The halfway point in Telltale’s second study of humanity’s ethical fragility is where any kind of ‘buyer’s guide’ critique of the game becomes a bit pointless. If you’ve been playing along with The Walking Dead Season 2 (aka Clementine’s Bogus Journey) from the start, you’ll be signed up for all five episodes already. Those who’re waiting it out to play the entire season in one go, or to take advantage of a sale at a later date, probably shouldn’t be reading reviews with potential spoilers for prior episodes.
Fortunately, The Walking Dead is a series open to all kinds of thematic interpretation. It’s still too soon (for obvious reasons) to judge the second season as a complete piece of work, but with three fifths of Clementine’s tale now told there are some common ideas to be explored.
Episode 2 left Clementine and whoever remained in her new group (minus Luke, who buggered off) in the clutches of the assassin, Dau, err, Bill Carver. The majority of the characters met so far were on the run from Carver and his weird little commune, so the prospect of returning to this enclave is not a pleasant one. Especially in light of his actions in previous episodes.
Within minutes of the opening to Episode 3, you’re given a clear message that Clementine will not be able to play Carver in the way she may (if you played it that way) have previously manipulated others. He’s a vicious man, intent on sculpting his community no matter how heavy and crude the required strokes might be. The Walking Dead is no stranger to brutality, but some of the stuff throughout In Harm’s Way goes about as close to the line as the series has ever come; and not all of it stems from Carver’s hand.
Throughout the earlier episodes it seemed this new season was either actively avoiding or struggling to locate a single narrative theme as clear as season one’s “a convicted murderer finds redemption through his tutelage of a child.” With Episode 3, there’s a common second season refrain starting to emerge. Lee taught Clementine how to survive, but the frequency with which these skills are intersecting with situations of utter horror is causing this 12 year old’s humanity to erode.
Carver is an unconscionable character, but when he remarks that Clementine shares much of his pragmatic nature it’s uncomfortably close to the truth. How many in-game actions have we taken, and justified to ourselves, on the basis of survival? Telltale is subtle enough to implant these questions rather than ask them outright, though the nuance is rather undermined by Carver’s unnecessary use of the hoary “we’re not so different, you and I” line. The scene in which it appears would have been far stronger without it.
A twisted notion of family reappears as a secondary theme, in Carver’s obsessive pursuit of Rebecca and her unborn child, Clementine being bounced around between inferior versions of Lee, and the way the compound dwellers are trapped in an abusive relationship. There’s a refusal to believe Carver is capable of the things they’re seeing in front of them, and a tragic, almost cult-like belief that pleasing him will bring acceptance.
Like a lot of this second season of The Walking Dead, Episode 3 feels in a bit of a hurry to get us to the next location. Given how quickly it becomes apparent in the episode itself, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that Clem and (some of) the group won’t be sticking around in Carver’s chateau of horrors. That rush left me torn. It was a relief not to spend too much time in a scenario that for this series (games, comics and television adaptations) is rather familiar. But in racing through the atmosphere of oppression and imprisonment, not to mention rapid introductions to yet more characters, something was lost.
Characters in this second season are finding it difficult to get enough screen time. I’d be fairly confident in naming the majority of the group (even the ones who don’t make it) from Season One, even though my run through that game was about a year ago. I’m not so sure that will be the case with Season Two’s cast, who can come and go in a flurry of zombie-mangling and poor decisions. Episode 3 shuffles the deck once again, which is in-keeping with the sense that Clem doesn’t really have anybody but herself to rely on any more, but does risk further reducing the impact of inevitable future losses.
Lee’s death was meaningful. “Person Clementine met about 15 minutes ago bites the dust” is just a plot device. Though maybe Clementine getting dangerously comfortable with death surrounding her is partially the point.
As Telltale gets more confident about dialogue and quick-time action events being enough to drive The Walking Dead on their own, the player is given active control of Clementine on even fewer occasions. For the most part dialogue choices and their consequences really are the main draw of the series so I don’t begrudge Telltale in their decision, but I still miss having as many moments to actually walk around a scene and I think these breaks have aided episode pacing in the past. The short moments of exploratory control which do arise feel like a bit of a tease.
Puzzle solving has pretty much atrophied to nothing as well, although I did get bamboozled by one particular segment. It involved grabbing an item, but I didn’t recognise what action the unusual button prompt was trying to convey. Telltale finally stumped me with a Walking Dead conundrum.
As a continuation of the player’s struggle to keep Clementine’s humanity together (or, if they choose, a chance to turn her into the world’s most intimidating 12 year old,) Episode 3 does a fine job. It suffers a little from a location that’s both inert in nature and dispensed with too fast, as well as all-too-brief introductions to new characters (plus disappointing cameo usage of the crew from 400 Days.) Yet it has scenes that rank as some of the series’ most harrowing. Telltale still has the talent for creating urgent tension around an ethical dilemma, and I was left with authentic feelings of regret over two of the choices that I made.
In many respects Episode 3 is the climax and culmination of Episodes 1 and 2. Nobody you care about is in any way safe yet of course, but there is some sense of resolution to a handful of the story-lines. To an extent this leaves Season Two once again meandering around a bit. There’s a vague notion that the group needs to keep going North, and a few wrenching choices taken in Episode 3 will absolutely have to be dealt with and resolved in the forthcoming releases. Beyond that, only Telltale knows where this bleak and violent road will lead.