The Expanse: A Telltale Series — Cut to Ribbons

Parallax Abstraction
8 min readSep 25, 2023
A galaxy-sized disappointment.

This review is spoiler-free.
Available on Xbox, PlayStation and the Epic Games Store.
$40US for the regular edition, $45US for the deluxe edition with a bonus episode.

I love sci-fi, but came to The Expanse rather late. My girlfriend and I started watching the TV series in season 5. I adored it and my girlfriend did too, and she’s not normally into sci-fi. I’ve since listened to over half of the books and become a big fan of the universe as a whole. When I heard that Telltale and Deck Nine (developers of the best two Life Is Strange titles) were working on a new game series based on one of my favourite characters, I was immediately excited.

Having now played and streamed the core five episodes (there’s a bonus episode focused around another character that’s not out yet), this has been one of my most disappointing gaming experiences this year and gives me little faith in the future output of Telltale.

I should clarify that while this is a Telltale style game, it isn’t actually Telltale that’s behind it. The original incarnation of Telltale blew up suddenly and spectacularly in 2018, after years of mismanagement. Shortly after, a new company was founded by unrelated people called LCG Entertainment. They bought some of Telltale’s IP, existing releases and their name, which they trade under now. They announced they would be restarting development of the previously announced and highly anticipated The Wolf Among Us 2 (of which we’ve not yet seen anything), and then at The Game Awards in 2019, announced a new series based on The Expanse. Not much was said about it after that until very close to its release, which happened with little fanfare on July 27th of this year, with a new episode launching every two weeks.

If there was ever a title that demonstrates just how out of touch games press reviewers are with audiences these days, this is it. Getting generally high review scores all around, both myself and my Twitch audience full of Expanse fans couldn’t understand how the critics played the same game I did.

The series is focused around Camina Drummer, a Belter that is tough as nails, yet also an ideological visionary, in a time before the events of the TV series. She’s the second in command of a scavenging crew and ends up in charge before embarking on a series of events full of conflict, discovery and which attempts to lay the groundwork and bridge for the version of her character we get to know in the show and the books, a character that is pivotal to the series. Don’t even bother with this if you haven’t at least watched the show as it assumes you already know a lot.

The gameplay is standard Telltale fare. You walk (and often float) around some environments, talk to people and look at stuff to gain context and in your conversations. You also make choices, which supposedly can impact the story and change your relationships. There are also several action sequences that are based around quick time events. Not everyone’s into these kinds of games as they’re simple and lean more towards walking simulators than action adventures. The story and the characters are what you’re here for in Telltale games.

Developed in Unreal instead of the former Telltale’s gods awful in-house engine, they retained the trademark visual style of making things cartoony, while still trying to maintain a realistic look that avoids the uncanny valley. I’ve always liked this style, though my girlfriend said it bugged her because she insisted Drummer looked nothing like she did on the show. Personally, I thought they did a solid job, but you be the judge.

Left: Drummer in the show. | Right: Drummer in the game.

I played on Xbox Series X because Telltale took an Epic Games Store exclusivity bribe on PC for a year (more on that later) and it ran generally fine, but had some ridiculous load times in spots and some frame time spikes, but nothing required the kind of input response to make that an issue. There was also a problem with not all the episodes releasing on time, despite the whole series being developed before release. It was apparently a “backend issue” of some kind, but it was very frustrating at the time.

The real problem is, everything around the characters and story in this series is deep as a puddle and weak as the water within. The environments are small and repetitive, with little to explore and only a handful of collectibles to find, none of which contain crucial information and are mostly there for achievements and padding. The characters all seem unique and interesting on the surface, but there’s never enough time or conversation to get to know them or build any sort of emotional investment. Most choices have no impact on anything, with many just being two different phrasings of the same statements and even the heavier ones will usually end you up in more or less the same place. Previous Telltale series often gave you up to four choices, sometimes with time limits to force you to think fast. All of that’s been stripped away in The Expanse. The few quick time sequences there are were laughably easy and felt like they had no real stakes for failure, though I wouldn’t know because I never came close to failing one.

