In July we looked at the first episode of The Expanse – the latest episodic series from veterans Telltale, with future episodes spaced a fortnight apart. With the series now concluded, it’s time to cast our critical eye over the whole thing and round up our thoughts. Minor spoilers are ahead, so skip to the final paragraph if you’re merely curious about how it compares to Telltale’s past works.
In the second episode, Hunting Grounds, we get up close and personal with the crew, quite literally in some instances. We also have a taste of some new mechanics, namely traversing laser-protected hallways using our jet propulsion, lest we get shot to bits by the connected space cannons.
Exploration of the vessel provides ample opportunity to find goodies we can give to our crew on the ship, enabling us to uncover some of their backstories and giving us a deeper look into their personalities. Not everyone in space has a squeaky-clean record. Carmina Drummer herself, XO and now acting captain of the Artemis, has a bounty; while some of her other crew members are also wanted, experiencing addictions, or escaping troubled pasts. While there seems to be an unspoken “Don’t ask, don’t tell” rule in space regarding one’s past, that all goes out the window while we have a good old rummage around the crew’s quarters, using salvaged tech to break encryptions and nose into their personal files. We are also introduced to a new character and potential antagonist – Toussaint, who is after the bounty on us and now the secrets that lie within the heart of the story.
The second episode focuses hard on creating bonds and relationships with the crew, whether bringing your disgraced captain his favourite bottle of scotch, finding some mushrooms to add some umami to our meals, or creating a surprisingly tender moment with the prickly and foul-mouthed old lady pilot with the gift a cigar. It builds the anticipation knowing horrible choices will lie further on down the road which will be impacted by whether you’ve made these connections, or how you’ve reacted. How soon these connections show their true value is never clear until it’s already upon you. While some choices may seem almost whimsical in the moment, they tend to have much larger consequences down the line and cleverly force the player to lower their guard so you’re completely undefended against them. In my game, I chose Carmina to have a triste with the engineering officer that we’d had the flirtatious fight in the previous episode, Maya – an act which will literally come back to haunt me and save my life in the future.
Episode 3, First Ones, draws us deeper still into the intrigue as we find ourselves staring down upon a century old settlement, possibly one of the earliest from humanity’s foray into space. We learn more about the issues that early space-faring humans faced, and how this settlement was ravaged by a pandemic. The sad history to be puzzled together, a bacterial tuberculosis which started in and killed the children first and ended in a huge memorial and possible death cult based around their memory.
This episode felt like the shortest but also laid a lot of groundwork for the rest of the story to come. We find the object that our captain had cut us into the deal on, but things quickly go sour when members of the crew mutiny culminating in Maya and Carmina being strong armed to the airlock. An emotional decision is made over who gets to wear the space helmet (like it was never going to be Carmina), the airlock is opened, and we watch quite intimately as our new space girlfriend freezes in the vacuum and dies.
Episode 4, Impossible Objects, plunges players into a gripping and emotionally charged narrative. As the episode unfolds, the tension rises as players are confronted with the dire consequences of Carmina Drummer’s predicament.
The episode begins with a race against time, as Carmina’s spacesuit oxygen supply dwindles. This desperate struggle for survival serves as the backdrop for a deep dive into Carmina’s complex past. Through hallucinations and memories, players shape the truth of her backstory as an OPA soldier. These segments provide a compelling narrative layer, offering insight into Carmina’s motivations and experiences. One of the strengths of these games lies in their ability to seamlessly blend puzzle elements with the overarching story. Players must navigate Carmina through various challenges while suffering through her limited oxygen. This balance between gameplay and storytelling keeps players engaged and invested in Carmina’s fate.
Episode 4 also introduces some intense dialogue options. These interactions are pivotal in defining Carmina’s character and her relationships with other characters, particularly Maya. The emotional depth of these choices is palpable, but some players might find that the options occasionally feel too polarised, leaving little room for nuanced responses. For example, the choice regarding Carmina’s feelings for Maya may feel somewhat forced, given the relatively short time the characters had intimately known each other.
Despite this minor quibble, Episode 4 successfully maintains the delicate equilibrium between story and player agency. Maya makes a surprise reappearance, challenging Carmina to confront her self-pity and empower herself to complete her mission. It’s a poignant moment that underscores the strength of their bond, however brief it may have been.
The episode ultimately culminates in a tense rescue, with an unexpected saviour. This twist adds complexity to the character, defying initial expectations and revealing layers of depth. It’s a crucial instalment that propels players deeper into Carmina’s journey and sets the stage for the finale to come.
Episode 5, Europa’s Folly, serves as the season’s climax, bringing together the narrative threads and revealing the culmination of the player’s decisions. It’s a thrilling and action-packed conclusion that delivers a satisfying end to the story. As players navigate the climactic events, they are once again presented with dialogue options that steer the course of the narrative. However, there’s a recurring sense that these choices can feel somewhat forced. While I appreciate the need for a certain level of linearity in the storytelling to maintain the game’s narrative coherence, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was room for additional exploration or alternative avenues before making pivotal decisions.
The balance between providing player engagement and maintaining a cohesive narrative is a challenging one for episodic games like this. While the developers have opted for a more directed approach to the storyline, it might have been intriguing to flirt with the possibility of alternative ideas, even if they were ultimately limited. These tantalising hints at divergent possibilities could have added a layer of complexity to the decision-making process.
Despite this minor critique, Episode 5 delivers a satisfying conclusion to the season, offering players the opportunity to witness the outcomes of their choices. It underscores the importance of the decisions made throughout the game and their impact on the characters and the story.
In the end, The Expanse succeeds in delivering a familiar feeling, engaging and immersive experience within the style of its episodic format. While the dialogue options may occasionally feel constrained, the overall narrative and character development remain as compelling as always, making for a binge-able journey through the universe.
The Expanse: A Telltale Series is developed by Telltale Games and Deck Nine. Available out now on PS5, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series, and PC.