Telltale Games is a studio known for story-driven, episodic adventures. They’re most famous for their adaptation of the "Walking Dead” graphic novel, having sold more than 20 million episodes. Now they’ve taken a crack at another mega-popular series: "Game of Thrones." Their first episode, “Iron From Ice,” gives rise to a little-known family from the North: the Forresters.
For those new to Telltale’s style, here’s how their "Game of Thrones" adaptation works: Most of your time will be spent deep in conversation, with some button-pressing quicktime events thrown in during action scenes. It’s a style that encourages diligence and careful progression; if you’re looking to play as a mad Lannister slaughtering defenseless Starks, this isn’t a game for you.
If neither of those names means anything to you, “Iron From Ice” may be an awkward place to jump into "Game of Thrones" lore. But I don’t agree with Polygon’s assessment that “ 'Iron From Ice' isn’t for casual fans.” Though I’ve heard friends and colleagues discuss "Game of Thrones," I’ve never read any of the books, nor have I seen a single episode of the HBO series. Yet certain events like the Red Wedding are such widely recognized references at this point that even the least knowledgeable gamers out there may know a thing or two about "Thrones."
“Iron From Ice” isn’t impenetrable, but it does assume you’re at least already interested in the TV show.
From here on, there will be spoilers.
“Iron From Ice” begins on the eve of the Red Wedding, which took place in Season 3 of the HBO series (book three of novelist George R.R. Martin's series "A Song of Ice and Fire"). Despite some claims that “Iron From Ice” isn’t an episode for newcomers, I had very little trouble following the story. Sure, a few things went unexplained (who are the Freys? Why is everyone afraid of Ramsay Snow?), but nothing that dulls the experience. If anything, a video game representation of Martin’s violent, visceral world has piqued my interest in the books/show.
The focus of the opening episode is House Forrester, a family from the North who have long served as bannermen, or vassals, for House Stark. After the Forrester patriarch, Gregor the Good, is cut down during a melee caused by the Freys, Gregor’s young son Ethan becomes lord of the house. The Forresters have lost a great deal of power and influence since the death of Robb Stark, their rebel king. House Whitehill, a rival family, has taken the opportunity to force House Forrester to kneel to both them and the new Warden of the North, Roose Bolton. Bolton’s illegitimate son, Ramsay Snow, arrives at Ironrath (the Forrester fortress) in his place and demands that House Forrester “bend the knee” (kneel before him).
Series fans will be happy to know that Ramsay Snow is an unhinged sociopath. Other well-known characters are on target as well: Tyrion Lannister delightfully undermines the machinations of his sister, Queen Cersei. Cersei is, well, Cersei -- a ruthless woman who’s knocking socks with her twin brother Jaime. Thankfully, these characters are voiced by the actors who portray them in the HBO series; Peter Dinklage’s performance as Tyrion is particularly enjoyable, a welcome change from his appearance in “Destiny.”
The Forresters must negotiate with people like Cersei and Ramsay Snow to ensure some vestige of power for their once-respected house. The majority of “Iron From Ice” is spent establishing the downfall of House Forrester and teasing the future hardships the family will face; the pace is at times rather slow, with background information on newcomer House Forrester given much more screen time than already-known characters in the "Game of Thrones" universe.
That’s not a bad thing -- “Iron From Ice” is after all the first episode in the series, so a fair amount of setup is to be expected. But it also establishes that Telltale won’t be shying away from the grisly gore the "Game of Thrones" series is known for; early on, a squire to Gregor Forrester is stabbed in his right leg and returns to Ironrath for aid. He’s patched up by Ironrath’s "maester," or doctor, but he has to hold his wound open so the maester can pour maggots in. It’s stomach-churning, but only a taste of what’s to come.
“Iron From Ice” is punctuated by violent moments like this. Though it certainly loses a bit of its momentum in the needlessly drawn out “choose a Sentinel” section, the ending (which I won’t reveal here, but suffice it to say that Ramsay Snow is a bastard in more ways than one) more than makes up for it.
Onto the more technical stuff: “Iron From Ice” is lathered with the same aesthetic flair seen in previous Telltale games. Westeros, the vast land comprising the tale's Seven Kingdoms, looks a bit like a watercolor painting; characters are intentionally shiny, and backgrounds look like they haven’t finished drying on the canvas. It’s not hard on the eyes, but it might disappoint you if you’re hoping for the most accurate portrayal of Peter Dinklage’s likeness as possible.
There are minor technical issues. On three or four occasions, lines of dialogue were cut off, though a reload of the previous save point seemed to fix that. More consistent was a bad habit of the subtitles: Text tended to pop in at the middle of the screen as first, then vanish and reappear at the bottom, in its proper spot. The only remedy for this is turning off subtitles altogether. Annoying, but not game-breaking.
Combat, as in other Telltale games, is handled in quicktime format. You’ll swipe in a direction to avoid and attack, press a prompted button to block, etc. It’s a bit clunky if you’re a newcomer, though given the circumstances of the fight scenes, a cumbersome system makes a lot of sense.
This first episode of "Games of Thrones" left me wanting much more. Although I’m not typically a fan of the episodic format (I’d rather play all the episodes consecutively), “Iron From Ice” builds tension like a TV installment. That’s OK, but perhaps it’s better to wait for all six episodes to be released before you dive in.