The Walk­ing Dead: Sea­son Two

EDGE - - GAMES - Pub­lisher Tell­tale Games De­vel­oper In-house For­mat 360, An­droid, iOS, Ouya, PC (ver­sion tested), PS3, PS4, Vita, Xbox One Out now

360, An­droid, iOS, Ouya, PC, PS3, PS4, Vita, Xbox One

Whether in print or on­screen, The Walk­ing Dead has al­ways been at its best when demon­strat­ing that the great­est threat to your well­be­ing in a zom­bie-in­fested world is not the un­dead, but your fel­low sur­vivors. Per­haps that – as well as the de­sire to ad­here to a bi­monthly re­lease sched­ule – ex­plains why Tell­tale has almost en­tirely for­gone the first five-episode run’s light puz­zle el­e­ments to fo­cus more heav­ily on nar­ra­tive in this sopho­more sea­son, with ex­plo­ration also pruned back. It soon be­comes clear that those you con­sider your al­lies are, in fact, the most tax­ing puz­zle of all.

Par­tic­u­larly for an 11-year-old. The decision to con­tinue with Cle­men­tine’s story, cast­ing her as the lead for the en­tirety of the sea­son, is a coura­geous one, not least be­cause it leads to a very dif­fer­ent kind of player-pro­tag­o­nist dy­namic. As Lee, we made the de­ci­sions we con­sid­ered best for Cle­men­tine to help pre­pare her for the hor­ri­fy­ing re­al­i­ties of an apoc­a­lyp­tic world. Now we’re in­vited to get inside the head of an 11-year-old, a sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent propo­si­tion. Are we think­ing like Clem, or at­tempt­ing to par­ent her again? Are we do­ing what she would do, or what we think she should? It raises ques­tions about agency and em­pa­thy, but the re­sult might just be a slight emo­tional dis­tanc­ing; we feel a stage re­moved from Clem be­cause her sit­u­a­tion is so im­pos­si­ble, so un­know­able. We were all 11 once, but it wasn’t any­thing like this.

Ini­tially, how­ever, the new lo­cus works sur­pris­ingly well. Sea­son opener All That Re­mains works hard to dif­fer­en­ti­ate Clem from Lee, and for a time you’re guid­ing some­one who feels truly vul­ner­a­ble. After so many zom­bie-slay­ing power fan­tasies, it’s un­set­tling how just one or two walk­ers can come to rep­re­sent a real threat. And yet the need to give the player some de­ci­sions to make leads to a se­ries of in­creas­ingly con­trived sce­nar­ios where a group of adults re­lies on a young girl for guid­ance. Cle­men­tine is forced to act as me­di­a­tor and sent on dan­ger­ous lone mis­sions; of­ten she’s treated not just as an equal, but as a sur­ro­gate leader. In em­pow­er­ing the player, Tell­tale also em­pow­ers its pro­tag­o­nist, and while it of­fers the odd re­minder of her frail­ties, Cle­men­tine rarely feels as help­less as per­haps she should, how­ever much grow­ing up she’s had to do in such a short space of time.

One key point of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion is a stronger sense of for­ward mo­men­tum in the nar­ra­tive. This is partly a by-prod­uct of shorter episode length, and it works both for and against the sea­son as a whole. One re­sult is that the sup­port­ing cast is more lightly sketched than be­fore (by the fi­nale, you’ll likely have for­got­ten two or three names of those who haven’t made it that far), though that also con­trib­utes to the sense of un­ease, the feel­ing that you can never re­ally get to know any­one – cer­tainly not enough to be able to place ab­so­lute trust in them.

As such, there are dra­matic mo­ments that don’t al­ways seem to grow or­gan­i­cally from the char­ac­ters, but from the needs of the plot. Sud­den emo­tional out­bursts feel forced, a clumsy way to stim­u­late con­flict; peo­ple make un­likely, reck­less de­ci­sions, their be­hav­iour out of character with pre­vi­ous ac­tions. For­merly friendly char­ac­ters will round on Clem for no good rea­son, most no­tably in one late-game volte-face, which wouldn’t make much sense if Clem was an adult, let alone a scared child try­ing to do the right thing. Tell­tale’s writ­ers cull mi­nor cast mem­bers bru­tally once they’ve out­lived their use­ful­ness, at times for no rea­son greater than that it’s been too long since the pre­vi­ous shock­ing death or big emo­tional set-piece. And there are also mo­ments where it’s clearer than ever that what­ever choice you make is not go­ing to be enough to save a life: the Grim Reaper’s scythe hangs more vis­i­bly over cer­tain heads than at any point in Sea­son One. And yet, in pre­vent­ing Clem from get­ting too close to any­one, this is a more con­sis­tently nerve-wrack­ing sea­son, with a stronger fo­cus on hu­man re­la­tion­ships fall­ing apart un­der strain, on emo­tional rather than phys­i­cal vi­o­lence. As groups are forced to­gether by cir­cum­stance, dis­trust and un­ease nib­bles away at al­ready-frayed psy­ches, and there’s rarely a mo­ment to re­lax. The trou­ble with this is that while the jour­ney might be un­pre­dictable, it leaves you grasp­ing to at­tach your­self to a sin­gle ful­fill­ing nar­ra­tive arc. Episode four is the weak­est to date, fin­ish­ing on a cliffhanger that aims to match its Sea­son One equiv­a­lent for shock value, but can’t come close to its emo­tional im­pact.

It’s res­cued by an out­stand­ing fi­nale that sat­is­fies on sev­eral dif­fer­ent lev­els. There’s the first mo­ment of real warmth, one of this sea­son’s few pauses for thought, and an op­por­tu­nity to get to know the group. As Clem, you fi­nally feel some­thing close to a sense of be­long­ing, one she hasn’t ex­pe­ri­enced since Lee. Nat­u­rally, it’s the calm be­fore the storm, though this time your de­ci­sions have a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on the nar­ra­tive, rather than choos­ing be­tween two paths that lead to the same des­ti­na­tion. At last, a sub­plot that has been sim­mer­ing through­out the sea­son comes to the boil, mak­ing it plain what this run has re­ally been about.

And the ‘right’ thing to do seems harder than ever to gauge, par­tic­u­larly in one ag­o­nis­ing late-game choice where both paths feel equally re­gret­table. If it’s less af­fect­ing than the heart­break­ing cli­max of the pre­vi­ous arc, it might rat­tle un­com­fort­ably around your mind for a lit­tle longer. An un­even sea­son fin­ishes on a high that just about res­cues what came be­fore, and at its best this is ev­ery bit as bru­tal and drain­ing as its fore­run­ner. So long as you’re pre­pared to be put through the wringer again, The Walk­ing Dead re­mains one of the most grip­ping ad­ven­tures around.

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