The Expanse: A Telltale Series review in progress – A lackluster return to form

Brad Norton
The Expanse: A Telltale series gameplay

Through the first three chapters, The Expanse: A Telltale Series marks a dull, uninspired return to form for the revived studio as not even Camina Drummer’s witty charm can distract from a hollow game needlessly sticking to an episodic structure.

Prior to the studio’s initial closure in 2018, you’d be hard-pressed to find an IP Telltale Games wasn’t turning into an interactive experience of sorts. Game of Thrones, Batman, Minecraft, and perhaps most successfully, The Walking Dead, are just some of the many iconic collaborations in their portfolio.

All followed an episodic formula where, at key junctures, player choice impacted the direction of the story to a degree. This recipe proved successful until 90% of Telltale’s workforce was abruptly laid off amid financial woes behind the scenes.

Now returning years later with a smaller crew and only a handful of original staff members back onboard, Telltale is starting over and a game focusing on Prime Video’s extraordinary adaptation of The Expanse is first on the agenda. Though old habits seemingly die hard as an overreliance on archaic systems and an unwillingness to evolve ultimately fail the wondrous sci-fi series on this occasion. At least, that’s the deflated impression we were left with just three episodes into the five-act project.

The Expanse: A Telltale Series – Key details

  • Price (Standard Edition): $39.99 USD | £34.99 GBP | $54.95 AUD
  • Developer: Telltale Games
  • Release date: July 26, 2023
  • Platforms: PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X | S, PlayStation 4, & PlayStation 5

The Expanse: A Telltale Series trailer

A Camina Drummer story

If you’ve seen The Expanse, there’s no doubt Camina Drummer stole your heart. Expanding well beyond her role in the James S. A. Corey novel series, Drummer, played by Cara Gee, became an instant fan-favorite, stealing the spotlight from any scene with her unmistakable tenacity.

Looking to flesh out Drummer’s backstory somewhat, this new game shows a previously unexplored period of her life prior to the events of the beloved TV series. Here, we see the character, once again portrayed by Cara Gee, interact with a whole new crew aboard The Artemis as they navigate some perilous territories in hopes of that ‘one big score.’

While the story kicks off with a regular salvage mission gone wrong, it’s not until episode three that the full scope of the narrative is revealed. Exactly where it goes and what it entails is best discovered on your own, but rest assured the series’ ominous sci-fi tone is well intact here. The plot presents some lofty ideas I’m eager to learn more about in the final two chapters, especially considering the game’s place in the overall timeline.

The Expanse: A Telltale series gameplayThe early plot is enticing enough, though the first three episodes feel like one collective intro, rather than individual chapters.

Holding the storytelling back, however, is its reliance on Telltale’s classic episode formula. Where in previous games, narratives were all but purpose-built for this layout, with cliffhangers leaving you wanting more each time credits roll, that isn’t quite the case here with The Expanse game. Rather, it’s as though one singular chapter of a story has been divided into multiple bite-sized chunks for no reason other than to maintain the old way of things.

In fact, while we previously waited weeks or months between episodes as development was ongoing during a season, we already know the Expanse game is mostly finished. Devs are purely holding content back to force a bi-weekly rollout.

At least through the first three episodes – all of which were shockingly brief in comparison to earlier Telltale games, barely taking half an hour to get through some – they’re just too thin to stand out as individual acts. Credits rolling between chapters feels more like an interruptive loading screen than a core narrative device.

As a result of its brevity, we really don’t get much time with the new supporting cast joining Drummer on her latest spacefaring adventure. Just a few lines of dialogue and a handful of optional exposition dumps are all we really get in the early runnings, thus, it’s hard to feel all too attached to these quickly forgettable crew members.

Telltale through and through

On the gameplay side, it’s very much a traditional Telltale experience. Interactive conversations fill the bulk of your time, though only two dialogue options are ever available, giving you a very limited impact on the overall narrative along with Drummer’s arc in this chunk of her story. Yes, characters will remember that, though nothing ever feels particularly consequential. At least through the first chunk of the game, only one or two decisions seemed to actually matter in the long run.

Quick-time events are also common throughout more action-heavy sequences, though they’re so incredibly basic they may as well be automated. While on one hand, it’s naturally accessible to your non-gamer types – especially given select earlier Telltale games eventually made their way to mobile – they’re certainly lackluster, doing nothing whatsoever to heighten the tension of any given moment.

Breaking up the stream of conversations are the odd open areas, most of which bring you outside the confines of the ship. Although the floaty Zero-G movement is neat at first, you quickly realize just how lackluster exploration truly is in The Expanse game. Environments generally funnel you through one core path, with the odd optional room to look through here and there. Yet your effort never appears to be rewarded.

During these chunks of the game, you’re able to find various items scattered through the levels. A handful serve as side-objectives, be it collecting food or medical supplies for particular characters. Though most are quickly converted to ‘salvage’. Exactly what this salvage does, how it can be exchanged, or where you even look to see your collection, all remains a complete mystery through the first three episodes. It all feels a bit pointless, very little of what you find in the open areas actually seems to have a purpose.

Making matters all the more confusing, a number of mission logs can also be found while exploring. These give some extra details on various characters, ships, and life in outer space. Yet even though you find them in specific locations, with details largely pertaining to said area, you can’t interact with them until you’re back on your own ship. Although we’re 300 years in the future, and Drummer is very clearly shown to have her hand terminal gadget, there’s simply no way to read text logs on the fly. It just can’t be done, apparently.

Hammering home our aforementioned point on the forced episodic structure, some logs found in particular episodes then can’t be accessed until the next episode when you return to your ship. If some are actually playing an episode every fortnight as intended, there’s very little chance you’re actually going to remember the importance of a given log, nor where you found it.

The Expanse: A Telltale series gameplay
Only a handful of decisions seem to matter, with even many of the game’s ‘major’ moments largely brushed aside in no time at all.

Episodic structure does more harm than good

Perhaps if The Expanse game had released all at once, with the full experience playable as a single cohesive unit, its limited scope and some puzzling limitations could be overlooked. But in its current form, with extremely short episodes, forced interruptions, and lackluster game design, it’s tough to recommend given its price tag.

While fans of the series are sure to have fun revisiting the IP once again no matter what, we highly recommend waiting for all five episodes to be available before jumping in.

We’ll be sure to circle back here with a final look at Telltale’s returning effort once the full project is out in the wild.