Even to diehard fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones, Telltale’s episodic series hasn’t offered much to like: technical glitches, bad animation, fluff writing, meaningless choices and unbelievable tedium have riddled each of the three previous episodes. To Telltale’s credit, Episode Three – The Sword in the Darkness, was mostly bearable, “elevating itself all the way into ‘I guess that wasn’t terrible’ territory.” Luckily, Episode Four – Sons of Winter has continued the trend, and I’d even go as far as to call it “occasionally pretty good.”
Sons of Winter starts strong with Gared coming under fire for the events of last episode in some dire ways, but as with everything in the series to date, it all falls apart when you remember that none of your choices actually matter or played a part in getting your characters into their current predicaments and that the story is linear. If you’re willing to look past all that, the linear story being told here is decent. Not “great” or even “good,” but “decent.” It goes on way too long and has the weakest ending in the series so far, but it also has some of the most interesting choices and dialogue. Every character you play in this episode — Gared, Rodrik, Asher, and Mira — has at least one or two defining moments that deserve real discussion; if you’re looking to enter into this episode totally blind, well, you shouldn’t be reading this review anyway, but it’ll be worth coming back to. Let’s call this a new-age “criticism” of the game rather than the standard “purchasing advice” now that the game has finally given us something interesting to discuss.
Asher has the first big choice in the episode, one that seems pretty innocuous at the outset, but represents a cool power play. He’s meeting with Daenerys Targaryen to prove he had a run-in with one of her dragons in Episode Three, a claim that Daenerys refuses to believe in a performance that felt flat, completely one-note, and much stodgier than how she appears on the show. One of her other dragons flies in and Daenerys offers Asher the choice to pet it, a chance that literally everyone around Asher — including Daenerys — discourages as foolhardy and needlessly reckless. In any other video game, the hot option would of course be to ignore the warnings and approach the dragon to prove your character’s fearlessness; as the player, you’re free from all true consequence, so there’s little reason not to. But here, that’s the option that would make your character look absolutely stupid — nobody that has met a dragon previously would dare approach another willingly, Daenerys tells you. And sure enough, choose to stay put and she’ll congratulate you on being smarter than you look. It’s a fine example of the game encouraging player immersion in a way that other games don’t. But of course, the choice doesn’t actually matter and the game would continue on regardless of what you pick, undercutting your agency as the player somewhat, but it’s still a cool moment nonetheless.
Mira has probably the most fascinating section in the series to date and the one that best encapsulates the spirit of the show. She needs to find out what two men are up to and whether they represent a threat to her family, so she sneaks into a party to find out. It’s a pretty simple setup, one that, again, at the outset seems like it could be another of the series’ many exercises in tedium, but instead quickly develops into Mira crafting layers upon layers of lies and broken promises in a very short time, using them to further her own agenda. Obviously, you can try to stay straight-and-narrow in honorable-to-a-fault Eddard Stark fashion, but if you want to get anything done and protect your family, you’ll need to cast your sense of righteousness aside a little bit and get your hands dirty — you won’t be able to get out of this section completely clean. It’s been super satisfying to watch Mira play the game of politics and come into her own in King’s Landing, and this scene is a great representation of her growth.
Finally, there’s a really tense and chaotic choice at the end of Rodrik’s story where one character’s life hangs in the balance and everyone is yelling at you to do something. With limited time to make a choice and four very different options of things to say, it’s definitely the single most nerve-wracking choice in the series, but it also has some of the best payoff if you investigated properly beforehand and are willing to make a pretty gutsy and dangerous call.
Not everything in the episode is a push forward though, and all the same problems crop up in one way or another at some point. There are some real tonal inconsistencies that arise out of the assumptions the game makes of you based on the choices it offers, like how Rodrik’s plan to get revenge on Gryff will either cast you as either totally merciless or pacifistic and nothing in between. Dialogue options occasionally don’t feel like they match up with what the character ends up saying. The action scenes, riddled with quick time events and instant-fail stealth sequences, are still as poor as ever. And yes, the game still looks and performs terribly, with constant, distracting hitching, variable frame rate, and lazy animation that looks like a child posing action figures. But depressingly, these problems, like Duncan’s sudden appearance during a pivotal scene in our playthrough below, are so intrinsic to Telltale’s work that they barely stand out anymore and feel par for the course — because they are.
Telltale’s Game of Thrones series, now over halfway through its first season, has been a huge disappointment so far, but it’s been improving steadily, and Episode Four – Sons of Winter proves there’s real potential in the concept, even if Telltale might not have been the right candidate for the job. There are the occasional flashes of brilliance here that make you wish the series as a whole could match the same level of quality, but they’re appreciated anyway. Here’s to hoping Episode Five sees Telltale push the bar a little higher once more.