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Telltale Returns to Fine Form With Its Heartbreaking Take on The Expanse

If it feels like ages since you’ve seen “The Expanse” on your screen, the absence of Telltale Games has likely felt like an eternity. The acclaimed game studio became prominent in the late aughts and early 2010s with its branching, narrative-focused games like “The Walking Dead” and “A Wolf Among Us.” Then, in 2018, the studio abruptly shuttered amid financial woes and reports of a toxic workplace culture. 

Fitting, then, that their return after several years of darkness coincides with another beloved nerd property: “The Expanse,” the cult hit sci-fi series based on the novels by James S.A. Corey about humanity scrambling for resources in an incrementally colonized solar system. After three seasons on Syfy, the network pulled the plug, only for a dedicated fan campaign to convince Amazon to rescue it for three additional seasons. The show ended in 2021, and for a while, it seemed we’d never get another story set in the hard-scrabble world of the Belt. Now, thanks to Telltale, the scrappy property has been rescued yet again and hasn’t lost an ounce of its spirit.

Set three years before the show's start, the game hones in on Camina Drummer (Cara Gee), the hard-bitten Belter badass and former OPA operative who became a fan favorite throughout the series. Long before she knew the crew of the Rocinante, she was the XO of the Artemis, a scavenger vessel made up of a misfit crew of renegades from Earth, Mars, and the Belt (colonists of the asteroid belt, who consider themselves independent from the “inners”). In the opening minutes, her brash Earther captain tips her off to a tasty new hulk ripe for the picking in the outer reaches of the Belt; it ought to set them up for life. But from the moment they set foot on the wreck, the Artemis crew—and Drummer—find themselves in the crosshairs of pirates, mysterious cultists, and even each other.

Co-developed with Deck Nine (“Life is Strange”), “The Expanse” plops you right in the grim, retro-futuristic world of the books and show. Everything from the moody neon lighting of the ship interiors to the modular, pragmatic designs of ship hulls and vac suits feels true to the show’s pseudo-realistic approach to space travel. The character designs are quite angular—I guess years in zero-G gives everyone the cheekbones and jawline of Cillian Murphy—but it jives with the grim aesthetic of the series.

Like many Telltale games, gameplay comes not from run-and-gun reflexes (though there are quite a few quick time events requiring you to keep your mouse or controller ready) but impactful conversations with your crewmates and walk-and-talk exploration. The game shines in the former: success or failure depends on Drummer’s ability to earn her crew’s trust and navigate their shifting allegiances and priorities. Irascible pilot Khan doesn’t trust you; Earther medic Virgil might be hiding a devastating secret. Then there’s Martian crewmember Maya, whose chemistry with Drummer leads to one of the more tender flirtations in recent gaming memory (and, depending on your choices, potentially something more). 

These moments are buoyed by smart writing (“Expanse” authors Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham assisted with the story) and nuanced performances, particularly from Gee. Twist your ears around the staccato space creole of the Belter’s native language and terminology—“felota,” “bosmang”—and you’ll find a tender, engrossing, frequently exciting story about a crew revealing their true colors in a crisis. 

But when matters turn from talking to floating, “The Expanse” starts to lose a bit of oxygen. You’re often stuffed into a vac suit and magnetic boots, zipping around zero-G as you navigate the wrecked ships you loot for goods or fuel. It’s pretty cool once you get used to it, but there is a learning curve, and there’ll be more than a few times you bump into a random bit of flotsam, or a wonky camera will get wedged in a tight corner. Moreover, there’s little to orient you in the vastness of space, which can make it difficult to fulfill certain side objectives. 

Still, these niggling control issues feel small, given the weight of the storytelling surrounding them. The first three episodes are well-structured, using a new external threat (a pirate ship in pursuit, a long-dormant colony) to reflect unique interpersonal pressures on the Artemis crew and how they reflect on your leadership choices as Drummer. From the get, you’re faced with agonizing dilemmas. When a crew member’s leg gets pinned by a vault of valuable cargo you need to survive, do you jettison the vault or cut off the leg? Do you sleep with the cute crewmember, or do you decline for the sake of crew cohesion? 

All of these choices, big or small, promise a significant impact on your playthrough, with seismic impacts on characters you’ve grown to love over two or three hours of play. (At the end of my playthrough of episode three, I was crestfallen at an expertly-played moment of tragedy I tried the whole episode to avoid.) 

“The Expanse: A Telltale Series” feels like a welcome resurrection of the former and a redemption for the latter. More than anything, I was impressed at the game’s fidelity to the show and characters that inspired it, from the show-accurate feel (right down to the theme music and chittering location titles) to Gee’s beautifully vulnerable performance. “The Expanse” is a universe of hard choices, where a sardine-can spaceship, and the people you’re stuck in it with, are all that separate life from death. It’s a perfect backdrop for the Telltale style, and it’s a relief to see them come back with such an effective bang.

The first three episodes were made available for review. The first episode of “The Expanse: A Telltale Series” is now available on PS4, PS5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC, with new episodes dropping every two weeks.

Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Staff Writer for Consequence. He is also a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and Critics Choice Association. You can also find his byline at RogerEbert.com, Vulture, The Companion, FOX Digital, and elsewhere. 

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