It remains to be seen how much your choices will matter in the next and final chapter – each decision has enough positive and negative results that it’s hard to say if there were any truly good choices to be made all along. Still, Vipers has neatly cleared a path for the climax and set the central conflict blazing again with a decision that will hit you right in the guilt. It makes the wait for the final episode even worse than normal, but in the meantime, you just have to let Vipers run its course and hope you didn’t screw up too badly.
How is Episode 4: Sons of Winter?
When the credits rolled on Sons of Winter, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to scream out of joy or fury. This chapter in the Forresters’ story has a brilliant way of mixing both over its two-hour run, as allies make good on their promises and enemies leave their weaknesses exposed. For the first time in Telltale’s series, you’re encouraged to be bold in your decision-making, and even punching a hated enemy in the face can be a wise tactic. I personally embarrassed myself multiple times cheering out loud, as my choices unfolded into great victory and hard-fought revenge for the Forrester clan.
But while feeling like a champion is certainly fun, what makes this episode great is its ability to blend that triumph with blind panic. Making daring choices does result in huge gains here, but there’s always the chance you’ll go a little too far and won’t realize it until it’s too late, or that you won’t go far enough if you hedge your bets out of fear. Sons therefore builds on the frightening momentum of the previous episodes, pushing you to audacious choices then leaving you to your anxiety the instant it’s done. Sadly, some of these moments are marred by technical issues – framerate problems and missing voice clips act like record scratches for some otherwise great scenes, and in my playthrough a tense showdown was deflated by a character reappearing in a room as he walked out the door. Thankfully these issues aren’t frequent enough to derail the episode; by and large, Sons keeps tension at a constant high, making it seem like your plans are coming together in one moment, then letting you think you’ve ruined it all in the next.
While this feeling is familiar to anyone who’s played through the first three episodes of Game of Thrones, it largely comes from a desire to win for winning’s sake and less from real affection for the cast. That changes in Sons, however, as characters who started the season as blank slates have developed into genuinely likeable, engaging people. This episode has some sincere and tender moments hidden away for players who make the right choices (you’ll probably melt a little bit when “Elena will never forget this” pops up on screen, and there’s a pretty poignant fist-fight between Asher and Beskha) and many powerful moments come from different characters growing into their roles. Mira, for instance, has gotten so good at playing politics that her segments aren’t the most nerve-wracking for once, and the Lord of Ironrath has finally come into his own as a leader.
For the first time, protecting House Forrester is less about coming out on top and more about assuring that Talia, Ryon, Mira, Garred, Asher, or whomever you favor makes it through to the end. Often, that means letting the timer tick down to nothing on almost every decision, hoping the choice you made keeps these characters alive, feeling like a conquering hero when it works and still panicking that you’ve messed it up for later. Creating that experience is what makes Sons of Winter itself a triumph, an outstanding next step in this Game of Thrones tale that will leave you desperate to get your hands on Episode 5. Plus, it really drives that panic home with a giant cliffhanger. If you’re like me, it’ll make you want to scream.
How is Episode 3: The Sword in the Darkness?
Episode 1 sets the stakes, episode 2 shows you the way forward, and episode 3 is where the Forresters’ struggle for survival starts to get very interesting. Taking advantage of the slow build-up that’s characterized the season so far, The Sword in the Darkness establishes tangible and sometimes terrifying consequences for your previous decisions. Mira, for instance, experiences some serious fallout if she chose to negotiate with Tyrion Lannister in the last two episodes, and even her smallest choices (how she’s treated Sera, her interactions with the coal boy, whether she got her hands on a plot-critical knife and what she did with it) start to have a significant effect on her life.
She’s easily the most complex example – nothing is simple in King’s Landing – but every character sees similar developments, and this episode does a great job of using those moments to establish everyone’s significance to the larger narrative. This focus makes up for some stumbling in earlier episodes, where it wasn’t clear why certain characters were of interest. Garred in particular benefits from this attention, since he seemed disconnected from the larger story until this episode establishes his true significance.
While no aspects of the plot come to full fruition (as well they shouldn’t so early in the season) there’s finally a sense that your choices have been important to the trajectory of the story, for better or for worse. There’s also plenty of build-up for future episodes (Asher makes a tough call in the first few minutes of the episode that will likely have long-term implications) and The Sword in the Darkness does an excellent job weaving together moments of payoff and pay-in. As a result, you get some meaty rewards for your attention without the story losing any steam.
In addition to keeping the story moving at a steady pace, Sword knows it has to be thoroughly exciting if you’re going to pay attention to its constantly revolving carousel of characters and every decision they make. It creates scenes so intense that it feels like disaster could erupt over the tiniest bad choice, like pushing the Whitehill troops in Ironrath too far or crossing the wrong stranger in King’s Landing. While Asher and Garred once again see the lion’s share of the action scenes, some of the most harrowing sequences are the least violent. The folks in Ironrath, for instance, stumble upon a pretty shocking secret, and I felt compelled to shriek wait, no, what happens??? after more than one of Mira’s scenes. At no point does the story slow down or lose its edge, and it’s easily on par with some of the TV show’s best episodes.
Paint me a picture
Given that the Game of Thrones show is entirely live-action, the leap to Telltale’s oil-painting aesthetic may be a bit jarring, and movements in the engine can look comparatively jerky. But the art style is really lovely once you get used to it, despite some janky animations here and there.
Perhaps most importantly, Sword does an impressive job of integrating the best parts of the two previous episodes, showing how vulnerable the main characters are while still giving you inspiring moments of power. While you’re never in a position to feel secure, the Forresters’ predicament also never seems entirely hopeless, and those moments together create a powerful drive to see their story through to completion. Times may be tough, but Sword shows how getting back up when you’re knocked down is itself a small but important victory. You just have to keep doing it, and if the brilliance of this episode is an indication of what the season holds, you’re have more than enough reason to do so.
How is Episode 2: The Lost Lords?
The Lost Lords is decidedly more optimistic than Iron from Ice, if that word and Game of Thrones even make sense together. Things are still hardly roses and sunshine for the Forrester clan, but their meteoric descent into ruin plateaus a bit here. The episode opens on a battle you’re actually expected to win, and rumors of a particular death have been greatly exaggerated. That’s good, because two more hours with no hint of victory in sight would have made the game much easier to put down. Why keep going when defeat is basically certain?
Lost Lords is a welcome reprieve in that sense, letting the Forresters (and therefore you) step out of damage control mode to go on the offensive and start executing on critical battle plans. Though things will absolutely, definitely, 100% go wrong in future episodes, this one feels a lot more productive, balancing out the previous chapter and giving you a reason to keep playing.
Episode 2 also beefs up the cast with two new player characters, one of whom is an ocean away from where the other protagonists are making their stand. There’s a lot of variety in Lost Lords’ settings as a result, with intrigue and action from the icy north to dangerous desert cities. That means more distinct gameplay variety as well. The Forresters all deal with fairly similar situations in Iron From Ice (sequences starring Mira in King’s Landing and Ethan in the Forrester manor of Ironrath both focus on talking your way out of bad situations, for instance), but each locale in Lost Lords has its own set of politics and means of confronting them.
While scenes starring Mira still focus on deciding who to trust and when to make a move, second-born son Asher spends most of his time fighting tense quick-time battles (which you can lose if you’re not quick enough on the draw), and the folks clustered at Ironrath try to keep their neighboring rivals at bay while bolstering their resources and keeping the family together. However, even as you make decent forward progress, there’s a sense that none of those things will be easy, and the anticipation for Episode 3 only gets stronger.