The Expanse: A Telltale Series is the first outing for Telltale after a tumultuous time in 2018. The troubles ranged from lawsuits to an almost ultimate closure for the studio – only keeping core members on to facilitate contractual obligations. It started to feel like the end of an era for episodic narrative adventures that they pioneered all the way back in 2012 with The Walking Dead.
However, like the walkers that Clementine had to fend off, the dead don’t die and Telltale have brought teams along to co-develop a few titles for their upcoming slate. Namely, Deck Nine who have since extended the formula of choice-based narratives with Life is Strange: True Colours, and is now on board the ship with The Expanse. Does this spark a triumphant return for Telltale? It’s promising.
The Future Is Dark
There’s a sense of irony that The Expanse is the first IP for Telltale to adapt as the novel-turned-TV series almost seized entirely too. The backdrop for the game follows an adjacent timeline to the show, 100s of years into the future where the solar system is colonised by three main factions. There’s a lot to unpack with what pertains to the world-building that from this singular episode, you don’t necessarily get.
With that said, the game does a decent job to keep the plot simple whilst using the existing world to remain genre specific. You play as Camina Drummer, a member of a small crew of scavengers that pick apart shipwrecks left by pirates. It’s dirty work but not illegal as Captain Cox exclaims, but there is a potent ambiguity of morals. TellTale work great within these parameters as proven by their previous games and it makes for great choice-based situations that alter the narrative.
As this is the first episode, you’re thrown into quite a hefty amount of exposition to quickly onboard. It’s jarring but potentially necessary to lay the foundations for future episodes. The cast is refreshingly unique as you come to grips with their lingo and form an idea of their lives, making it quickly engaging. I wasn’t quite sold on the voice acting, however, this may change as I become more acquainted in further episodes.
It’s early doors for the story, but by the end of the first episode, I’m definitely all in. Even to the point where I want to start the show, as Drummer is a recurring character. The gameplay, however, as early as I am with the game, is a big step into how modern narrative games operate. I’m quickly assuming this is mostly due to Deck Nine having a more explorative approach to their titles and The Expanse is no different.
About halfway through the episode, the level opens up and I found myself in zero gravity traversing via a jetpack. During this time I was scouting the wreckage of our next job to find parts to sell. By TellTale standards, this is a huge area. Similar to The Batman Telltale series you have a few trinkets to interact with, resulting in either an inner monologue from Drummer or a call with one of the crew members. If you’re like me, you’ll be spending a lot of time floating through space and shipwrecks finding collectibles or gaining info that builds out the world and characters.
The traversal itself works as well as it can, it doesn’t necessarily feel as smooth as Dead Space’s zero-g moments but it does the job fine. I was more so just in awe at how open it felt and how I felt more like a participant than a passenger to the story in between the narrative choices. There are a couple of notable choices, with the obligatory “so and so will remember that”, that for now are inconsequential, but Deck Nine and Telltale have done a great job setting up the stakes. The potential is palpable and with a level design that feels more lively, despite being a shipwreck with a dead crew, it’s very impressive.
Deep Space Fine
Not so impressive are the character models, and to a lesser extent the finer details of them. Outside of Drummer, the crew and especially Cox have an almost dough-like texture, with very little detail to create more of a character. I don’t think this is a hot take but I really appreciated the cel-shaded art style Telltale went for with their titles, and I think it did well to hide blemishes.
However, The Expanse has a somewhat realistic approach but with a cartoonish build for the characters. The exaggerated body features denote their body type, but none of it feels consistently cohesive. Despite that, the environments and the lighting work incredibly in tandem. The sanitised, elaborate space ships, contrasted with the cold dark of space, both illuminated with the warm yellow of the moon. It’s all a step beyond what both developers have done in terms of style.
The direction also improves this. Dutch angles, wide shots to display the scale and beauty, and even closer shots during conversations are excitingly positioned. It feels like a premium TV stylistically and I already want the whole game.
The Stars Ahead
Whilst this is a review in progress as all episodes aren’t out, I can highly recommend this if you’re a fan of Telltale or Deck Nine’s work. This feels like a strong step for both of them and ingenious use of the IP that they’re working with. A lot of politics, a varied cast and a confident world is a perfect setting, and I hope that the quality follows with the story.
