This zombie formula is wearing thin.
[Editor’s Note: This review was written prior to the announcement that the developer, Telltale Games, has effectively closed down as of Friday, September 21, 2018. While there is no official confirmation as of this writing, it is highly likely that this will be the final episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, even though a four-episode run had initially been announced.]
Halfway through the second episode of The Walking Dead’s final season, I found myself frustrated. I had been playing for about an hour but still struggled to care about any character other than Clementine or AJ, any actions I took, or any dialogue choice I was presented with. It all felt hollow and lifeless, a formulaic Mad Libs-esque construction in which story elements were strung together in a repetitive, predictable sequence. If anything can be said for Episode Two, it’s this: the seams of this series are showing, and they’re beginning to wear thin.
As in previous episodes and seasons of The Walking Dead, Clementine and her relationship with AJ continues to be the strongest and most compelling part of the story. After dealing with a particularly traumatic incident at the end of the previous episode, Clementine is left to put the pieces back together and teach AJ more difficult lessons about the subtleties and nuances of life from a time when manners and niceties were socially relevant.
The blunt and confused nature of AJ’s dialog feels very authentic to the way children normally speak in its ability to withhold nothing and bluntly address a topic on their immature minds. He asks Clementine why people bother having funerals, why people should care about remembering the lives of so-called “monsters,” why it’s okay to kill in some instances but not in others, and, in one particularly wrenching moment, whether or not they’ll even continue to survive.
The rest of the supporting cast struggle to reach any of the highs found between Clementine and AJ.
Clementine’s reactions are mostly genuine and well-executed. His questions hit a note deeper in her, forcing her to reconsider her beliefs and whether or not they’re still necessary in this deceased world. It’s a familiar sensation for anyone who has been asked an unintentionally devastating existential question by a child, and Clementine and AJ’s interactions and reliance on each other remain a very solid backbone on which this season is built.
However, the rest of the supporting cast and storyline struggle to reach any of the highs found between Clementine and AJ. This entire episode made one jarring logical leap after another, relying on the emotions and interactions of characters I barely knew to carry the drama and tension throughout, and that simply didn’t work.
One particularly egregious moment happened when the other kids grew upset with AJ for an action that seemed to be reasonable and appropriate given the circumstance. Despite monumental evidence to support AJ’s decision, a handful of characters instead doubled down on their irrational hatred of him, which made them even harder to identify with.
Telltale hasn’t done the work of establishing motivations.
It’s in moments like this where the formulaic nature of The Walking Dead’s storytelling begins to show. It feels templatized; time and time again, one character is inserted as the antagonist, while another stands up for Clem and AJ. Then Clementine has to choose how she reacts and is either rewarded or punished, depending on how that dialogue choice is received. That can work when characters have rational reasons to believe what they do, but here Telltale hasn’t done the work of establishing their motivations, so characters instead feel like they’re going through the motions for the sake of continuing the plot.
At a pivotal moment, AJ and Clementine are forced to take to the road by themselves. This goes predictably poorly and results in a contrived reunion between Clementine and a familiar face from seasons past, but their behavior here feels wildly out of character. Drama ensues, and AJ and Clem return to the compound as though they’d never left, which makes no sense given the circumstances of their departure earlier in this same episode.
Moments like these were especially jarring because they don’t line up with the logic the series has established (namely “This person will remember that”), and they negate all of the decisions and consequences made up to this point. More characters materialized who, prior to these moments, had not been an important focus for the story but suddenly became relevant to serve as plot vehicles in their very specific place within the plot’s formula.
One strong moment in the episode focused on Clementine’s romance with either a female or male character in the gang of kids. This kind of interaction is a first for the Walking Dead series, and the scene in which it plays out is sweet and well-executed. It’s exactly what a story like this needs: a moment of true levity in which characters have an organic interaction not tethered to the typical hopeless tropes and cliches often found within end-of-the-world stories.
Gameplay felt especially slow and plodding, with brief moments of very basic action sequences mixed in with pixel-hunting around washed-out environments to collect items. Some of it works, and some of it feels frustratingly laggy and not at all satisfying. Ranged weapons are unsatisfying to use, the precise timing of quick-time events doesn’t always feel clear, and even moving around in environments is laborious. It feels old and stale, like many of the mechanics have been placed merely out of obligation to The Walking Dead’s broader established formula instead of enhancing the overall experience.