When the credits rolled after the dramatic cliff-hanger that was close of episode three, I desperately wanted the next episode to start, just to be able to find out what happens next. The final season of The Walking Dead is shaping up to be the best game that Telltale – and now Skybound Games – have ever created.
With the tumult surrounding this game’s development, we’re catching up on the final episode created under Telltale’s name and now the first under Skybound’s banner.
Warning: this review contains spoilers for episode one of The Walking Dead: The Final Season.
Episode two begins without a pause for breath, as the former students of Ericson’s Boarding School for Troubled Youths have to come to terms with the fact that young AJ, Clementine’s ward, has just shot Marlon right in the brain box. Admittedly Marlon had it coming, what with secretly selling others students into child slavery and all, but that doesn’t stop his friends from being very, very angry with their new guests, AJ and Clem.
Right from the off the player is given some very difficult and morally ambiguous decisions to make. What do you tell AJ? Was he justified in his actions or should he be punished? What about the other students? How can you possibly manage to convince them to allow you to stay, now that their ex-leader’s brains are splattered all over the courtyard?
These choices are made even harder by the fact that AJ learns from what you, as the player, say and do. You witness his behaviour and persona shift and change as the episodes continue. Tell him that he was justified in his actions, as I did, and he will declare as much to the students in response to their accusations. This, of course, does not go down well and suddenly my cold and callous parenting techniques are called into question. It’s thrilling stuff, made even more so by the knowledge that this is the final season, so nothing is really off the table.
Absent are the insubstantial and largely pointless puzzle elements from previous Telltale adventure games. Long forgotten are the endless QTE action sequences that rendered their DC and Marvel themed games a tedious slog. This is stripped-back storytelling that lands gut-punch after gut-punch, demanding the player to react out of emotional necessity rather than letting them pause to consider what the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ response is.
All this drama would fall flat were it not for sufficient character development to ensure you actually care about the survivors. In this The Walking Dead delivers with ease. There’s many moments to choose from, but for me the most charming was a superb star gazing section in which the player must draw constellations in the sky and assign them to their loved ones.
In the past, Telltale’s games have been let down by a substandard engine, leading to poor visuals, lengthy loading times and bugs aplenty. Thankfully the most recent episodes are visually a delight. Character expressions are believable and authentic, and their eyes, in particular, feel real – none of those glass-eyed NPC’s here, thank you very much. In game controls have benefitted greatly from a camera that now sits snuggly behind Clementine’s shoulders and can be twirled 360 degrees with ease. Sure, this is stuff that is expected in other games and genres, but none-the-less it is a breath of fresh air to have this sense of control and modernity to a Telltale game.
But it is the action that, to my surprise, impressed the most. These are carefully crafted set pieces that offer genuine breath-taking excitement. The school raid, playing out like a horrendously violent version of Home Alone, stands out from several brilliant sequences, though it has stiff competition from the shocking resolution of episode three’s rescue mission.
QTEs still play a role, but they feel less intrusive and also much more logical and consistent in their instructions than those I’ve encountered in previous games. Telltale even try their hand at some more traditional third person elements that see Clementine fend off Walkers with close combat attacks and shooting them from afar with a bow and arrow. These are the weakest elements in the game – the aiming is a little shonky – but they are short and sweet and effectively serve to demonstrate what a capable survivor Clementine has become.
It’s shame then that the implementation of trophies in the game is so poor. Just as in the first episode, episode two has trophies on either side of a binary choice. The only way you can collect both is to replay the episode and make different choices. Not only does this expose the smoke and mirrors of player choice that The Walking Dead relies upon, it is also frustrating if your interpretation of Clementine simply wouldn’t behave that way.
Fortunately, with the extended development time of episode three, the developers have clearly steered away from this issue, you can play through the entire chapter and collect every trophy in one sitting. Though when this requires the finding and collecting of specific items, despite dropping you in a tense or dangerous situation, or doing things that you really wouldn’t think of doing in a playthrough like having to eat poisonous mushrooms, trophy hunting again serves to undermine the narrative.
This is a brilliant adventure that cleverly keeps up the pace and intensity of decision making in order to have the player make authentic choices. It’s a game that holds up a mirror and makes a mockery of an attempt to make only virtuous decisions. In the post-apocalyptic world of The Walking Dead, no-one stays good for long. Like the finest TV shows, I’ve been left itching in anticipation to find out what happens next and what the consequence of my choices will be. Episode four can’t come soon enough.