The first season of The Walking Dead by Telltale Games (and yes I am well aware of how easy it is to mix that up with the TV series given that their use of the word “season”) is easily one of my favourite games from the past few years, is possibly within my top 10 of all time and it elicited the most genuine and heart-rending sadness from me that I have not experienced before or since from any other form of media. And I was far from alone in having this reaction to the game as well. So, saying that the sequel to the game has a big act to follow could not be any truer.
Fortunately the writers employed by Telltale have yet to let me down in that the second season was every bit as enjoyable and excellent as the first. It may not have climaxed with me a sobbing and broken puddle on the floor, but it did provide an utterly compelling story, tense and feverish gameplay and heartbreaking moments of emotion from the characters of the game.
In the original Walking Dead you played as Lee, a man thrown in at the deep end who ends up becoming an absolute badass (well, he was always a badass, but that’s neither here nor there). He’s the man with the plan, the unspoken leader of the group, the man who everyone looks up to and respects, even if you played him as a bit of an asshole. While this sort of role might not be out of the ordinary for any gamer, much of the game’s unique emotional experience came from the fact that you were placed in charge of a young girl called Clementine. To me it is Lee and Clementine’s relationship which provide the true core of the story in the first game, from when they meet, to building up a friendship, building up trust and even a fatherly love. It was a rather strange feeling that because I projected onto Lee I also built up something of a similar relationship with the girl, which made every struggle all that much harder.
Now in the second game, Lee is dead after having been bitten by a zombie (oh, um, spoiler alert?) and you now take the role of Clementine, still only at the tender age of 11. Much of the first game was spent teaching Clementine how to be a good person and how to survive in the zombie apocalypse, whilst still maintaining as much of her innocence as possible. Now though things feel a little darker, a little more despairing. Clementine has been forced to mature quickly and to learn quickly, whilst still holding true to Lee’s teachings. Much of the game focuses on Clem slowly becoming a harder and tougher person whilst trying to remain the moral compass of the group (at least, in my game I always play as the good guy and not the dick).
I personally was actually very impressed by how Clem goes from the young and kind-of innocent child to a much darker character towards the end. Even more impressive was actually how this same change in attitude began to effect my own method of playing. When playing as Lee there was always a sensation of hope that things would eventually work out, and so my play-style reflected this as I went out of my way to help others and trust people. Playing as Clem I slowly but surely began to do less of that, I played a far harder character, one more willing to do what it takes to survive. I was less trusting, less friendly and less accepting of bullshit and it’s actually pretty stunning how the game managed to make ME undergo that change.
A particularly memorable moment in the game is when you are given the option of watching the straight-up murder of a psychopath who has caused you nothing but trouble and strife. I didn’t even have to think before choosing that I would stay and I would watch. It really hammered home that Clem was no longer young, innocent and defenceless but was actually an ice-cold, logical, surviving machine. Pretty brutal stuff.
Things in the Walking Dead, as they always do, go wrong big-time-stylee repeatedly and so the group of survivors that Clem is with is in a constant state of flux for the majority of the game. The characters are, as always, varied and interesting and with excellent voice actors. It’s a pleasure to get to know each one, learning about their hopes and dreams, and their inevitable death never stops hitting hard. Thankfully in this game, unlike in The Wolf Among Us, you are given a few opportunities to talk to all of your companions and learn about them, allowing you to become more invested in their stories.
However, whilst the story itself remains enthralling and well-written, a lot of the plot points of the game are now starting to feel repeated and cliché. This is especially true if one has ever seen The Walking Dead TV show. A fair portion of the game is spent fleeing from a “Governor” type character and eventually fighting him. One of the big subplots of the game is a pregnant woman in the group and one cannot help but draw comparisons to Lori from the TV show there. These are two major aspects of the game and they just feel copied and pasted from the TV show.
The simple fact is that a Zombie Apocalypse is NOT an interesting setting for a story-driven game. Eventually it all comes down to the simple fact that everyone is going to die. Other than I Am Legend I have never heard of any Zombie Apocalypse ending with society being rebuilt or with a cure being found. Without anything of that sort one eventually is forced to accept that the only way the story ends is with everyone dead.
A major example of this is actually the flux of major characters, with new ones appearing to fill the holes left by the deaths or disappearances of older ones. In the both the first and the second season this makes perfect sense, after all death is a common thing in this sort of apocalyptic world, but in the second the deaths start feeling more and more detrimental to the experience. Every time a character died one could not help but think of the wasted time spent in getting to know them and getting them to be on your side. Each time someone new was introduced, making the effort to get to know them felt more and more forced. More importantly, each death started having less and less of an emotional effect on me.
Now, it actually seems possible that this was the intention and might well have been the cause of my change in play-style. With the death of every single character apparently inevitable it starts becoming a lot harder to NOT become callous and cold towards each of the new-comers. So if it was an intentional thing then bravo to Telltale! I just can’t help but feel that by this stage they simply kill off people in order to keep that air of “gritty realism”.
The gameplay is, as with any Telltale Game, amusing enough with a variety of different styles ranging from slow and casual exploration, shooting gallery type sections and intense and nerve-wracking quick-time events. The real meat of the game is in its dialogue, story and decisions made.
I have to say that Telltale have done a rather outstanding job with the decisions (or at least the major ones) in Season 2. In both Season 1 and The Wolf Among Us, fairly regularly one would come across decisions which were no-brainers. The statistics at the end of the episodes would back this up, showing that only a small minority of people chose one option with a landslide choosing the other (such as a choice between saving a child or a grown man). Season 2 had, as far as I can remember, nothing like that. Every decision was actually much harder to make and this was reflected in how evenly balanced the community was in the decisions they made. It’s definitely not an easy thing to do to craft game decisions which genuinely make one think, sometimes even long after the decision had been made.
Specifically, the very final decision of the game, made right at the end (and so I can’t go into any detail really) is something I STILL torture myself over. I genuinely feel bad about my decision but also don’t see how it could have gone any other way. It really is top notch stuff.
Unfortunately it’s not ALWAYS so perfect; some decisions came across as not exactly “easy” but rather utterly ridiculous decisions to make. The big one which really springs to mind is fairly early on (so I feel comfortable that it is not a spoiler) when the group you have been travelling with merges with another group and you are given the option of whom to sit and have dinner with, at the risk of insulting the other side. It’s totally fucking stupid and really ought to have not had any of the impact it did. But there you go, you take the good with the bad.
By this stage of the series I also can’t help but feel that the smaller decisions and choices hold less weight than my impressions of the first game. I mean, when the game tells you that “such-and-such will remember that” it’s harder to care because you know that not only will s/he not REALLY remember that but also that such-and-such is actually going to be dead in an episode or so anyway.
My main gripe about the game comes down to the fact that a zombie apocalypse is a boring and difficult setting in which to play a game designed to be story-based. The interesting and fantastic characters and plot are quite simply let down by their surroundings which hold the game back from the sort of truly exciting levels it might be able to achieve otherwise.
At the end of the day this review has a slightly superfluous feel to it. Because of its TV series-like style it makes very little sense to start playing from the beginning of Season 2, one could start from Season 2 and would likely enjoy it a great deal, but it just makes much more sense to start from the beginning. The issue then being that if you have played Season 1 then you will have a good idea whether or not Season 2 is for you. If you have never played a Telltale game before then I would absolutely urge you to play The Walking Dead but one ought to start at the beginning rather than half-way through.