I am not a Walking Dead connoisseur. I haven’t read the comics, watched the TV show, haven’t even played Season 1. And so, this review will not be influenced by anything else except the game itself, impartial to how good the rest of the entries into the WalkingDeadverse are (as opposed to my Stick of Truth review).
When I first heard that Telltale, the company which produced such family friendly game series as Sam & Max and Monkey Island was going to tackle The Walking Dead franchise, of which I had heard a lot, even though I had not experienced first hand, I thought “Hmm, that makes sense”, followed quickly by “Oh, I hope they do a crossover with Sam & Max”. Can you imagine the glee on Max’s face when stuck in the middle of an endless horde of zombies? Can you imagine the interaction between the cartoon rabbit-like thing and, let’s say, Sarah from this season?
Episode One: Everything Is Remains
Unfortunately, that will never come to pass, and so let’s focus on what’s in front of us. Being created by Telltale and being based on a comic and TV series, it makes complete sense that the game is structured episodically (5 appears to be Telltale’s favorite episode number, the only time they strayed was Season 1 of Sam & Max) and belongs to the adventure genre, although not in the classical sense (aka mind-bending puzzles). This game is part of the new wave of adventure games in which the adventure is highly toned down and quick time events and quick decision making which heavily influence the plot rule. This new type of adventure game, clearly targeted at consoles as opposed to PCs, because consoles can’t Point ‘n Click (speaking of, Sony, isn’t it time you released Heavy Rain on the PC? I mean it’s been 4 years already, get over yourselves) is of course not intended as competition for oldschool-style adventures, but as an alternative to watching a movie (one episode has a movie running time).
You’re clearly not going to get the same satisfaction out of raiding a cabin looking for supplies like from, let’s say, solving the ice wall puzzle from Syberia 2. But that’s OK, because it makes up for its lack of puzzles through plot and characters.
Episode Two: A Character Divided
The main character’s name is Clementine. Is that song playing in your head yet? No? Weird. Anyway, Clementine apparently saw and did some s**t already in season 1, so she is established as a badass when the game starts (with the obligatory “Previously, on The Walking Dead” shtick). And she’s only 11. Apparently zombie apocalypses are one of the most effective ways to make you grow up. Two extremely traumatic events scar this girl’s past. The turning and death of her parents and the fact that she had to put down her protector and season 1 protagonist, Lee, Old Yeller style. And as expected from his game series, the body count will only continue to grow. So let’s meet a few of the potential future zombies with which Clementine will build up relations (I will only be mentioning the ones who we’ll spend most of the time with).
We have Pete, an outdoorsy kind of guy, his nephew Nick (a bit of a hothead and trigger happy), Alvin and Rebecca, expecting parents, Carlos the doctor and his daughter Sarah (she’s special) and Luke, the leader of the previous ones. But that’s only episode 1. Some of these will inevitably die and be replaced by new survivors. A character believed dead in season 1 will return with his new girlfriend Sarita. After an escape a woman named Bonnie (featured in the DLC), a man named Mike and a badass named Jane will also join the group. The final 2 who join the group do so unwittingly, a Russian teen and the baby.
The interactions between Clementine and these guys are just great. They serve to form a bond not just between the characters, but also between the player and them, through the dialogue choices (it amuses me that you can go almost Gordon Freeman on their asses, because silence is always an option). These dialogue choices are timed (a few seconds), which is a useful little way of choosing as you would in real life during your first playthrough. There are a number of dialogue choices which have consequences later on and are identifiable by the character’s reaction and a clear-cut text message “Person X will remember that”, and oh what consequences…
It’s rare that a game can trigger feelings of guilt (no, not the guilt of having played a game instead of doing something more constructive with your life), but in this case, at least for me, the flood gates were released. Of guilt, not tears. To watch as a choice you made an episode or 2 ago triggers an event which leads to deaths or injuries, or even conflict within the group makes you wonder if things could have been averted if you had made different choices. You feel the full brunt of your actions or inaction, and they provoke an emotional response. In creating a game which simulates a TV series, they managed to create the same kind of attachment to characters inside the game. Any company which can get you invested in a bunch of talking textured polygons is worthy of praise. And so is the plot.
Episode Three: In Pharma’s Way
You get the choice to rob someone of meds, allegedly for his sister. I start with this both because I want the subtitle to make sense and because it’s a sample of the tough choices you will be faced with. It is despicable to rob a desperate individual, however the pregnant lady in the group will have a baby soon and may need pills. What choice would you make?