During the downtime of each episode, I hope to watch the show. Even if you haven’t but like sci-fi, mystery or narrative adventures, this is an easy recommendation and gets a tentative 7 so far with the Finger Guns rating criteria. Check back for more coverage of the episodes and a final review of the full series.
Episode 1 Summary
TellTale and Deck Nine have laid the foundations of what could be one of the best in both of their catalogues. The introduction can feel like a whiplash if you’re entirely new to The Expanse, but the characters and world help you settle in nicely. The level design and overall presentation are a step up from the cel-shaded roots, though the characters don’t look the best comparatively. Overall, a very promising first episode.
Episode 2 – Hunting Grounds
Episode 2 meets Camina and the crew a week later after the events from the first episode. After a tireless evasion of the pirates, you witness the remnants of, you’ve successfully found a place to lay low. After a brief scene, you are thrown straight into the more open levelled gameplay I mentioned in episode 1’s instalment. The experience is still a solid exploration, floating through space and wreckages is a great way of creating story opportunities to fill out the background of the game.
As Camina looks for supplies to get the hell out of dodge, the pirates have once again caught up. We get the reveal of what I assume is the main antagonist, Toussaint, leader of the pirate ship that’s in the midst of the conspiracy for the job you took on. With the introduction of the villain, there are a couple of QTE (Quick Time Events) to break down the action. I don’t think I’ll ever be sold on these moments, they come off clunky in every previous TellTale title, but it’s a staple for their games. Whilst the gameplay for it isn’t a natural highlight, stakes feel raised and the pressure is on.
No Longer Alone In Space
There is also a bit of stealth manoeuvring to avoid floating drones as you’re in zero gravity. There’s no challenge to it, but it starts some of the excitement of not knowing where the story could go as no character is safe. It was a slow start despite cutting right into the gameplay, but the episode shines at further character exploration.
We learn more about some of the cast, develop relationships and get more acquainted with the world. I feel this is always where the developers always shine. The dialogue can sometimes come off a bit cheesy and the actors don’t always sell what they’re selling, but there are some real emotive moments. I’m hoping the paranoia of character motivations and the bad guys have more of a presence in episode 3, as this episode felt like a lull which is a bit too soon for a short series.
Episode 2 Summary
Whilst Episode 2 goes straight into gameplay and exploration which was a highlight from the first episode; The grip the start had on me has loosened as the introduction to the big bad was lacklustre. With that said, the quieter more in-depth character moments are a reason to keep going forward on this journey and show potential to be one of the better TellTale series.
Episode 3 – First Ones
We’re now over the halfway point after beating episode 3 of The Expanse and the building blocks of the relationships and drama are starting to pay off. Maybe as a consumer of episodic games that have been binge-able for a few years, I have felt entering every episode a little disjointed. Whilst your decisions carry over per episode, they still have a strong notion of being self-contained – until now!
Drummer and the crew are back at another abandoned sector, looking for their golden ticket of scrap for a pretty payday. This is an overall shorter level in comparison. The area to explore is more linear, with less to interact with, but I got a lot more out of the environmental storytelling this time around. There is a dreading atmosphere that makes every hallway of the abandoned ship tense to saunter through.
Episode 3 felt like a horror and though tonally it was jarring to the rest of The Expanse, it was a change of pace that was a shot in the arm. I don’t want to spoil the gruesome surprises that pertain to the ship, but the bar is higher this time round.
QTEs are still around and a new minigame where you connect circuits to open doors is throughout. This isn’t a very active episode in comparison, but in place are more tense cut scenes. As this is a shorter episode there are fewer choices to make, but they felt more significant and by the end, I felt crushed.
The last section of the game feels like TellTale back in form with deeply emotive scenes that gave me flashes of The Walking Dead’s more impactful scenes. I hope this is the trend for the next two episodes as by the end we’re really cooking with spaceship fuel.
Episode 3 Summary
It’s taken a while for The Expanse to kick into gear, but the shorter more concise episode is full of emotional punches. All the world-building and character dynamics haven’t gone to waste, as the story ends on a tantalising cliffhanger. Making the last quarter of the game feel hopeful.
Episode 4 – Impossible Objects
The penultimate episode of Camina Drummer’s journey through pirates and scavenging, and I came away hopeful after Episode 3. So how does Episode 4 fare now that it’s out? Well, the running trend so far has been appreciating a variety of highs, but there’s always a caveat to what I like about it. Like Episode 4 and the subsequent episodes, I’ve been getting some of those emotional highs I saw way back at the start, but in between those are some mildly significant lows.
