I won't lie to you, I've never seen a single episode of The Expanse TV show. Then again, I'd never seen a single episode of The Walking Dead when I sobbed my way through Telltale's first videogame adaptation of the series. I'd never read a single Fables comic when The Wolf Among Us became one of my favourite games of all time. I'd only ever played the first Borderlands when I couldn't get enough of Tales from the Borderlands, which relies heavily on events from the second game.
Telltale has always had a way of making me fall in love with both its games and its source material regardless of my initial familiarity—and I have close to zero knowledge of The Expanse bar it being a sci-fi show based on a series of novels. But this isn't the same Telltale who had a chokehold on me in the mid-2010s. That developer was abruptly shuttered in 2018, leaving a big narrative adventure-shaped hole in my heart and devastating news of crunch and toxic management within the company.
This is the LCG Entertainment-owned Telltale Games, and this is their first release under the name of the once-revered developer. I've been pretty nervous about it, honestly. I've sincerely wanted their game adaptation of The Expanse to be good—mostly for the selfish reason that I absolutely want the resurrected The Wolf Among Us 2 to also be good, and this is gonna feel like a pretty good indicator of how that'll go for me.
Well, after spending a few hours with its first episode, it feels like Telltale were never gone. I already feel myself warming to playable lead Camina Drummer—who will be a familiar face to fans of the TV show—and her space-faring crewmates aboard the Artemis. Yep, it's not the same Telltale, but it sure as hell feels like it. The classic episodic choice-based formula is present once more, and it works as well as it always did. Is there much innovation here on those old ideas? No, but I'm not particularly bothered. I'm just happy it's back.
I did feel a little lost in The Expanse's opening moments. Mercifully the game acts as a prequel to the TV show, so knowledge of its six seasons isn't really needed. However, there are several references to its lore off the bat that left me momentarily disoriented. Thankfully it doesn't take long to start giving me the lowdown on the little things as I explore the spaceship—like a handy sheet of Belter Creole translations, a language that Drummer and her fellow Asteroid-born Belter pals effortlessly weave into their sentences. Swear words included, of course.
Most of the first episode focuses on the relationships between Drummer and the rest of her crew. There's her charmingly flirtatious scenes with Mars-born mechanic Maya Castillo, which were easily my favourite parts of the episode. On the flip side, there's her uneasy relationship with Captain Garrison Cox, whose trustworthiness is thrown into question mere minutes into the episode.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Telltale game without several choices throughout the episode that directly influence these relationships. While the first half of the episode is a bit of a slow burn, it really ramps up in its dramatic decision-making towards the end, and I'm certainly left keen to dive straight into the second episode in two weeks' time. Smaller decisions have me either biting back against a provoking crewmate or exercising restraint. Marginally more stressful choices have me picking betweenone of my crewmates losing their leg or taking home a big fat crate of loot and supplies. I didn't realise how much I missed such a simple form of divergent storytelling until I was stressing over the timer rapidly shrinking as I debated two incredibly trivial dialogue options.
I'd also somehow managed to completely forget about the post-episode stats screen where you can compare your decisions with other players. Silently judging people who picked the opposite of me and being surprised when I fall into a tiny minority on certain choices was always one of my favourite parts of these adventure games, and it's lovely seeing it again.
It's not totally business as usual for The Expanse, though. It's done a few things to tidy up and refine the overall experience. Its art style is one of them, though I'm not totally sure if I'm in love with it yet. From certain angles it's super pretty to look at, one of the nicest looking Telltale games to date—-environments look great with some rad atmospheric lighting. The first episode is home to some stunning cinematography too, and I found myself taking tons of screenshots during its cutscenes. Drummer is the best looking character in the crew, while everyone else suffers from looking a tad plasticky and stiff, like they've been injected full of botox. The inconsistency threw me off a touch, which is a shame when there's a lot to like here.
The gameplay feels a little more involved beyond a bit of puzzling or the odd QTE thanks to the addition of zero gravity movement. Drummer can either float around space debris or walk up onto walls or ceilings to salvage scrap. The total freedom of movement made me feel quite motion sick at the beginning, and I was often getting myself twisted between nauseous gulps, but it encouraged me to scavenge every inch of the level to find bits of lore and objects that will no doubt help me in later episodes. When you boil it down it's still a lot of the classic walking around and looking at stuff, but being able to traverse the environment from all angles gave it a different flavour.
The Expanse feels like an old highschool friend. You may not have spoken to them in 10 years, but when you finally reunite it feels like nothing has changed. For me, that's perfect. It feels like a more refined Telltale experience—still not perfect by any means, but it's a more refined experience with less clunky controls, prettier environments and some top-notch voice acting and musical scoring. Whether more of the same is enough to coax people back to the genre, I'm not sure.
If you're looking for something new and experimental, you won't find it here. As I say, I personally consider that no bad thing. I'm already feeling protective over the fate of the Artemis' crew—apparently all but one can die, and all but one can live. It's that anxious tension of preserving the life of my virtual pals that I've sincerely missed over the last few years, and I'm so happy to have that feeling once more. Thankfully, with Telltale looking to put out new episodes a lot quicker than they used to—with one episode roughly every fortnight—it won't be a painstakingly long wait to seal each crew member's fate.