Friday, August 29, 2014

Pocket Review - The Walking Dead: Season Two

Caution: This review will contain spoilers for The Walking Dead: Season One, but will NOT spoil any specific story moments from Season Two. Only vague references will be made to major plot points.

As I stated in my review of The Walking Dead: Season One, I found it to be one of the greatest narrative experiences in gaming. That's not a statement I take lightly, so when Telltale games revealed the sequel I was curious how it would stack up. The Walking Dead: Season Two had some big shoes to fill, so Telltale did the best thing it could do in this situation and didn't try to fill them. The team instead took things in a different direction from the first season by shifting the focus away from an adult like Lee Everett and putting players in the role of young Clementine from the first game. This paradigm shift means that those expecting an experience exactly like Season One could be disappointed, but the direction this new season is great in its own way.

The gameplay and structure have changed very little since the first season, as Season Two is still an episodic. narrative-focused, adventure game with a heavy emphasis on decision making. Technically, this title is also much smoother than the first game, though there are occasional issues with graphical textures on Vita, but it's never a problem. The first episode of the season was released in December of 2013, but with the Vita version taking a while to get off the ground, I opted to wait until all five episodes were released in order to play them all back to back with worked out much better for me. Season Two starts off a little rocky with Clementine being stripped out of her element, finding herself alone with no food, friends, or shelter. There are a few moment during this initial episode that felt a little too game-like with too many easy-to-fail quick time events and not enough decisions to make, but that thankfully doesn't last very long.

Before too long Clem once again finds herself in a makeshift family, and that's when the dialogue options really kick back into play. During Season One, Lee's objective was always clear. He was seeking to find a way to keep Clementine safe. The murkiness always came in finding the best way to make that happen, as people and their own unique human natures always ended up getting in the way. This time around Clem is just trying to find a way to survive, and that makes the path she's on sometimes feel less focused. In a way it actually feels more natural considering she's a young child often surrounded by a group of adults. She gives input and tries to influence those in her group, but as adults are wont to be, they often end up doing what they want to do and dragging her along with them.

The early episodes of the game act as building blocks for Clementine's development as a character. As we know from Season One, she's already seen some awful stuff and had to do some painful deeds, but Season Two gives you the option to control her path now. In this way, Telltale does a great job of helping players relate to and even identify with this young girl growing up in a zombie apocalypse. While she often comes across as way smarter than the rest of the adults in the group, and there are a few awkward moments where all the adults seem to be waiting on her to make an important call, at the same time it shows that she still seems to have a bit of hope left in her that the older folks have lost.

The supporting characters this time around vary greatly in terms of development. Some you learn very little about some despite them having a large role, and others you meet for only a short time, but come to care for and understand. Considering how quickly this season plays out in terms of in-game time, this is an understandable and natural issue. In a situation like Clem finds herself in, it's hard to imagine a group of adults sharing their innermost secrets with a young girl, but as such it means that the game sacrifices character depth to give things a more natural feel. That said, there are still certain characters that are fantastic, special moments of bonding between this new family, and even a strong villain to add a bit of depth to the narrative. Overall things just felt more real and less like a game during Season Two, which might seem mundane to some, but made the game even more personal to me.

The heart of Telltale's The Walking Dead series is the decisions the player has to make and how things play out as a result. This is where I found Season Two really shines, as I felt less like I was taking sides with my favorite characters and more like I was being forced into making gut decisions with no real idea if the consequences were going to be something I could live with or not.

At the end of Season One when the game shifted from Lee to Clementine, the situation she was put in was a painful one. There was no happy ending, and Clem only had one choice to make. The way things played out were still extremely emotional, but both Lee and Clem knew it had to happen. Season Two takes that peaceful feeling of knowing you did what had to be done because it was the only option away from you. Clementine is put into situations where there is no right answer and instead forces you to go with your gut. And as such, the game often punches you right in the gut right after you make a call.

You get to truly role-play as Clem and decide which path she wants to follow in term of her character. Whether she will side with a friend in a situation that's clearly not in the best interest of the group or shun that person for the sake of self-preservation is totally up to you. It's your call if she's becoming hardened to the world around her or if she still has a bit of innocence to her. The final couple of episodes are emotionally rough, as the game shifts away from a direct narrative path and instead begins to unravel all the webs spun to this point. The concept of right and wrong fades away and only shades of gray are left, making it harder to decide which direction to go.

You have to decide where you think Clem's loyalties lie and the consequence of those actions can sometimes be tough to deal with. Season Two doesn't try to cheat you or pull the rug out from underneath you, but instead force you think in a way the first game didn't get an opportunity to do. Even though the multiple endings don't necessarily change dramatically based on prior game decisions, those earlier experiences do a fantastic job of shaping what you as Clementine's controller have become by the end. While it might not be as strong as the original in terms of overall narrative, this season offers some of the best, and hardest, examples if decision making in gaming.

While I started this season expecting more of what I loved from the first, I instead found a different take on Telltale's adventure genre that I loved just as much, but for different reasons. While I couldn't directly relate to being a young girl in a world gone crazy, my own childhood still allowed me to identify with her struggles to be heard in situations where adults were at each other's throats and trying to pit her against the other. The Walking Dead: Season Two is a wonderful follow-up to Season One. It's an emotional experience that plays on what's come before and thrusts you into making gut-wrenching decisions that will stick with you for well after the game is ended.

Recommended? Clementine's journey stands side-by-side with Lee's from Season One with some of the best decision making in gaming.
Enjoyed By? Anyone who loves a game where your decisions matter should play this game. Make sure to play Season One first, though.

This game was played on Vita via a PSN code provided by the publisher.

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