You might recall that with The Walking Dead: Season One [Free], we did something of an unorthodox review due to the episodic nature of the game. There was a basic overview that was appended to with a review of each episode as they released, with the score adjusting appropriately. As it worked pretty well last time, we'll be doing the same thing here. I'll do my best to avoid any serious spoilers for the current season, but I'm going to talk frankly about the first season, so if you haven't finished it yet, consider yourself warned about possible spoilers.
Telltale's been doing their brand of episodic adventures for just about 10 years now, moving from beloved franchise to beloved franchise with varying degrees of success. While The Walking Dead: Season Two [Free] by no means represents the first time Telltale's revisited a property, it certainly represents a difficult challenge in that it directly continues off of the first series and takes all of the choices the player made in that story into account. On top of the technical issues, there's a serious creative challenge in following up a story that met with such wide acclaim, especially given the way it all ended. With the main character meeting his demise along with almost everyone else, the choices are between following an entirely new cast or trying to make a protagonist out of a very unlikely character. Telltale has opted for a heaping helping of the latter with a generous sprinkling of the former.
While in the last game, we played as Lee, an intelligent, strong, adult male, this time, the playable character is Clementine, the young girl who we spent a large part of the last season protecting. Clem is still no more than ten years old, and the way that potentially changes how the player will interact with the world in this season is exciting. For her age, Clementine is certainly quite clever and strong, but the world of The Walking Dead is full of monsters, zombie and otherwise, and there's no question she's more vulnerable and less powerful than Lee was. One of the challenges of this is balancing between giving the player agency in the world without giving Clem influence she shouldn't have from a narrative point of view. This is going to have to be a very different story, and with the setup, it's somewhat hard to see how it will pay off the way the first season did, but we'll have to wait and find out.
In terms of gameplay, very little has changed from the first season. Most of the important interaction comes from dialogue choices, with QTEs and a few simple fetch quests tossed in to break things up. Like in the original, you will sometimes have to make some tough choices, and the game will keep track of how you choose, leading to slightly different situations. I sometimes miss the more difficult puzzles found in Telltale's earlier titles such as Tales of Monkey Island, but their more recent games seem to be going for a different type of genre, so it's probably best not to make direct comparisons. This is less an adventure game and more of a visual novel, albeit one that does a very good job of keeping the player within the lines while simultaneously making them feel like the story is their own. Perhaps things will change up in later episodes, but I don't really think they have to if the main concept is pulled off properly.
From a technical standpoint, well, this is an iOS version of a Telltale game, so things aren't going to be completely airtight. In particular, I should give a clear warning to people on older hardware. If your hardware was not officially supported but could run the first season in some fashion anyway, don't count on the same here. Things went pretty smoothly on my iPhone 5S, but I've seen tons of complaints from people on circa-iPhone 4 tech. Given Telltale's history, don't count on much technical support after the fact, either. One thing that did work quite well is the save game import. As long as you kept the first season on your device, you'll be able to import your final data for that. There aren't many ramifications in the first episode apart from the "Previously" opening, but I'm sure things will come into play in less subtle ways eventually.
From here, I'll write up a bit about each episode as they're released. As with the main review, I'll do my best to avoid spoiling anything current when talking about each one, but there may be spoilers for prior episodes as we go along. Tread at your own risk!
Episode 1 - All That Remains
When we last left the main story, most of the characters were dead, and Clementine had escaped Savannah safely. We saw her sitting in a field, with two silhouettes off in the distance. It was left ambiguous as to whether or not those two people were the friends she was supposed to meet up with, but as soon as Season Two starts, it's confirmed that Clem safely reunited with Omid and Christa. Things actually seem pretty good for the trio, but this is The Walking Dead, so it doesn't take long for things to go to hell, leading to Clem being separated and out on her own in the wilderness. It's not long before she runs into a whole new cast of characters, and as ever, the relationships between everyone aren't idyllic by any means.
This episode is short, much shorter than the first episode of season one, clocking in at about an hour and a half. While we're technically visiting about the same number of areas or more than we did in the first season opener, a lot of those areas feature Clem on her own, squeezing all of the character interaction into a brief segment at the end. By the end of A New Day, I could tell you all about Kenny, Larry, Lilly, Doug, Carley, and their motivations, but at the end of this episode, I can't say I know very much at all about the new characters. It goes without saying you have to make some difficult choices, but you don't get much of a chance to make any emotional connections with the new cast, so some of those choices lack the weight they should carry.
