After the first two episodes in Telltale’s episodic series based on the popular television show proved resoundingly terrible, there wasn’t much reason to expect anything more (or less) from this latest episode; you might even categorize our response to the news of an impending episode as “dread.” But God help us, whether it’s a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome or things have actually improved in this series, we think we might have actually enjoyed The Sword in the Darkness, at least a little bit. No, the choices still don’t matter, and yes, the game still looks like garbage, but the pacing in this episode has been improved into something that actually sort of resembles the television show if you squint a little, and that’s made all the difference. Of course, if you’re reading this far, like us, you either already made the mistake of buying the season pass and are thus locked in, so the “quality” of this episode doesn’t really matter at a certain point, or you just have a morbid curiosity. Either way, let’s get into it.
Like the last episode, you’ll open on an action scene with Asher, the blond, roguish Forrester son exiled from Westeros tasked with raising an army, before jumping back and forth between the remaining cast: Rodrik, as he desperately tries to maintain control of Ironrath amidst a Whitehill invasion; Mira, as she maneuvers through the dangerous political machinations of King’s Landing; and Gared, as he tries to balance the warring responsibilities of finding the potentially mythical North Grove to save the Forresters and his newly sworn duty to the Night’s Watch. The Sword in the Darkness cuts between its different plot lines much more often than either of the previous two episodes, and it’s a much more enjoyable and interesting episode as a result. Before one thread is pulled so long it threatens to unravel completely, the episode switches smartly to another family member and back again. It’s still not as dynamic as the show it mimics, of course, but it’s a step in the right direction, and that simple change makes the entire episode much easier to sit through.
It helps that — predictably — each plot line is getting more urgent as the episodes march on. You feel pretty helpless as Rodrik in the face of the Whitehills, who have gotten more aggressive than ever with the addition of Gryff Whitehill, a hook-nosed, petulant ruffian with something to prove to everyone. Rodrik’s scenes are effective at hammering how helpless he is against Gryff and his men due both to his injuries and to the power they hold over him, and as the player, you’re forced to either make Rodrik swallow his pride for his family in humiliating ways or give in at great risk to everyone involved. The same conflict extends to Gared’s scenes as you decide whether to put aside or ignite old rivalries, put your family or your new brothers first, and whether or not to take revenge in a super satisfying way (that we cannot believe only 20% of fellow players chose to give in to). Gared’s scenes have a lot more intrigue than before with the hunt for the North Grove beginning, and it feels a little like a somehow even clumsier The Da Vinci Code, as for instance Gared suddenly realizes a necklace he’s had for months is actually a locket crucial to solving the mystery. Still, the clumsy intrigue here is better than the boredom of previous episodes. Mira and Asher’s scenes still feel a little dry, even as big events happen around them: on one hand, it’s refreshing how willing Telltale is to let the showstopper moments happen completely in the background, but on the other, they still feel forced in and the timing of character appearances often makes you question whether Telltale has even watched the scene they’re writing for.
Luckily, since each scene is much shorter than before, they’re much more focused and less keen to waste your time. In previous episodes, Telltale would be content to drop you in as Ethan, for instance, exploring Ironrath courtyard with no pressing objective, leaving you free to talk to everyone and observe everything with no real payoff; or perhaps Mira, locked in a room with lots of trunks and desks and windows and no point at all. Those sequences were boring, dreadfully so, and lacked any kind of punch or justification — no real backstory or character depth to explore, just pointless interactions with a bucket, or a barrel, or a wall. That still exists in The Sword in the Darkness, but mercifully, it seems Telltale is making the interactions that are there more meaningful and removing several others.
Now, for instance, Gared will reminisce about his days as a squire in Ironrath to show how much he’s grown as a character, or he’ll comment on the threat of Mance Rayder and his Wildling army to offer a little useful exposition to remind players where we are in relation to the show’s timeline. But you’ll still ask Gared to comment on an ice wall and he’ll say, “That’s made of solid ice,” or you’ll ask him observe an unlit torch he was tasked with lighting and he’ll say, “I need to light that one,” and you’ll wonder why Telltale even bothered to record those lines. It cost money and time to record those pointless lines, and it costs you money and time to listen to them. So the problem isn’t quite gone yet entirely, but like with pacing, little by little, Telltale is making progress.
But Telltale isn’t making progress on every front. Conversations feel muddled by the burden of choice. Nothing ever flows in a natural way, and instead characters will hop back and forth between unrelated topics and tones. We selected a conversation option for Gared labelled, “Welcome to Castle Black,” only for him to say, “Welcome to the Wall, brother,” to which the other character responded, “Looking forward to it, boy.” It makes no sense, and mismatches like that happen all the time. Even the presentation on these conversations doesn’t hold up. The voice work is often shoddy, with different lines in the same conversation from the same character often varying greatly in quality and sounding like they came from different recording sessions. You can clearly see the characters moving between animation routines to account for where the conversation is going. It’s really tough to stay immersed in or care about what’s happen onscreen when it looks and sounds this rough.
Really, it cannot be stressed enough just how bad this game looks. Seriously, with each month that passes between episodes, we consistently forget just how awful these episodes look and each time it’s like seeing them with fresh eyes. They look terrible. Terrible. The textures are muddy. The animations are stilted and jittery. The lip syncing is miserable. The characters look fake and their expressions are exaggerated in a really distracting way. There’s sharp aliasing that cuts across the edges of a lot of objects to pull your gaze to them. Trees in particular (there are a lot of them) are a lowlight for the game, with flat textures jutting out in obvious ways that draw attention. The oil painting filter makes everything look even worse at a distance than it does up close — the exact opposite problem of most video games — and it makes the background deform around characters as they walk; it’s a visual style designed to make screenshots look like art, but it just ends up making the game look horrible in motion. To top it all off, the game’s big punchline is that it can’t even keep a solid frame rate: the entire game will freeze for a good three or four seconds on occasions not nearly rare enough, and aggravating little hitches happen constantly.
It’s still impossible to recommend this series to anyone but Telltale diehards; fans of the HBO show will find it supremely unsatisfying and dreadfully boring, and it’s too steeped in lore for anyone else to jump in. The Sword in the Darkness does nothing to change that, but it does push the quality bar just a hair higher, elevating itself all the way into “I guess that wasn’t terrible” territory. With better pacing, more interesting plot lines and more focused interactions, The Sword in the Darkness is easily the best episode of Telltale’s Game of Thrones yet; it’s not “good” by any means yet, but it’s getting dangerously close.