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Things are looking awfully bleak in Game of Thrones: Episode Three – The Sword in the Darkness. Granted, this is Game of Thrones we’re talking about, so it’s to be expected. As Ramsay Snow is all too ready to remind us, “If you were expecting a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” Yet not getting a happy ending doesn’t mean that absolutely everything has to go to hell in a handbasket, and this seems to be the prevailing logic in Telltale’s third episode, which may well be the series’ highwater mark.

Over the past two episodes, Telltale has spent a fair amount of time setting the table for what’s to come. It’s not that different from the normal arc a season of Game of Thrones might take on HBO, actually, but somehow it’s more frustrating in an interactive setting. That being said, in spite of any frustrations over pacing, the game has done a tremendous job of immersing the player in the world of Westeros. From political machinations in King’s Landing to dealing with military occupation in Ironrath to trying to keep one’s head attached to one’s shoulders across the Narrow Sea in Essos, the game expertly inserts itself into the existing lore, while creating a bold, new story that is compelling in its own right.

Game of Thrones - Episode 3 - Drogon

Though our heroes, the members of House Forrester, may feel like off-brand Starks at times, the spot-on writing, pitch perfect voice acting, and sheer brutality of the story make you feel for them nonetheless. Moreso than in previous episodes, The Sword in the Darkness offers a terrific balance of adrenaline-fueled action sequences and tense, white-knuckle conversations that will have your heart rate rising at an alarming rate. Each of the game’s playable characters are put through an increasingly brutal narrative wringer, there is a ray of hope. The situation may look dire now, but what the game’s third episode does so well is giving a sense of what’s to come. No longer does it feel like every decision you make will result in certain doom. Rather, you are striking out on your own, hopefully staving off the aforementioned doom, at least for a little while.

Far and away, the most exuberantly enjoyable storyline belongs to Asher and Beshka as the two sellswords make good their escape and wind up face to face with some, shall we say, familiar faces. Their easy-going banter makes for a nice contrast to the nigh-constant doom and gloom of what’s happening across the Narrow Sea in Westeros. Meanwhile in King’s Landing, everyone is gearing up for the wedding of Joffrey Baratheon and Margaery Tyrell. Surprisingly, the burden of knowing what happens at said wedding doesn’t diminish the decisions you make as Lady Mira; rather, it adds another layer of complication and potential overthinking that makes the experience that much more suspenseful.

As for Gared Tuttle up at The Wall, he’s still plugging away and trying to figure out how he can find the North Grove without forsaking his newfound brothers. In classic Game of Thrones fashion, what once seemed like an afterthought or an old wive’s tale is fast becoming one of the most essential storylines to follow. It’s a nice bit of plot development that separates Gared and his friends from being the poor man’s version of Jon Snow, Grenn, and Pyp.

Game of Thrones - Episode 3 - Jon Snow

Back in Ironrath, however, the story is starting to feel a bit like a Whitehill boot on a Forrester neck — exceedingly heavy and slowly grinding. The Forresters continue to butt heads with the occupying Whitehill forces, helpless to do much else than grin and bear it or face retribution. Still, Rodrik gets a chance to start planning his next steps, which provides a nice sense of narrative momentum, and learns of a legitimately shocking revelation that will have you rethinking your entire strategy. Moreso than anything, the Ironrath plot, grueling though it may be, does a wonderful job of endearing you to this continually put-upon, now-fallen family.

“Words are wind, Asher” says Malcolm Branfield to his errant nephew, at one point. “It’s choices that define who you are.” From word one, The Sword in the Darkness is filled with excruciating decisions that will decide the fate of House Forrester. At times, it feels like the writers must be sitting back and laughing their heads off, sitting pretty in the knowledge that they’re forcing players to wring their hands time and time again. Yet that stress is what propels you forward, and one gets the sense that, more than ever, the consequences of your actions here will reverberate throughout the rest of the series. Choice may be something of an illusion in Game of Thrones, but chaos is a ladder and thanks to The Sword in the Darkness, it’s one that demands to be climbed.

Rating: 4 out of 5 burritos

4 burritos

Game of Thrones: Episode Three – The Sword in the Darkness is available now for PC, Mac, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS4, PS3, and iOS.

This game was reviewed on the Xbox One using a review copy provided by Telltale Games.

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