Someone from Telltale said that they like to avoid right or wrong choices, and that they measure success in how lopsided the player results are for each choice. If that's the case, All That Remains doesn't really meet expectations. Apart from one choice, the players overwhelmingly favor one option in every scenario going by the stats, and it's not hard to see why. The way the game sets up those choices makes it clear which one is the right one. Part of the problem, of course, is that we are playing as Clementine, a character who is well-defined by our experiences in the first game. She's not a blank slate the way Lee was, so Telltale's probably going to have trouble getting people to play her away from her established character.
This episode also struggles with the balance I talked about earlier. Clem is thrust into some unbelievable situations, and I just can't buy into an adult directly and aggressively confronting a ten year-old the way it happens here. It's a very different situation from the first game, where the main character could believably get in anyone's face, or make a genuine life-or-death difference in tense situations. It's not always like this, though. There are some situations that do a good job of showing off Clem's diminished power compared to Lee, even using QTEs to good effect in that regard. It's just inconsistent throughout this episode, and it's something I hope the writers can nail down before too long.
As an opening episode to a longer story arc, it does do a pretty good job of setting certain things in motion. We're given very little information in this episode, but it's clear business is going to pick up in a hurry, and the final stinger after clearing the episode is guaranteed to have you wishing the next episode was here already. It gives me hope that while Season Two might not turn out to be quite the revelation that Season One was, it will at least deliver another satisfying story for the many people who enjoyed the first game. We'll just have to wait and see where it all goes from here.
Episode 2 - A House Divided
Luckily, we haven't had to wait all that long for the second episode to arrive. Before I start the review on this episode, I'm going to once again remind the reader of how I'm handling spoilers in this review. I won't be spoiling anything major that happened in the present episode, but anything up to this point is fair game, which does include Episode 1 and its teaser for Episode 2. If you haven't finished it yet and don't want to be spoiled, this is your last chance to turn back. You have been warned.
With that out of the way, let's talk about Episode 2 - A House Divided. Last time, we saw Clem through losing one friend and getting separated from another, meeting a new group of people who were altogether less welcoming to her than we're accustomed to, trying to gain their trust, and finally, having to make a life-or-death decision about two of them even though we didn't get to know them very well at all. It was a brief episode, and Clem spent a lot of it by herself, so we didn't get to see a lot of the character interactions that the first season was famous for. On top of that, there was a lot of weirdness with how some characters treated Clem, most notably Rebecca, who came at an 11-year old kid as hard as she would a fully-grown adult. It was a pretty soft start, especially compared to the first episode of the first season. The preview of the next episode showed a lot of promise, though, and as a stinger, promised a shocking return of a character Clem thought was dead.
I'm happy to say that Episode 2 is considerably better than Episode 1. In contrast to the heavy lean on puzzle-solving and action found there, A House Divided is almost entirely dedicated to developing the new batch of people, with a couple of action sequences and virtually no puzzles at all. I'm okay with this imbalance since it makes up for the first episode's opposite direction, and, well, Walking Dead is at its best when it's exploring relationships anyway. That's not to say things don't happen, of course. In many ways, this episode moves the story forward far better than the interesting but ultimately quite meaningless second episode of the first season. Still, even as things are happening, the focus this time is on getting to know people. That goes for both the player and the characters themselves.
There was some concerns from players that the stinger at the end of the preview for this episode wouldn't deliver. After all, Clem's known a lot of people who she believed to be dead, and there was high potential for the identity of the person in question to be either too much of a stretch to explain or just not that exciting. I'm actually satisfied with the choice Telltale made. They kind of gloss over the how, but it looks like the character in question has an interesting new arc ahead of them and isn't just put in for fan service alone. It also creates a very believable sort of conflict for a kid.
In Season One, Lee was often torn between two very ideologically different philosophies for the survival of the group. That kind of situation isn't going to work as well with Clem, because one little kid probably isn't going to directly swing the most important decisions. What does work well with Clem is this struggle she has between her new clique and the other group they encounter that has a familiar face among them. Since she's the only real link between them, both sides understandably look to her for assurance about each other. The most gut-wrenching choice you have to make in this episode doesn't involve life or death, but which table you choose to sit at for dinner. It's a great way to use a player's nostalgia in an interesting way that aligns in a very fitting way to what Clem must be feeling.
