Following on from Ties That Bind and maintaining the intense, visceral quality that Telltale has always managed to imbue into this franchise, Above the Law succeeds on the strengths of its multi-faceted characterization, continually powerful and believable story arcs, and the gravity of the choices that the player has to make.
After the shocking revelation at the end of the last episode, the third installment of The Walking Dead: A New Frontier throws us back in to the fray with a flashback, documenting more of Javi and his family’s struggles to stay alive in the Garcia homestead and awaiting the return of his brother David. In true Telltale style, the flashback provides some necessary exposition, fleshing out the characters further while subtly setting character elements up for the rest of the episode, all while the tension of the moment is allowed to build.
The episode continues along in this vein: the focus is squarely on character relationships as they are forced to confront the new dynamic that has been thrust upon them and to consider where loyalties truly lie. Javi continues to be an interesting character, and it continues to be refreshing to have a new perspective on the horrors of the world. But the game makes sure we don’t forget about our old favorite; we do catch up with Clementine for short, valuable moments that give us more of an insight in to what has happened to her while we have been gone.
It’s interesting that Telltale continues to ensure that the danger and horror elements don’t stagnate, even when they utilize some of the same plot devices. Much like the previous season which centered around a closed-off, sinister community, this episode delves further into another — the New Frontier of the third season’s title. The characters provide the sense of immediacy required to make it feel fresh, and it’s entirely believable that this far down the line these settlements would be pivotal when it comes to understanding the nature of human civilization after the apocalypse.
The revelations about the New Frontier and its connections to Javi make the choices that the player has to make incredibly difficult. Telltale continues to master the art of the heart-rending decisions, as well as their trademark choices. This episode also contains a little more in the way of gameplay when compared to the first two, offering a few quick puzzles and one major scene where you are tasked with breaking through a door, but these elements are once again secondary to the game’s narrative, which could be viewed as both a strength and a weakness. In cases like these, where the gameplay is working well and flows with the story, it’s definitely more of a strength. There are later sections of gameplay that serve to drive home the gravity of what you are doing and the consequences that they might have. Nevertheless, gameplay has never necessarily been where Telltale’s — or more specifically this franchise’s — strengths lie. At its most successful, the quick-time events manage to blend in well with the larger narrative.
Graphically, this episode had more issues than its predecessor. The animation glitched a few times, which resulted in some characters’ torsos vanishing out of existence for a few seconds before making a sudden return. Luckily, the issues weren’t too much of a problem. This season of the game still features a more crisp and visually interesting aesthetic than its predecessors and signifies a step in the right direction for the company, which has been plagued with animation issues in the past. In this case, it took nothing away from the immersion and perhaps only added a brief moment of unintentional amusement to an otherwise intense experience.
That intensity is also bolstered by the atmosphere that Telltale always manages to create in this franchise. The soundtrack by Jared Emerson-Johnson is powerful, as usual; he continues to blend electronic sounds with the more orchestral to create an environment of constant unease, waxing and waning as the tension increases or dissipates, and when the animation is working they go together very well. The rendering of the environments work in tandem with the score to give that sense of being on edge even when you’re in the middle of the New Frontier’s comparatively nice community.
Above the Law is another strong effort in this franchise, ratcheting up interesting plot points from previous episodes and continuing to manage to focus on interesting and complex human drama even amidst all the zombie madness. It does this without forgetting the constant threat of the undead. Some key sequences in the episode prove just that, but its focus on how these characters continue to deal with their situation is the driving force behind the success. The episode ends on another cliffhanger of sorts, and one only imagines that the tension will only increase considering the revelations brought forth — a strong mid-season episode that sets up a lot without giving away too much.