by Rob (@QuothTheRavings)
This review contains Season 2 spoilers, though I’ve done my best to make sure they’re minimal.
Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead has brought episodic gaming to the attention of a much wider audience than the genre previously had, and with good reason. Season 1 was an emotional rollercoaster that made you question nearly every decision you had a part in making, tear up at friends lost, and despair at the final turn of events (not to mention gamers of all calibers could easily get the hang of it). Season 2 promised to continue the emotional chaos the series does best, and was largely successful, barring a few questionable writing choices along the way. The series is played in the style of a point-and-click game: you walk around, examine objects and areas, and play through quick-time-event action sequences. But the crux of the gameplay—and its strength—is the interactive dialogue that alters the story in sometimes small, sometimes significant ways.
In Season 2 you play as Clementine, the Season 1 sidekick. She’s only 11 but has grown into a strong, independent young woman who is capable of making tough decisions even the bravest of adults hesitate to make. Your playthrough may vary from mine, but my playthrough’s Clementine took Lee’s Season 1 advice and cut her hair short so it can’t get grabbed, learned to shoot a gun, and always looks to stay with a group even if the dynamics are rocky. She’s been traveling with Omid and Christa but is quickly separated from them and is forced to fend for herself while she looks for other survivors.
Soon a new group she’s trying to get first aid from locks her in a shed, and in desperation she sneaks out, finds supplies, and stitches herself up. She then saves some of the members from a walker attack, and when the group is still hesitant to trust that she’s not infected, her reaction—with fire in her eyes—was: “Still. Not. Bitten.” And that sums her up; after the events of Season 1, she’s learned to take matters into her own hands if others won’t help her or do what’s necessary, and in many ways she’s become more of an adult than the adults she surrounds herself with. This is further highlighted in a dream sequence in Episode 5, which shows a different take on a scene from Season 1 and highlights how much Clementine’s changed. While this could have been a cheap, heavy-handed play at emotion, it becomes a powerful usage of a flashback that nudges you toward formulating a stance on a character Clementine will soon have to confront.
As Clementine got to know the new Season 2 group (who are not quite as memorable or interesting as the previous season’s group), she befriended Sarah, a girl around her age. Sarah is the antithesis of Clementine: childish, easily scared, and completely shuts down when in danger. Clementine reassured Sarah and saved her at every turn, but those choices unfortunately didn’t affect the long run—a strange decision on Telltale’s part, given that you spend so much time building a relationship with her. When it comes to Sarah, there was fan outcry on both sides: some felt she got in the way of the story and wanted her gone as quickly as possible; others believed the character had a mental disability (hence shutting down when too scared), and that the way her character was handled supported the mistreatment of disabled people. I didn’t agree with this argument while playing: I saw a young girl who just wasn’t cut out for the post-apocalyptic world. If, for argument’s sake, Sarah was intended to be a disabled character who simply can’t survive, then Episode 4’s Arvo was meant to show a disabled character who can survive and will do anything to that end. When we meet Arvo, he’s trying to hide medicine for his group (I’m still unclear as to why). He wears leg braces, forcing him to move similarly to the walkers, and you later find that he’s part of a group of strong, armed Russian people. So why is the young man in leg braces acting as the scout? I suppose it’s a sympathy move: send the disabled guy ahead to play on other survivors’ sympathies, and…what? Rob them? Show that you don’t mean harm? In the end, Arvo’s group causes major trouble for Clementine’s group in retaliation to new groupmember Jane’s poor treatment of Arvo. Things get really bad really quickly, and the biggest slap in the face to the player here is that things turn out the same way despite your choices in the Arvo scenes.
But that bit comes after the major plot arc of the season: Carver. You don’t typically see the big boss encounter mid-game, but Telltale pulls it off, leaving Episodes 1 & 2 for the build-up and 4 & 5 for the aftermath. In earlier episodes, Carver is part of a past event Clementine’s new group doesn’t want to talk about, and the slow reveal of their falling-out, sprinkled with face-to-face meetings with Carver build tension well. Carver and his living situation reflect several leaders from The Walking Dead comics, and while his methods are harsh, you have to stop and wonder whether it’s worse than living on the run from walkers and other survivors, as Clementine has done. Ultimately, a showdown is necessary and satisfying (if a bit horrifying); the group’s escape is a great callback to both Season 1 and the comics, while feeling like its own situation. Thanks to Jane, Clementine makes it out and survives another day. But can we trust her? We’re left wondering throughout Episodes 4 and 5.
The biggest difference between the way Episode 5 of Season 2 was done versus the Season 1 finale is that your choices do actually change your ending. Season 1 had a fixed, unavoidable ending that served as a launching point for the following season (something players bitterly complained about after having made so many careful in-game decisions), whereas Season 2’s ending is a direct consequence of your choices. By my count, there are four possible endings. This fascinates me because it means Season 3 could begin in multiple different ways depending on your previous choices—and that’s the kind of player-affected story fans have pined for. Of course, that’s more work for Telltale to do, as they’d be creating four different openings to Season 3 (assuming Season 3 continues from where Season 2 leaves off). There are plenty of ways to write a new story, and I’m interested to see which approach the developers go for.
Episode 5 made up for any shortcomings in Episode 4. My Season 2 story’s ending was powerful, emotional, and an honest cumulation of the characters’ relationships—so much so that I found myself involuntarily muttering, “This is masterful,” and simply shaking my head as the credits rolled.
Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 2 is available on PS3, Xbox 360, Steam, and iOS.