Game of Thrones: Sons of Winter Review
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We’re in the home stretch now. Were this the television show there’d be an budget-trouncingly massive event on screen, the death of a beloved character or a pivotal change in power dynamics. Sons of Winter doesn’t really have anything like these but that doesn’t mean marked improvement hasn’t occurred. The key players are moving into place and the treading water evident in the last episode, The Sword in the Darkness, doesn’t seem as blatant. But is Sons of Winter too little too late given there are but two episodes to come?
The world of Westeros isn’t a cheery place to begin with, and four episodes in it looks like things couldn’t get much worse. The Sword in the Darkness appeared to retread familiar scenarios already seen before, killing uncared-for characters along with the pacing. Sons of Winter doesn’t change the formula but tightens the focus on meaningful decisions requiring thought.
After the initial gut-punch first episode an overriding sense of apathy pervaded my approach to decisions. As mentioned before, every member of the Forrester family feels like a low-rent version of a character already seen. Mira is Sansa, Rodrik is Robb, Gared knows nothing as he looks gloomy atop the Wall. Cameos from the well-known series gave a frisson of fear, Cersei and Tyrion vying for your loyalty. Again, these moments have diminished; what once gave an unnerving edge to proceedings becomes a transparent moment of exposition.
Sons of Winter improves on these faults in almost every regard. Daenerys, introduced in the last episode in a cliffhanger lacking any surprise whatsoever (note to devs: don’t put your ending reveal as the picture for the episode in the menu!) proves to be the most pleasing transition from TV to game, Emilia Clarke giving a performance that sounds neither bored nor overwrought. The likeliness of Daenerys suits Telltale’s painterly approach to the license, even if that wanky filter is still applied all over the shop.
With Daenerys come dragons as Asher is tasked with entering Meereen and helping in its fall. Meanwhile, Mira is still doing her best to help her family from afar while Rodrik has to contend with the occupation of Ironrath from a hostile house. Some plotlines work better than others; Mira’s storyline lacks the tense theatrics evident elsewhere and there are little in the way of setpieces. It is, however, good to see meaningful, distressing choices return. After the watered down, almost Disney-esque villain vs. hero moments from the last episode, one scene in particular here has all the ominous threat of the Red Wedding. Two or three of these moments feature in Sons of Winter, recalling the Telltale glory days when every story beat became a water cooler moment. Without going into details, it’s safe to say the events of the episode are some of the strongest in the series so far.
Unfortunately, these highlights also reveal Telltale’s biggest failing. Game of Thrones adheres too closely to the tried-and-tested Telltale formula, using an engine and artstyle indistinguishable from The Walking Dead at first glance. Unfortunately for Telltale, Game of Thrones has been released at the same time as Dontnod’s Life Is Strange, another episodic story-focused adventure game. While our reviewer Liam isn’t enjoying it as much, Life is Strange has hit the spot personally, its beautiful rendering and more freeform exploration making Game of Thrones’ linearity especially evident. Life is Strange might conform to stereotypes but it’s approach to sensitive subjects feels more mature than the violence common in Westeros. This also once again raises the question - if Telltale are confident enough to include infanticide and other horrific acts then why not also match the television series’ attitude to nudity. Not wanting to sound perverse - we’ve seen that Telltale can do it, thanks to a strip club in The Wolf Among Us - but it’s just another example of the long way games have to go in terms of some taboos.
It’s a shame that the comparisons aren’t favourable to Telltale, especially as this is one of the stronger episodes. The overall arc of the season remains unclear and it’s too early to tell if the whole shebang is worth playing. Unfortunately, Telltale are either resting on their laurels or have committed to too many projects - or perhaps both. Game of Thrones continues to suffer as a result, it’s dour atmosphere and familiar mechanics only enticing to huge fans of George R. R. Martin’s world. It’s hard to see how a meaningful, genuinely surprising development can be included in the next two episodes. Telltale can spin masterful story and Sons of Winter restores faith in their approach. Perhaps, instead of painting inside the lines Telltale need to throw away the colouring book.