Finishing Episode 3 of Minecraft: Story Mode left me with one question: could TellTale continue their hotstreak with Episode 4? In accordance with TellTale’s abbreviated release schedule, less than a month after Episode 3 we have our answer. Episode 4 is here and it delivers an enjoyable if disappointing experience. Akin in quality to the first two episodes, Episode 4 addresses some of Story Mode’s longstanding problems, but fails to distinguish itself and struggles to remain consistent; still, Episode 4 has heart in spades and takes the player on a fully realized, self-contained adventure that sets Episode 5 to bring with it the first truly unique plotline of the series.
Episode 1 had relatively little interactivity while Episode 2 alternated wildly between narrative exposition and actual gameplay; both episodes struggled to remain consistent in tone. Episode 3 was very much its own story. Jesse found Soren, with his help formulated a plan to save the world, and then put that plan into action. Episode 4 is similarly full-fledged – our group takes shelter, regroups and decides what’s next, executes a plan, and even deals with the aftermath. Throughout it all, Episode 4 never felt like it forgot itself. There was never a dull moment during which I wondered if everyone had forgotten the world was ending; furthermore, TellTale struck a nice balance between lighthearted jests to ease the tension and the real danger our heroes were in.
I was particularly impressed with the level of resolution to be found at the end of the episode. Shorter waits between episodes has meant shorter episodes. As such, in Episode 3 I half-expected the episode to end before the final confrontation with the Witherstorm; in Episode 4 I anticipated the end to come long before it did. By credit roll, the overarching plot of Story Mode had largely come to a close, one way or another. Stories work hard to earn the sweet, gooey reward of basking in the glory that accompanies success. The Harry Potter films (Deathly Hallows Part 1 aside) all had those last 15 minutes or so when the villain had been vanquished and Harry and his friends got some well-deserved downtime. I expected Story Mode’s equivalent moment would come during the last episode. Our heroes had embarked on their journey by the end of Episode 1, they recruited some experienced adventurers and clashed with the villain in Episode 2, and in Episode 3 they formed and executed a daring plan only to be upset by a shocking surprise; in Episode 4 I expected Jesse and friends to deal with the aftermath of Episode 3 and hatch a daring new plan to be followed through in Episode 5. TellTale subverts these expectations by finally abandoning their generic, clichéd ‘boy turned hero saves the world’ storyline when the world is saved, but the story isn’t over.
When you’re playing a game at least meant to be played by kids as well as adults, how death is handled is important. And TellTale is no stranger to death. The developer of The Walking Dead early on had to develop thick skin when it came to killing off characters, even beloved ones. Though, Story Mode was never meant to be gritty, so I worried the reactionary temptation to sugarcoat the world in fluffy ‘everything will be okay’ platitudes would prove too strong to resist. My fears were allayed when Gabriel disappeared and was presumed dead. In fact, Gabriel dying, the Witherstorm sucking up innocent inhabitants, and Petra’s Wither sickness were all so dark TellTale had to appropriately ratchet up the comedic moments, keeping things lighthearted. As a result, the first two episodes felt all over the place. TellTale’s true tonal balance came with the reveal those taken by the Witherstorm weren’t dead, but friends still could actually die; Gabriel was okay, but Ellegaard (or Magnus) was gone. The world of Story Mode has an equivalent exchange policy when it comes to tragedy. Not everyone can make it out alive, but things aren’t too dark.
Choice, another longtime struggle for Story Mode, is a struggle no longer. Episode 1 didn’t give the player any meaningful choices to make; Episode 2 made choice too meaningful by splitting the episode in half and forcing the player to pick their plotline; Episode 3 worked great, but did so largely as a linear adventure and the biggest choice of the episode fizzled. Episode 4 strikes a balance in giving the player choices to make of both practical and symbolic significance. Choosing to leave Petra behind to rest or to have her tag along made me pause; deciding to keep Ellegaard’s armor over a set of Ivor’s felt like an important moment of solidarity to my fallen comrade. Story Mode doesn’t feel as dynamic as The Walking Dead did but it doesn’t need to be; a few (successfully) meaningful choices give gameplay a sense of freedom in what is an otherwise linear tale.
