle feels more assured, and Nicole Martinez, Meghan Thornton, and Brad Kane have ably filled their writing brief.
Most crucially, there is more emotional heft to proceedings – you’ll actually care about the plight of Forresters and company this time, and the new characters will quickly grab your interest. The episode ends well too, and will leave Game of Thrones fans with that familiar feeling of I simply must know what happens next. The Lost Lords proves Game of Thrones and Telltale can be a winning combination. Here's hoping Metacritic's highest-rated studio of 2014 can keep it up.