For a story about the living dead, it’s strangely appropriate that The Walking Dead is a franchise that refuses to die. With diminishing critical and commercial returns on the TV and comic book series, yet no end in sight for either, it’s refreshing that Telltale have chosen to finish things off conclusively with their video game series. And, just in case some particularly critical gamers might think it’s all a publicity stunt, Telltale have even called it ‘The Final Season’ to ensure there’s no backing out.
The story begins with Clementine and her young ward, AJ, driving down a long and winding road. This being the Walking Dead though, it won’t be long till other humans crop up and things go horribly, horribly wrong.
Let’s discuss the game engine first. Over their last few years, across various series, Telltale have come under increasing criticism for the creaky nature of their in-house Telltale Tool. It’s struggled to keep up with the times, leading to lacklustre graphics, framerate issues and bum numbingly long loading times. Rather appropriately, the final season of The Walking Dead will also be the last outing for their Tool engine, but before it’s put out to pasture, Telltale have wrung everything they could out of this wrinkly thoroughbred. Facial animation has seen a significant step up compared to previous entries, those long blank zombie stares from living character as the next part of the story is loaded are a thing of the past. In particular, the level of expression achieved through their eyes alone is a step up from the dead eyed androids found in most other games. All of this helps make the characters you meet all the more believable.
The camera is smooth and responsive, gliding around Clementine from a traditional third person perspective as she explores her environment. These environment’s are, as usual, compact and lacking in interactive detail, but from an artistic point of view they are arresting and several locations towards the end of the first episode are absolutely dripping in atmosphere. In short, the graphics on offer here aren’t going to win any awards, but they are the best yet seen in a Telltale adventure by a large margin.
The tweaks to the engine have seen a significant improvement to the QTE sections of the game. Thanks to minimal frame rate issues on PS4 these are far less cumbersome than in previous games. The button prompts themselves are fairly intuitive, though there are a few commands that are not instinctive and appear to defy common sense when compared to the action that is then carried out on screen. Thankfully these are all done, dusted and out of the way once you’re through the opening action sequence. Many will be pleased to hear the quantity of action sequences are kept to a minimum – particularly as they are often the weakest aspect of Telltale’s games – as this episode is all about character development.
You’ve got a basic storyline set-up that’s something we’ve seen time and time again from The Walking Dead. Our protagonists are rescued from a zombie attack by another group of survivors and taken into their care. In a nice change to the formula however, these survivors are all kids and teens that have taken up residence in their school, weirdly hidden deep within the woods. As tradition dictates, things are not as they appear and there is a sinister secret waiting to be discovered.
Sure, it’s a derivative plot, but thanks to tight pacing and a varied and compelling cast of characters the story zips along. To say more would be entering spoiler territory, but suffice to say there’s one shock towards the end of the episode that is an eye-popping moment.
There’s no shocking life or death moral choices for you, as Clementine, to make in this episode. Instead, with regards to choice and consequence, what is most interesting is the manner in which your decisions will dictate AJ’s future behaviour. Ultimately it is promised that Clementine’s actions will directly feed into the person that AJ becomes. How successful this aim is remains to be seen, but it’s effect on Episode 1 is startling. I found myself making choices, not that best suited Clementine, but that I felt made her the best role model of ethics and morals that AJ will need to survive in this post apocalyptic world.
Some of these decisions are mundane, like if you will let AJ sleep on the floor or in the bed. It’s a simple enough choice, apart from AJ wants to sleep on the floor under the bed. That way he is hidden from any intruders who might come into the room. Is it truly the best decision to make him sleep in a comfy bed when comfort has had no role in his life? What is best for AJ’s chances of survival? Do you demonstrate mercy when you encounter a killer out to steal your food? Perhaps teaching him mercy will later lead to unnecessary trouble for AJ? Maybe there’s no place for mercy in this world he has been born into, or will your attempts to prepare AJ for adulthood instead turn him into a monster? It’s intriguing stuff and I look forward to seeing where Telltale take this tale next.
The Walking Dead: The Final Season is off to a terrific start. With the best graphics of a Telltale game to date, excellent characters who are all superbly performed and a central mechanic that sees the challenges of being a responsible parent come to the fore, this is the most excited and engaged I’ve been about The Walking Dead in years. Thanks to a clever character setup that sees Clementine and AJ’s relationship echo that of Lee and Clementine from the original series, a palpable sense of foreboding has already been established. Will Clementine meet the same fate as her father figure before her?
Version Tested: PlayStation 4
Also available on Xbox One and PC