For everything Episode 4 fixed, it manages to introduce some new issues. During Episode 3 Lukas’ character shifted and assumed the role of antagonist in the absence of Ivor. I gave Lukas the benefit of the doubt. I figured we hadn’t gotten to know Lukas very well, as he was never a close friend to Jesse like Alex or Olivia, so it stood to reason there could have been a side to him we hadn’t yet seen. Episode 4 reintroduces Ivor in a way that makes me look back and see Lukas’ character as uneven. Even Ivor’s reintroduction itself is uneven. Jesse overheard Soren arguing with someone and, lo and behold, it’s Ivor. Wasn’t he supposed to be the bad guy? If so, none of our group seems to care overmuch. Ivor is immediately invited back into the fold and his information is trusted without so much as a second thought.
Ivor has played the anemic role of villain throughout our story, and his motives have always been unclear. Once an Order of the Stone member, Ivor broke ties with the other members and seemed singularly hell bent on wreaking havoc and being an all-around jerk. Episode 4 reveals the reason for his split with the Order and it’s kind of ridiculous. Ivor decides to, as Jesse himself points out in bafflement, destroy the world (or at least unleash untold devastation) to force the Order to reveal lies about its past. This is the equivalent of bringing an assault rifle to school to show how the country might need stricter gun control. Too extreme to make sense. The deceitful Ivor who accepted the treasures of the adventures of the Order as hush money, who hid a magical book that hid within its binding the ability to solve all the problems of the world, who unleashed the Witherstorm, suddenly is supposed to be this self-righteous character who just didn’t mean for things to get so out of hand. On another note, Ivor’s lair in the Far Lands, while cool, again feels out of place, inconsistent. If this laboratory is itself placed to hide it away from prying eyes, why would Ivor set up obscure, intensive puzzles throughout his lab? TellTale was a little heavy-handed in their pushing of puzzles in the name of giving players things to do.
Episode 3 pushed less interesting plotlines to the side and that worked as a temporary fix. In TellTale’s defense, they brought back characters they had to bring back, but in the end Episode 4 left me with more questions, or inconsistencies that needed clarification, than answers. Episode 4 brought back Ivor, but he still isn’t compelling. Petra was one of the strongest characters of Story Mode; she was expertly voiced, fun to watch, and had tons of chemistry with Jesse. Instead of capitalizing on any of this, TellTale benched her for most of Story Mode as she suffered from some vague illness nobody really knew anything about and she refused to treat – but it all ‘worked out’ because by the end of Episode 4, after a week flash forward, somehow her sickness seemed to have disappeared.
Gabriel’s return was well-done, but the circumstances of his return were muddled at best. He knows how to talk, but he doesn’t remember the word for horse. He remembers some events of his past, but mistakes Soren for Magnus. Furthermore, Gabriel’s character seems to have been un-developed. In Episode 1 he was this blustering, confident warrior, and by the end of Episode 4 he’s some idiot who runs in the wrong direction. The Order of the Stone’s treachery calls into question how the player is supposed to feel about the original Order members. Magnus never felt very special, but Ellegaard was always impressive; Gabriel seemed strong in the beginning, but turned into an idiot. Are the members of the Order total cowards and morons or are they skilled adventurers who passed themselves off as merely more than they were?
Episode 3 largely addressed the technical issues I found in the first two episodes; however, both the noticeable clipping of Episode 1 and the framerate slowdowns and graphical inconsistencies of Episode 2 can be found again in Episode 4. TellTale has never been known for their engine or their graphical acumen, but with release after release (especially on next-gen hardware) one would expect their games to eventually stop chugging along – particularly when some episodes manage to handle it better than others.
Episode 4 might be a step back from Episode 3, but it’s still an improvement over Story Mode’s rocky beginning. Episode 4 paces well, balances tone, and gets choice right; however, its characterization feels uneven, some plotlines are ignored, and technical issues are a nuisance. Story Mode’s larger struggle to distinguish itself from run of the mill children’s fantasy isn’t helped by the introduction of a magic book capable of making everyone’s problems go away, but Episode 4 ends with definitive resolution leaving me, for the first time, genuinely curious to see where Story Mode will go and if it will tread new ground in its final episode.