The voice acting of the characters also doesn’t help drive investment in the plot. I don’t fault the actors for this. Cara Gee is a great actress and everyone else tried their best and do give their characters unique voices. But you can tell that rarely — if ever — were their performances done in the same room or at the same time. The tone of reactions often don’t match the tone of what’s being responded to and sometimes, you can even hear subtle differences in audio levels and mixing. This was a series developed during the pandemic and that undoubtedly caused many challenges in the recording process, but it’s still quite jarring and sometimes immersion breaking.

Here’s the kicker though: At the high price being asked, the length of this series is nothing short of insulting. None of the episodes are more than 75 minutes long, with most being under an hour, and that’s with me trying to ensure I explored everywhere and talked to every character. I kid you not, the final episode took me 36 minutes from hitting Start to rolling credits. Even the shortest series from the old Telltale weren’t this brief. How much do you think you can get to know the characters and how much narrative richness do you think you can get in less than 5 hours of total runtime? Sure, you can play it again and make different choices, but the changes in outcomes are so minor, there’s no point.

The story ultimately ends up being a series of buildups with no payoff. You spend most of your time slowly trapsing around environments and it all just feels like a way to pad out the time between short conversations and cutscenes that don’t lead to anything meaningful. Characters come and go and it doesn’t matter because you never had enough time to know them well enough to care. Everything that transpires in this series could have been left untold and the great universe of The Expanse and the character of Camina Drummer would be no worse off for it.

What upsets me the most is that I know Deck Nine are capable of doing so much better. As I said, they made what I believe are the two best Life Is Strange series, despite not being the original creators of the it. I’m no game dev, but I’ve been playing games and observing the industry long enough to know when something smells, and what The Expanse: A Telltale Series smells like is a series that ended up having its budget slashed during development, which gave us a product that’s not only bad, but clearly not what was originally envisioned. Why do I come to this conclusion? Several reasons:

  • Even if development didn’t start until the series was announced (which is never the case), it was in development for at least two and a half years by a veteran team, yet this is all we got.
  • Some of the facial animations, particularly in the later episodes were Mass Effect Andromeda levels of bad. Facial animations require time and tuning to get right and that this largely came up in the later episodes is a sign of rushed development.
  • Telltale decided to take a one year Epic exclusivity bribe for the PC version. This was a popular thing to do for a while, but has largely fallen out of fashion because Epic exclusivity is considered a “marketing black hole” that can do more harm than good to a project. Most developers and publishers who take these bribes today do so because they either need the funds to finish development, or think their game won’t be successful enough on its own to earn back its costs.
  • The series launched with very little marketing or fanfare, taking weeks to even build up a decent number of reviews from well known publications.
  • Deck Nine announced significant layoffs a couple of months ahead of the series release. While sadly not an uncommon thing in the games industry and it could have just been a result of not being able to secure another project in time, it can often be a sign that they didn’t think the series would sell well enough for them to start receiving royalties from it.

All of that leads me to believe that something at the new Telltale has transpired that required The Expanse to end up with way less budget and/or time that it was originally supposed to have. To me, it’s the only way to explain why a game made by Deck Nine clearly has so much cut content, cut corners and so little depth for such a hefty price tag.

At the end of the day though, none of that is the customer’s problem. The price being asked for what’s on offer here is nothing short of insulting and I for one won’t be going near any future Telltale releases until they have been out for a while, with a lot of impressions from critics I trust. Personally, even if you’re a big fan of The Expanse, I don’t think there’s any real value here for you. If you’re super hardcore and can’t stomach the thought of missing this, at least buy it on a deep sale. I really want to see Telltale get a proper second lease on life, but if this is what we can expect, I’m not holding my breath.

Have you played the series? Do you agree with my take or do you have another viewpoint? Let me know in the comments.

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Parallax Abstraction

Gamer, variety/indie/retro Twitch streamer/YouTuber, pet parent, IT ninja and much more. I'm not opinionated, I'm just always right!