Platforms: PC, PS4/5, Xbox
Arriving piecemeal over the next two months, this five-part story from the recently resuscitated Telltale Games feels like something of a homecoming. Not only does it mark the return of the developer’s trademark episodic stories (here in a team-up up with Life Is Strange: True Colours’ Deck Nine Games), but it also sees the return of one of television’s stand-out sci-fi series, The Expanse, which finished its six season run on Prime Video last year.
Based on the novels by James S.A. Corey (nom de plume for writers Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham), the show took place amidst interplanetary politics and brinkmanship between three major powers in the solar system: Earth, the Martian Congressional Republic, and the Belt — a space-born underclass who mine the outer asteroid belts and are (loosely) represented by militant political arm the Outer Planets Alliance. Given the depth and scope of both show and novels, it will come as some relief to the uninitiated that you need little more knowledge than that to jump straight in to Telltale’s latest adventure. Rather than pick up where the show ended, the game is a prequel revolving around one of the series’ supporting (and fan-favourite) characters, no-nonsense Belter Camina Drummer (superbly voiced here by series actor Cara Gee) during her days as XO of the salvage ship Artemis. In true televisual style, we’re dropped immediately into the meat of the story via a cold open that sees Drummer poised to fire her erstwhile captain — Cox, a ruthless Earther, who lives entirely up to his name — out an airlock, before winding the clock back a few days as the Artemis begins a mission sifting through the wreckage of a recently destroyed battleship, only to discover coordinates to a potentially huge score and end up in the crosshairs of a notorious Belter pirate.
As with most Telltale games, The Expanse unfolds largely through narrative cutscenes, interspersed with occasional puzzles and binary conversation choices that often have far-reaching consequences (ominously signposted by “[Character] will remember that”). Aside from the occasional quick time event to make you feel involved, Telltale titles often feel like they largely play themselves and whether you enjoy simply being swept up in the story or find yourself wondering if you couldn’t just as easily watch the entire game on YouTube largely comes down to personal taste. However, The Expanse, takes some steps to address that disconnect, being more interactive than much of Telltale’s catalogue. Regular third-person exploration sequences prevent you from feeling like a spectator, moreso for making the most of the game’s zero-g setting by not only allowing you to employ your mag-boots to walk on walls and ceilings —recalling the vertiginous feel of Inception’s iconic corridor fight — but also letting you switch them off entirely to float about in a 360 degree environment. All of which keeps things fresh and interesting even when you’re simply trekking from point A to B in order to trigger the next event. The game’s puzzles are simple enough that they won’t keep you up at night, and the quick time windows are generous and rarely frustrating, meaning that the primary difficulty comes from forcing you to make difficult judgement calls under pressure. Do you save a haul of valuables but risk a crewman’s life? Do you space your double-dealing captain or throw him in the brig? It’s ethical conundrums rather than reflex-tests that form the backbone of The Expanse’s challenge.
For long-time Expanse fans, the entire experience is a giddy delight
But, odd as it might seem for a video game, actual gameplay is secondary here. What attracts people to Telltale titles is narrative and the storytelling in The Expanse is as tight as you’d hope from a title that bears the name. Even if this is your first foray into the Expanse universe, you’ll warm to Drummer: a woman of contradictions whose unflinching, ruthless pragmatism belies a big heart, fierce loyalty and a wary distrust of anyone outside the Belt. And while her peculiar Belter patois might take some getting used to (uninitiated players will learn to tell their ‘inyas’ from their ‘beltalowda’ quick enough), the richness of the setting speeds the adjustment, with the initial episode doing an admirable job of introducing both Drummer and her crew. An abrasive, often hostile bunch who ultimately form the beating heart of this five-part saga, the interactions, frictions, and shifting loyalties of the Artemis’ dysfunctional family lend the story real emotional heft, forcing you to care about all of them, from idiotic Belter brothers Arlen and Rayen, to gruff pilot Khan and furtive medic Virgil, who harbours a murky past. Navigating these relationships via simple dialogue choices might seem reductive but having a tangible stake in the characters’ development — and fate! — deftly sucks you in, making those split-second life or death choices land with the weight of a full 10G burn.
For long-time Expanse fans, the entire experience is a giddy delight, not only providing a way back into that cherished universe, but revealing it though the eyes of a beloved character who didn’t get nearly enough screen time during the show’s run. Allowing viewers to get better acquainted with Drummer feels like a gift, Gee’s exemplary performance combined with sharp, authentic writing providing a new dimension on the character and establishing the game as something that could easily have been a spin-off prequel miniseries. The main criticism is that it’s all over far too quickly. With each of the five episodes clocking in at between an hour and an hour and a half (largely depending on how fastidious you are at ferreting out every last point of interest) it’s not a long game — even if the nature of the branching story does encourage return visits. In this case the staggered release may work in its favour, drawing out the experience and allowing players to savour the story, series-style, rather than binge it all in a single sitting. With twists, shocks and heartbreak aplenty, there’s a great deal here to relish.