Season Two is already shaping up to have a very different feel from the first one. It's without a doubt a more purposeful tale, and one of the clearest signs of that is that we seem to have a persistent antagonist, voiced wonderfully by Michael Madsen. Season One had a very episodic feel to it, with each installment feeling kind of self-contained. The revelation at the end of the final episode with the Stranger was an interesting twist, but on the whole, it was very "villain-of-the-week" type stuff. This time, we finally meet that Carver guy the characters were talking about in Episode 1, and he looks to be heavily intertwined with where things are going.
In keeping with that more purposeful direction, there is no resolution to be found at the end of this episode. It's very much a mere step in a larger narrative. As a result, you might not feel quite as satisfied when the credits roll here as you did after the thrilling rain-soaked climax of Season One's second episode. There's no emotional release, no feeling of victory or inspiration. Things go from bad to worse, and perhaps even more heart-rending is that between past feelings you're carrying forward and the greater story focus on getting to know the new guys, the stakes are increased considerably. As players are used to by now, there are some heavy losses in this episode, but the potential for future tragedy feels so much heavier.
I have to tip my hat to Telltale on this one. A House Divided has steered this ship back on course. I care about the new characters, I'm pleasantly surprised by the purpose and restraint of the returning elements, and Clem's character isn't nearly as jarring here as she was last time. As a stand alone story, it doesn't work as well as Starved For Help's tale of cannibalistic farmers, but the amount they've built on the foundations of All That Remains is very impressive. My only concern now, supported by the preview of the next episode, is that we're not going to be hitting any kind of climax anytime soon, so it's going to be challenging to keep people interested in the meantime.
Episode 3 - In Harm's Way
Once again, I'll start off with the usual spoiler disclaimer. From this section of the review onwards, I will be talking freely about the events of the first two episodes, but I'll avoid spoiling anything specific about this third episode. If you haven't played the first two episodes, you'll want to stop reading here. This is your last warning.
So, previously on Walking Dead Season Two, Clem's new group of friends met up with another group who had a very familiar face among them. Being reunited with a familiar face, and set up in a nice, friendly, safe atmosphere, anyone who knows how this series works knew full well things would quickly go to hell in a handbasket, and they sure did. With almost everyone captured by Carver and his cronies and at least one member of your group dead at his hands, things were looking pretty grim. I worried last time that this third episode was going to be something of a filler episode with no real climax on the horizon. Well, as we all know, if there's one predictable thing about Walking Dead, it's that it's unpredictable. Quite a bit happens very quickly over the course of this episode's hour and a half, though it lacks the emotional ups and downs of A House Divided.
You can expect to do a lot of talking in this episode, and very little else. We're now well into this season and it's clear that Telltale has decided to gut out what little puzzle-solving the first season had in favor of leaning completely on character interactions. There are probably only three or four occasions in this episode where you can even so much as move Clementine around. There's also very little in the way of extra details to examine. In the first season, we got to hear Lee comment on a bunch of unimportant stuff by clicking on it, and it was something that helped you connect with the character. That's missing here.
It's rather fortunate that last episode saw the return of Kenny. Whether you like Kenny or not, he was one of the more developed characters from the first season, and he's a ray of shining light compared to the underdeveloped new crew. There's a fair bit of Kenny in this episode, and in some ways, I feel like he's being used as a crutch to cover the shallow development the others have had. That feels like the true casualty of the shortened length of each episode. Season Two's playtime after three episodes is about where the first season was about one and a half episodes in, and it shows. Resident bad guy Carver gets the lion's share of face time among the newcomers in this episode, and while Walking Dead usually likes to explore the gray areas of morality, you really get a lot of reasons to hate Carver this time around, as if you didn't already have enough.
In Harm's Way unfortunately falls victim to many of my initial worries. Clementine is made to do pretty much everything here, and the contrivance they rely on to explain that away is a bit too blatant. At the same time, I feel like they've done something clever here with Clem's relationship with Sarah. In the first season, the player, as Lee, was made to be responsible for Clem, which helped believably explain some of the strength he found in the face of despair. Similarly, Clem is being made to watch out for Sarah, though admittedly, she's more Duck than Clem in her behavior. I can see what they're going for, and it does help give the illusion of Clem being older and more responsible than you might have previously considered her to be.
