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Telltale Games has a reputation for consistently gripping narratives, and their prequel to The Expanse is a stellar edition to this catalogue. Aboard The Artemis, our protagonist is Camina Drummer, who fans of the television series will instantly recognise. Fear not though as this game is a prequel and can be played and enjoyed without much knowledge of the show. Meanwhile, pre-established characters Chrisjen Avasarala and Anderson Dawes are neatly woven into the fabric of the game, though mentions of them are without needless exposition. The supporting cast of the narrative are original creations for the game, and life is expertly imbued within them through their flaws and quirks.
The Expanse: A Telltale Series begins as it plans to continue, with life or death dangling from the threads of your choices. “There is no option – whatever we choose will be wrong, Captain, and it’s your f**king job to choose,” one character tactfully exclaims in the first episode. After a proleptic first scene which crescendos with a fatal choice, the game flashes back to a few hours earlier.
This first episode, typical of that iconic Telltale style, acts as a gentle introduction to the drama, mythos, and politics of the solar system, alongside the game’s mechanics. It eases you into manoeuvring through The Artemis, before thrusting you into Zero G. Strangely, bouncing through space is smooth – smooth in the sense that any awkward clunkiness suits the gravity of space and weight of magboots. There’s enough guidance to steer you through the narrative, but enough freedom to explore without it feeling like hand-holding as you scavenge the USS Urshanabi.
The Expanse’s environments become believable and visceral through subtly reactive debris, graffiti, and comms logs that narrate the geopolitical discourse of The Belt alongside memories of Earth and Mars. The character’s personalities are channelled through passive dialogue and item descriptions, while inklings of their personal narratives are blotted through slow gameplay which, thankfully, is sparse.
The game, like the show, is infested with violence. It composes the skeletal structure of a world tarnished by interstellar colonialism, inequality and poverty. Building upon the foundation of James A. Corey’s novels and the Amazon Prime show, the game has a wealth of lore to riff from. The dialogue benefits from this with style, as the vernacular and dialect of the Belter creole breathes life into conversation, while reminding of the scars of colonial rule.
Other Telltale series games are embellished with a graphic novel influenced cel-shaded art style, though The Expanse leans into a photoreal yet stylised aesthetic which perfectly complements the vistas of the deep space opera.
Thanks to the game’s immersive visual design, shifting between gameplay and cutscene is seamless. This is where the true magic of the game is found. They are subtly cinematic and meanwhile emblematic of Telltale games’ most notable quality – storytelling.
The second episode begins by raising the stakes. Dynamics are established by this point with enough conflict and personal mystery that each character looks ready to come to life. A blend of theatrical sound design and score animates the episode’s introduction as The Artemis’ crew are crushed by 6Gs. They perform hard science fiction’s favourite space manoeuvre, the slingshot, and land on the debris field to evade pirates.
However, there is one aspect that is a little disjointing and immersion breaking: Drummer and Maya’s smiles, which are uncanny to say the least, amidst the action-heavy intro to this five-part game.
The second episode is action and gameplay heavy, at least at the start. Telltale is known for its compelling narratives, and while they may have found a style of gameplay that compliments uncovering a story, there were points when it felt like a chore. The complexity of character relationships and tough decision-making later on in the episode makes up for it. Though towards the end there is a cut-scene which drags on for a while – or at least I thought it did. Having not seen the option to exit the scene, Drummer listened to a song with another character for an awkwardly long time, before I realised you could leave whenever you wanted. This is not a stain on The Expanse, but on my own ability to play games…
Drummer is a powerful protagonist. Despite being an established character in the TV series – also played by Cara Gee – the game eases you into her introduction with the simple mentions of ‘OPA traitor’ and ‘Anderson Dawes’ bounty on her head.’ Internal conflict is monologued through gameplay, while flashbacks hint at her troubled past. Decisions don’t come easy to her, and doing the right thing often seems like a mistake. Much of this is down to her deeply flawed persona. Having good intentions and a sense of morality is entirely up to the player, but believe me, it’s not worth it. Navigating there is difficult with Camina’s scathing tone and tendency to make the simplest of compliments a thorny minefield.
Drummer’s relationship with crew members brings this to life, especially with her love interest. Flirting between them is best described through the option of “fighting or f**king,” though whatever you choose, brace yourself for the consequences.
Character dynamics between the crew of The Artemis are well fleshed out at this point – the Belter twins Arlen and Rayen are infected with enough conflict between them for an entire cast of characters, while Khan’s stand-offish nature and psychopathic tendencies bring a flavour and spice to the roster.
With a narrative that rarely wanders, the character’s coarse relationships with each other are lubricated by liquid dialogue and rewarding tension. At times the game punishes you for acting kindly, and every action you take is followed by brutal taunting of dire consequences. Despite having only ventured through the first two episodes and a portion of the third, The Expanse: A Telltale Series already has me hooked.
Imaged captured by VideoGamer, courtesy of Telltale Games. Reviewed on PC, code provided by the publisher.