Space is the new narrative frontier for Life is Strange developer Deck Nine. Here’s our review of The Expanse: A Telltale Series…
It may be based on an acclaimed TV show adapted from a series of science fiction novels, but The Expanse as a game represents uncharted territory for co-developers Deck Nine and the revived Telltale Games. Up until now, Deck Nine was best known for its work on the emotional young adult drama of the Life is Strange series, but The Expanse takes place in a far more harsh, grim future world. It’s an adventure that also looks very different from the comic book aesthetic of Telltale’s earlier titles, though it does include the classic touch where certain dialogue choices will give you the notification, ‘X will remember that’.
Like Deck Nine’s Life is Strange: Before the Storm, though, The Expanse: A Telltale Series is a prequel, which should make it more welcoming to new audiences while also capturing the interest of existing fans. It’s told from the perspective of Camina Drummer, a character who grew in prominence throughout the TV series up until its final season; actor Cara Gee reprises her role here.
For Life is Strange fans unfamiliar with the show, it might take some time to adjust. The stakes and moral dilemmas Drummer faces as a member of scavenger ship Artemis are heightened from the get-go, which is made more complicated because the members of your tight-knit crew aren’t immediately likeable or even trustworthy. Suffice to say that life out in space, where gangsters and pirates roam, is a harsh and violent place, with some shockingly grim sights in just the first episode. Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to see Deck Nine tackling different subjects and environments.
Those environments are the first clue that The Expanse is a real departure for Deck Nine. The game gives you the freedom to explore space, nearby stations and debris fields in zero-gravity, whether you’re freely floating and rolling around in the air or spacewalking with your boots firmly planted on a surface. Controls can feel a little unwieldy, however, especially if you lose your orientation in the often dimly-lit interiors. There’s an option to traverse vertically, but most useful is the ability to bring up an objective marker so you can work out where you’re going.
Incidentally, life and death decisions – or decisions that may result in someone losing a limb – become a regular occurrence for Drummer, certainly in the first three episodes I was given access to for this review. Consequences aren’t made immediately apparent, either, so your regrets (or sense of relief) may only surface in the subsequent episode. The Expanse’s scavengers can also be a ruthless and foul-mouthed bunch (though the majority of the cursing is through the slang used by ‘Belters’, a marginalised people from the solar system’s fringes), so Drummer isn’t one to hesitate if her survival’s on the line.
This does mean there are moments that revert to Telltale-style action sequences where you’re following QTE prompts, or in one case a stealth sequence, where failure prompts a restart. While these scenes are infrequent, they nonetheless feel out of step with Deck Nine’s previous titles, which were less weighted with body counts – though the QTEs are at least forgiving in that, if you make the wrong input, you can still correct your mistake before the time runs out.
One area where The Expanse feels closer to a show than a game is in its pacing. Each episode takes roughly an hour to play, on par with a typical television installment, and so there’s considerably less fat and filler than other narrative games, which often encourage you to comb the environment for nuggets of lore or traipse around the same room to solve a puzzle. Those moments still exist here, but The Expanse makes a more concerted effort to move you from A to B rather than leave you hanging around to soak up the vibes. Sure, the Artemis and the places you explore out on the Belt aren’t short on atmosphere, and there’s some terrifically evocative camera shots that capture the vastness of space, but you won’t want to hang about, either.
The Expanse’s brisk pace does, however, make its episodes’ release schedule somewhat puzzling. To be clear, the full game is finished, and I respect Deck Nine’s decision to give each episode its own time to breathe so that those water cooler conversations can be had rather than letting players rush through it all in a night or two. But when an episode can be completed in one sitting, two weeks feels like an agonisingly long wait between installments.
The game also lacks the show’s strength as an ensemble drama, so even though Drummer’s a compelling protagonist, other Artemis crew members, such as the grumpy, sweary pilot Khan and the timid medic Virgil, aren’t given the screen time that would otherwise flesh them out. One other thing to note is that while Drummer is a bisexual character, she only has one romance option in the game, though it makes sense in the relatively small cast not to contrive an alternative option for the sake of it.
Despite some niggles, The Expanse is a bold new direction for Deck Nine, showcasing how it can be just as versatile a storyteller as Telltale itself once was. Will the series’ two remaining episodes stick the landing? I’m certainly excited to find out.
While each episode feels more structured to move you swiftly from A to B, there are optional things to look out for, whether it’s gaining a sense of the lives of the people previously inhabiting the abandoned ships and stations you’re essentially grave-robbing, or finding items that may go toward affecting relationships with other crew members. I was most fascinated to find a poster with translations of the Belter language, including some of the curse words uttered by characters earlier in the game.
An intriguing and well-paced prequel to the acclaimed sci-fi show that should convert newcomers while also pleasing its fans.