After last episode's more divided choices, we're once again back to the big choices having one answer favored by the overwhelming majority. The interesting thing this time is that those popular choices are not what you would expect. They aren't clearly right answers so much as they are answers that feel good or cathartic in some way. There's a ridiculous conversation that takes place between Clem and Carver in this episode, but by the end, I couldn't help but feel like he made some good points in that sit-down. If it's intentional, Telltale is pulling off something very interesting from an interactive fiction point of view. I'll talk more about that in the next episode's review when I can spoil this one without fear.
The big problem I have with the overall story at this point is that there doesn't seem to be any central narrative forming. Things went differently in this episode from what I had expected, and what I thought was going to be the backbone of the story ended up just being another episode. I'm not sure where we're going from here, but it's all starting to get the disjointed whiff of Telltale's Back To The Future [Free] series. I hope I'm just missing something and it all comes together in the last two episodes, because as of now, past the midway point, Walking Dead Season Two is falling far short of the first.
Episode 4 - Amid The Ruins
Standard disclaimer: from this point on, I'll be freely discussing what happened in the previous three episodes, though I will avoid any specific spoilers about this episode. That's your big old spoiler warning, so if you for some reason are reading this without having finished the first few episodes, this is your last chance to turn back. With that said, let's talk about this episode of The Walking Dead Season Two.
I'll start by saying that Amid The Ruins is simultaneously a decent success and a massive failure. As a standalone episode, it's very exciting and tense in a way this season has lacked for much of its run. Right from the moment it starts, you're thrown into an action-packed sequence that lasts for a few minutes. As we saw at the end of the last episode, the carefully-laid plans of the group went to hell at the last second, and we immediately have to start picking up the pieces. The tempo of the episode is great on the whole, and the choices are as hard as they're going to be when we know they ultimately can't sway much of the overall plot. We get some much-needed development on a couple of the new characters, and most importantly, we get a little bit of development for Clem. She's still everyone's monkey wrench, but she's treated a bit better this time than a tool for the adults. As an individual episode, I enjoyed Amid The Ruins quite a bit, which is why I say it's a success.
Unfortunately, individual episodes in an overall story have two jobs to pull off, and Season Two has been absolutely terrible about achieving both of those things at once. While the first episode suffered from having no real standalone value in service to setting things up, Amid The Ruins not only fails to help the overall story arc find desperately-needed focus, it actually poisons the few overarching story elements that were working. Choices are more meaningless than ever, with most of them resulting in the same outcome no matter which way you opted to go, even on a micro level. The game can't even keep up the pretense that something different could have happened. If you don't choose the way the plot dictates, the game almost immediately does what it wants anyway. There's one particular conversation right near the end of the episode where the game flat-out ignores what you chose in an earlier, related situation, with only the flimsiest of story justifications for doing so.
It was absolutely vital for Amid The Ruins to set up the season finale in a way that tied some meaningful threads to the previous episodes. Instead, an impressive amount of story pieces are swept off the board, and an out-of-nowhere, absurdly cliche threat pops up at the last minute. It feels like killing off Carver in the last episode was a serious mistake, no matter how good it felt, because now the final threat ends up feeling like it was pulled out of someone's pants. Moreover, we're nearly at the end of the season, and none of the new characters have seen much worthwhile development at all. Not one of the new cast has seen any significant growth, and at this juncture, it seems highly unlikely they'll ever have a chance. As we saw in the last episode, even Kenny has fallen back into his old ways, something that definitely continues in this episode.
I'm not sure how Telltale is going to pull this season out of the nosedive it's in, but they're rapidly running out of time to do so. There are some vague points hanging in the air about depending on other people and having others depend on you, and pragmatism vs. compassion, but they're nowhere near as cohesive as they were when we visited similar points last season. The recurring problem of Clem having a much more passive role in making important decisions isn't helping, either, since it washes her hands of a great deal of the responsibility for the outcome. There are still virtually no puzzles to speak of, or even that many opportunities to move about freely and talk to people. It's almost all dialogue, a particular detriment in Season Two since the choices are transparently unimportant and the story has failed to lift more than a few feet off the ground.
It's also another very short episode, running about an hour and a half from start to finish. It's looking increasingly likely that the entire season's runtime is going to be shorter than the first three episodes of Season One. While I kind of like that I can run through an episode in about the time it takes to watch a movie, it's clear that the story is suffering for it. I'm not sure if it's a case of Telltale stretching themselves too thin or if it was just a bad idea to try to make a direct sequel to what clearly worked well as a standalone story, but whatever the case, I've almost completely lost faith that Season Two can be salvaged. I guess we'll see in the next episode, though.