After the cliffhanger left in Episode 3 with the emotional gut punch I went through, Episode 4 has a more pensive introduction. You are alone, low on oxygen and your past comes creeping back internally to tear you down from survival. Fans of the series will rejoice that a character from her past is a focal voice, challenging the decisions she’s made in life, and I assume the TV show. For me, however, it’s a strange introduction to a character that after a quick Google is relatively prominent. Utilised well? Potentially. Did I care? Not at all, but that’s just a perspective coming to the game without knowledge.
Fighting For Life
It’s a very slow intro that creeps into the mid-section, bringing back the connective puzzle and sneaking past drones from the earlier episodes. Overall, it felt like a crawl, I was ready to veer straight into the consequences of Episode 3, but they were more introspective and a little bit tedious. The Expanse suffers from pacing issues throughout the game so far, with directions in tone that kind of feels all over the place.
The last third of this episode is The Expanse which drew me in from the start. But that’s just it, every episode has an engrossing third act and then it ends. I hope the character we finally meet in this episode persists as their official introduction and Camina’s interaction with them is thoroughly engaging. With that said, we’re one episode left of the main story, so how this wraps up may not be an explosive conclusion as I thought in Episode 1, but I’m hopeful.
Episode 4 Summary
A pensive penultimate episode on the whole for The Expanse, and as we’re nearing the end I wish the game would put its proverbial foot on the gas. Gameplay isn’t as exciting as the prior episodes, but fans of the series might get a kick out of the characters that turn up. Not the direction I was hoping for, but there’s still a finale that’ll hopefully bring it to Ceres.
Episode 5 – Europa’s Folly
The dramatic conclusion to The Expanse: A TellTale Series is finally in orbit and it’s been a long journey for Camina Drummer and the crew. Pirates, forbidden treasure and persevering against the odds have been a central plot for the series. Surrounding that is a supporting cast of crew members that from Episode 1 tests the loyalties of Camina Drummer.
From Episode 3, the episodes have been generally short and the finale is no different. The shorter gameplay time does make it feel closer to an episode of TV, rather than a plodding narrative that pads out gameplay fluff to justify the price of admission. However, I would have loved more time overall with the characters I do meet, as there are emotional conclusions to everyone you’ve met along the way, but where the series turns you’re often alone instead of interacting with the memorable cast.
Something I did notice specifically that has been around the whole game is the performance capture. There’s more nuance to how characters look in the close-ups and it delivers a great amount of weight not seen as much in other TellTale games. It helps sell the scenes tremendously and I cared about Camina’s journey.
I was satisfied with the direction of the series overall. I don’t think it quite hits the impactful character moments seen in other TellTale series, but it is a continuously more grounded game by comparison. Motivations are believable, directions on where the game can go for characters are a lot more varied, and your choices aren’t as binary, making the forking narrative very subtle.
I went to look at the trophies after beating the game and some of the requirements were surprising. The story can be very different depending on your choices, in a way I don’t think TellTale has done before. As always, the destination is the same but everything surrounding is uniquely yours and I’m looking forward to mopping up the trophies and exploring the changes.
The pacing is a little uneven and the gameplay reflects that, with the series having more exploration before it becomes more precise in the direction the deeper you go. Some of the gameplay elements explored per episode are scaled back every episode you complete. By the end, it feels like a classic TellTale title, and I did miss the new and exciting gameplay elements at the beginning.
If you’re into TellTale, even if you don’t know The Expanse, this is a great start for TellTale to get back into what they do best. Bringing Deck Nine into co-develop is also a neat choice as I’m sure a lot of their influence from previous games also came into fruition here, but it didn’t quite reach the heights I’ve known them both for.
The Expanse: A TellTale Series tells a more mature and grounded story compared to other TellTale titles. The art direction and visuals lend itself to a more nuanced approach to give Camina Drummer a decent prequel to her TV show debut. Pacing is all over the place as the new and exciting gameplay elements are implemented in strange places, but the game does a great job of welcoming you into a vast world that could sink its hooks into you.
Every episode of The Expanse: A TellTale Series is available now for PlayStation 5 (review platform), PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One and PC via EGS.
Developer: Telltale Games, Deck Nine
Publisher: Telltale Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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