Warning: This review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead is back. And unlike its TV counterpart, which seems hell-bent on running until TVs have been deemed obsolete and all media is ingested via pill, this really is game over.
After a coincidental and eminently forgettable season three, we are reunited with Clementine as she tries to make a life for herself and AJ, the baby she left with at the end of season two and who has now grown into a world-wearied sharpshooting toddler. The constant threat of agonising undeath will do that to a kid, one supposes.
We begin in a car. Clementine is driving and AJ is hungry. The snacks on the passenger seat won’t hold off the pangs for long, so we need to go back out and search for food.As we begin the game, it is prudent to remember that we are not only saying goodbye to a game series, but also an entire engine. After fifteen years Telltale are moving to Unity and leaving their ‘Telltale Tool’ behind. As send-offs go, you can’t do much better than this. The Walking Dead’s fourth season is a visual treat, more confident than ever in its comic book aesthetic, and doesn’t seem to be plagued by the bugs and visual glitches of previous offerings.
Clementine comes upon an old and seemingly abandoned train station which screams ambush, with great rusty carriages flanking the entrance like walls of a canyon. There’s a bell by the gate asking any friendly folk to ring before entry. It’s the first choice offered by the game, and perhaps the easiest. That bell was not rung.There is a greater emphasis of choice here than there has been in any previous Walking Dead entry, as even mundane acts are stated to have consequences. Not ringing the bell appears the wiser choice, as there is no-one living home and the noise would have only attracted walkers. There is a couple inside the train station, but they have both turned, hand in hand, having resolved to spend their remaining days together come what may. A note asks anyone who finds them to leave them be. Whether you do or not is another choice with further-reaching ramifications.
Where choice has been present in The Walking Dead, and in Telltale Games at large, it has often fallen into two categories: that with an immediate, tangible effect, essentially choosing between who lives or dies or where to travel to; and that which is more subtle or, if you’re not feeling quite as generous, non-existent. One of season four’s great strengths so far is its ability to frame even the slightest choices as important and something to be carefully considered. After all, come the ceaseless legions of the undead, you can’t go around ringing every bell you see.And the dialogue is important too. At one point, you get to choose one bit of advice for AJ. I went for ‘always aim for the head’. While aggressive and perhaps not the most reassuring of lines, it seemed the most practical thing that I could say.
Do remember that—it will tie the whole review together at the end.
Even from this short opening segment, it is clear that The Walking Dead’s final season isn’t content to rest on its laurels. It is an expansion of the genre unlike anything else we have seen in the series. This is particularly apparent during its action sequences, which offers far more player agency than anything previous. You can choose to go for the kill on a walker, or simply hobble them, rendering them temporarily immobile and separating them from a group, which is important to avoid becoming overrun. Later on in the episode you need to get past a horde and so, using a loud ally atop a train carriage as a distraction, you have to sneak past and only kill those walkers who spot you. A harsh introduction to the greater freedom of these sections can be found here, as a previously dormant walker slumped on the ground can take you unawares as you move in for the kill on a different one. This is a Telltale game that actively rewards strategy and reconnaissance. Far from being a change of pace to make sure the player doesn’t have their controller sitting idly by their side, these parts of the final season are an integral part of the experience. No longer does this feel like a visual novel with zombies, as it has tended to in the past. It now seems much more like a survival experience.Still, this isn’t an action adventure, nor is it trying to be. Player agency is still limited in a way that may be narratively relevant, but can still feel disappointing. One such instance is when entering the train station, where a lifeless body lies just next to the porch steps. It should be clear to all sentient beings that that is a zombie waiting to snatch an ankle; all sentient beings, that is, apart from Clementine, who despite being made to walk towards the corpse at various angles and look down at it extensively still does nothing about it. Resigned, the player must walk her up the steps and roll their eyes when the zombie bursts to life and grabs the ankle that it was obviously going to grab. The comparison that comes to mind is The Last Of Us. Specifically, the bit where there is a locked room with a lot of loot and a crawl space for your companion Ellie to enter. There also happens to be a corpse slumped in the far corner of the room and, if you watch closely, it is moving. Difference is, you can shoot that one. A little thing, sure, but it sticks with you as a great example of thoroughness and awareness being rewarded. Still, the fact that we can have this discussion about a Telltale game speaks in its favour.
Back to the story: one booby trap, several car crashes and about a metric fuck-ton of walkers later, Clementine wakes up and finds herself in a school that has been taken over by the kids. It’s a delicious twist of irony which isn’t lost on anyone. Anarchist logos, and a few times the literal word ‘anarchy’, are scrawled over the walls. It’s pretty fucking rad honestly.And here we have our marvelous place with walls and friendly folks and a concerning lack of food and deep-seated tensions set to boil to the surface at even the slighted provocation. Nothing could possibly go wrong here, apart from when it does at length and repeatedly. But in the meantime, there is a cast of delightfully well-realised and rounded characters, each with a story to tell. And in spite of AJ’s tendency to bite people he doesn’t know—a trait made even less endearing given the current climate—the group accepts AJ and Clementine into their ranks, with the kind-but-mulleted leader Marlon all too happy to have them on board.
None of this is especially ground-breaking, and if there is a plot-based critique to be made of the first episode that would be it. The set-up of ‘we have walls and it’s all great—but no wait we’re actually cannibals, or we’re actually ritualistic slaughterers, or we’re actually well-groomed zombies’ is a little trite. It’s got to the point where in a zombie story, the most terrifying thing is apparent safety. All one can do is wait for things to inevitably devolve.So things inevitably devolve, and we discover that Marlon has made a pact with a separate gang, handing over kids in exchange for peace. Such is the case with two sisters who were presumed dead by the group. What follows is a confrontation that showcases the very best of choice-driven narrative games. Your dialogue options must be considered so as to appeal to the group at large, while not angering Marlon, who has a gun trained on Clementine. The game then offers us the choice for who in the group to appeal to for back-up: Louis, the jovial and immediately friendly goofball; or Violet, who is far quieter and more reserved. There is so much to consider in that choice alone. You will have had the opportunity to bond to varying degrees with either character, to learn more about them and, vitally, their relationship with Marlon. Louis is his best friend since childhood. Violet was in a relationship with one of the sisters he traded to the other gang. I chose Violet instinctively, and it was only later on that I was able to consciously process the reasons behind it.
In my playthrough, Violet believed Clementine and defended her from Marlon. By doing so, the opinion of the group at large swung in Clementine’s favour, and she was able to persuade Marlon to drop the gun. The final choice was then to banish him, keep him as a prisoner, or let him coexist in the group, having understood that his actions were–
A hole appears in Marlon’s forehead and he falls, revealing AJ and the gun he is holding. He looks up.
“What? I aimed for the head.”
I screamed for about twenty, maybe thirty minutes.