Episode 5 - No Going Back
Let's start with the now-standard spoiler warning. I will discuss freely the first four episodes of Season Two in this section, but will attempt to avoid major specific spoilers for this, the fifth and final episode. Stop here if you haven't played the last episode.
As pessimistic as I've been at times during the course of this several-month-long review process, some part of me always hoped and expected that Telltale would pull out a victory in the final episode. After all, even The Walking Dead Season One was not without missteps, with the fourth episode being a big one, but thanks to a fantastic finish, all was forgiven. I'm sad to report that the pessimistic view ended up being the correct one. In many ways, this might be the worst episode of the entire season. It fails both as a self-contained story and as a wrap-up to the overarching plot. Of course, a big part of that is that Season Two never really put together much of an overall story, unless "Clem goes around and does some things and Kenny is a terminal ass" counts. What can you wrap up when you've set up virtually nothing?
Last episode, quite a few things happened. All the optional characters that you could have saved or let die were shuffled off the mortal coil along with a few others, Kenny became a little bit more unhinged, and we got to know and probably like Jane before she took off. By the close of the episode, only one member of the group we met up with in Episode 1 was still alive, and everyone was caught up in a tense stand-off that was ignited before we faded to black. Things looked pretty bleak for the group. Well, what happens next is pure GI Joe idiocy, and another cliffhanger set-up leading to nothing of value, which might as well be a metaphor for this whole season. This last episode is confined to a few small areas, without a single puzzle to speak of. You get a few chances to walk around for about 30 seconds, but other than that, it's all dialogue choices and a lot of watching. Even the QTEs are reduced to, if I recall correctly, two instances.
So we're leaning on the story here, and that's a big problem, because the story just isn't good. Looking at the whole season, the main story seems to belong to Kenny, but it's essentially the same arc he went through last time, just dragged out and with more importance placed on it. For what it's worth, Clem finally has the ultimate agency in the story, and there are multiple endings that are very different depending on what you do in those closing moments. Unfortunately, up to that point, Clem is pretty much dragged along, sometimes literally, and it's made clear to you, the player, that you have no actual choices to make. Maybe that's the point? That Clementine finally becomes her own agent rather than being someone else's suitcase? If so, perhaps there was a meta-commentary going on in how transparently meaningless every decision you made in this season was until the very end. Or maybe I'm just trying to find ways to explain to myself how the developers who produced the thoughtful and emotional first season of Walking Dead also made this mess.
Characters have been shuffled in and out this whole season without getting any real development. They enter, state their type or trope, and then do nothing until it's time to die. It can be said for all characters, but I feel that Sarah most exemplifies this. My prediction at the beginning of the season was that Sarah was going to be under Clem's wing, the Clementine to her Lee. It felt like they were going to make her development, and thus Clem's actualization as a protector rather than a victim, the pillar of the story. That probably should have happened last episode. Unfortunately, Sarah is sent off to her unavoidable death, no more developed in character than she was when we met her. Even the likable members of the cast like Luke end up in more or less the same place as they started. As for Clementine, she grows up off-screen after getting separated from Christa at the beginning of Episode 1, and that's the extent of her arc. It speaks loud volumes that the best part of this episode was the brief reappearance of a character from Season One. It was also a firm reminder of what an incredible step down this season is.
The ending and climax are so poorly handled here that you'd almost expect a trailer for the next episode after the credits roll. After finishing Season One's final episode, I legitimately needed an hour or two to decompress because of how strongly it affected me. This time, all I can say is that I'm glad it's over and that I don't feel like this was a very good idea, creatively speaking. I feel neither richer nor poorer for having played this. Nothing worth experiencing happened, no new character insights, just a few months in the life of Clementine post-Lee. Fan fiction would have served me equally well. With the story and characters being all this season even attempted to offer, I'm a bit puzzled as to why both weren't planned out better. Don't even get me started on what the supposedly critical bridge 400 Days amounted to in the long run.
In the end, if what you want out of The Wallking Dead Season Two are more slices of life in that world, you'll probably come away satisfied enough. The moment-to-moment dialogue is fine, the production quality is excellent, there are plenty of tense moments and a few hard choices spread across the season. If that's all you were looking for, well, you'll find it here. I was looking for more, based on Telltale's track record in general and with this setting in particular. This is basically an A student turning in a C paper on their best subject. It's okay, but it ought to have been so much more. I guess we'll see what happens in the inevitable Season Three.
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