There are too many plot points and junctures to mention in this review, and even if I wanted to, I will try to avoid as many spoilers as possible. Clementine is responsible early on for the death of a companion, all over some crappy supplies. She then befriends a dog which she will have to kill (maybe the first moment at which I felt pity), breaks into a cabin to steal supplies, emotionally manipulates Sarah and has to choose between two companions who she will save. And that’s only episode 1. It gets crazier later on. Episode 2 ends with the expanded group’s capture, episode 3 ends with a brutal murder and an escape plan gone awry, episode 4 ends with gunfire and fade to black, and as for the finale… There are multiple endings which stem from a final tear-filled confrontation and I won’t give the details here, however it contains one of the most painful choices in the game.
The story is solid, even standalone. It has twists and turns, it has conflict (even an antagonist beside the Walkers at one point) within and without the group, it has believable group dynamics, betrayals, apologies, comforting, plans, and most of all evolution. Each event takes a toll on everyone; changes in personality and interactions occur dictated by both script and player choices. You don’t need to play the previous season or watch the show to enjoy and understand the story, everything you need to know is presented to you in conversations or monologues by Clem.
Episode Four: Amid the QEs
Now that we’ve touched upon story and characters, let’s talk about what makes this game tick. The graphics, although not up to today’s standards, manage to create a world fit to be named apocalyptic, mostly because they heavily draw inspiration from the medium of comic books. The characters are well-contoured and detailed (and I mean contoured, you can clearly see their outlines) and they would fit right into a comic book. It is worth mentioning that the animators managed to convey the emotions felt by the characters believably. The Walkers look gruesomely awesome and most of them look distinct (I can’t remember one instance in which I was thinking “Hmm, these all look copy/pasted to me”).
The environment looks good up close when it comes to 3D objects and at a distance when it comes to landscapes. The only fault I can find with the graphics is that the vegetation is 2D and doesn’t look that good up close, even though it serves its purpose in creating the comic book style in-game (I looked up some Walking Dead comic book content and the vegetation seems to match). There are no major glitches to report, no game crashes or anything like that.
The voice acting is top notch, the musical score is fitting to the situation at hand, the sound effects (gun shots, groans, blunt or edged weapons cracking skulls or various body parts) are well done, further creating a solid atmosphere.
In a game such as this, there are not many game mechanics, and those that exist, are simple to understand and execute. We start with the quick-time events, ever present in today’s console games and especially in new-style adventures. There are a few of them present throughout the game. Firstly we have the “Mash the Q button until you drop dead”, mostly used when Clem has to push furniture or struggle with a zombie. Then you have the “Quick, push this arrow button or you will die” event, which I believe is self-explanatory. Then, of course, you have your cursor events, where you have to aim melee or ranged weapons at various targets, or to pick up said weapons to then use (of course, these are timed too). The majority of QEs are, of course, dialogue based and these are divided into 2 categories: the 1 out of 3+silence and the choice between 2 major outcomes. By the way, it’s weird how a group of adults holds the opinion of a little girl in such high esteem, even though she proved her worth in some tough situations. Must be a post-apocalyptic Jersey thing…
That leaves just the classic adventure parts, which are too few and don’t pose much of a challenge. You don’t have puzzles, you have some minor inconveniences for which the solutions are a few steps away, clearly marked with circles. However, it makes sense. You won’t find any monkey and wrenches or cats with requests in them. You just have some obstacles or tasks which you must quickly and deftly complete with your own survival at stake.
Episode Five: No Buy Back
I finished the entire season in one day. Partly because I wanted to write the review ASAP, but mostly because I was hooked. This is not a game, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. This is a TV series watching binge. We’ve all been there, and with good reason. When a show sucks you in with its action, smartly written characters, interactions and plots, you want, you need more, and when you have it all at your fingertips thanks to the Internet, binging occurs. The Walking Dead Season 2 is like that, only with an added bonus. You know the feeling when you’re just watching a character and you think “Hmm, I wouldn’t have done that. It would have been better to…” and you’re just frustrated, or at least mildly annoyed at the character’s lack of foresight or stupidity? Well, in this series you have the chance to pick the character’s destiny, and when it hits the fan the only one you’ll be able to blame is yourself.
I, for one, was pleased by what I found in this season of Walking Dead. I came into it expecting something good after all that I had heard about season 1 and I found something better. I was a bit disappointed about the lack of challenging puzzles, and at the beginning I was starting to slightly dislike the way this game handled dialogue (what, so that’s all? Am I just supposed to sit here and click away every now and then while these people spout pages of dialogue?), but after the first 30 minutes or so I started to realize that yes, this was basically a TV show with some game elements, but the story and characters made sitting through it worthwhile. I don’t regret one second of my gaming binge, and I would do it again after a few weeks just to go through it again, because the replay potential exists in droves. I think it was a great experience.
In conclusion, this game is the totally successful lovechild between adventure games, TV and choose your own adventure books with comic book inspired visuals and produced by people who know how to breathe life into computer generated puppets and environments. If you fancy zombies and watching TV, then this is the game for you. Buy now and feel the guilt.