Coming into the second season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, one of the big things people were talking about is how the game would be able to continue with Clementine as the protagonist. After all, she’s just a little girl. She couldn’t fill the shoes of Lee.
Well, literally, Clem couldn’t fill his shoes. Figuratively, once we got all the character introductions out of the way and got into character and plot development, this season took The Walking Dead to heights surpassing Season One. Sure, the episodes are shorter and maybe the illusion of choice isn’t quite as strong as the first season but amazing story and character writing made this game one of the highlights of 2014.
Now we reach the end of Season Two and boy, does Telltale give this season a spectacular send off.
Spoiler Alert: “Spoiler-Free” refers to the episode being reviewed. I’m assuming that you’ve played the preceding Telltale TWD games when writing this review. If you haven’t played through the previous episodes, you may want to stop reading now. There are a couple of minor spoilers related to Episode Four’s cliffhanger but these shouldn’t be unexpected given the nature of the series and writing.
I will get one spoiler out of the way before I get into the review proper. Amid The Ruins ended with a shootout. Not everyone dies in the shootout. I doubt anyone thought that Clementine would be left alone with a pile of bullet-riddled dead bodies around her but it was a possibility after the Episode Four cliffhanger. Of course, wiping out everyone off-camera would make for a dull game since the strength of The Walking Dead is in dealing with other characters. Even leaving Clem with only the Russians would have made for a less interesting final episode.
So with that out of the way, I’m not sure where I start. This was a fantastic episode with some genuinely unexpected moments, some fantastic callbacks to earlier episodes, expected moments that were still brilliantly played out and legitimate multiple endings. There was very little this episode didn’t get right.
Despite the dark start to the episode (and there are many more dark and disturbing moments for our characters over the 90 minutes of No Going Back), there are some light moments near the beginning. While the remnants of the group are at each other’s throats for the majority of the episode, there was a lovely little sequence at a camp where everyone came together to act like people. They had human interaction and behaved just like you’d expect any group of friends would around a camp fire. A camp fire in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, sure, but a camp fire nonetheless.
Naturally, in a story where the survivors are more dangerous than the zombies who roam the earth, things start to fall apart because of people. In this case, Kenny’s mental breakdown from the last episode continues which splinters the group. With Clem being the only one who really has an impact on the plot, you’re spending all of your time either picking sides or trying to keep everyone from killing each other.
For me, it got to a point during the middle of the episode when I dreaded the next conversation. It’s not that the next conversation wasn’t very compelling, it’s just that there felt like there was no right answer to keep everyone happy. My Clem has always tried to be a mediator and make the smart choices. There are no smart choices in this episode. Even when you think that you’ve made the right choice, Telltale immediately makes you feel terrible for it.
Back to Kenny for a moment. While overarching narrative of The Walking Dead has been about the growth of Clementine, last season was the story of Lee’s redemption. He started the season as a convicted murderer and ended the season by sacrificing himself to save Clem. This season, the starring character, other than Clem, has been Kenny.
While Kenny’s character arc was quite different from Lee’s but it was still the only noteworthy character arc after Carver was offed inside two episodes. Perhaps it’s a triangular arc about Kenny, Carver and Clementine where we see how a combination of circumstances and decisions affect a person and mold them.
We know Kenny and Clem started at about the same place on the morality scale and let’s assume that Carver did as well. Each had different experiences and you can see how it affected them by the end (well, maybe you can see how it affected your decision-making as Clem). Kenny and Carver were morally ruined by the horrors that affected them during the zombie apocalypse. The real story of The Walking Dead is in the development of the characters and we’ve seen that most clearly from Kenny.
It’s hard to explain this without getting into spoiler territory but Bonnie has hinted that Carver was a kind person at first but something changed. We’re seeing the same with Kenny played right before our eyes. With the ten episodes of context we have for Kenny, maybe this retrospectively changes the morality of Carver. Maybe he is evil but it’s also possible that he may be just a victim of circumstance. Characters aren’t always black hat, white hat. There are shades of grey. That’s where great characters reside and that’s where Kenny has been during and after the third episode of each season. He’s a good man with good intentions with evil outbursts and actions. You could make the same case for Carver but that’s also why I mentioned a certain point of view in my Episode Three review.
Where the episode really came together for me was in the pacing of this episode. While it started off quickly, for obvious reasons, the pace quickly settled down for some quiet moments before ramping back up again and not letting up.
A continuously quick pace can wear you down but the two quiet moments that Telltale gives you in this episode are just enough to let you catch your breath so they can take it away with the frantic pace of the decision-making in this episode. The frequency of important decisions and dialogue choices, and the seemingly short time to make those choices underscores the importance of these decisions. The pace ties back nicely to the feeling that there is no right choice to be made at times. When the action picks up, so does the tension and it makes this episode magical.
And I mentioned multiple endings off the top of the review. Near as I can piece together from the decisions I made, there are certainly three different endings. I’ve read in a couple of places that there could be up to five endings to this season. It’s interesting that for all I say about Telltale’s illusion of decisions mattering, this season ends with the apparent actual impact of those last few decisions.
If those decisions carry over to next season and make an ongoing impact on Season Three of The Walking Dead, this will be a spectacular change from the start of this season where the opening felt like Telltale quickly hit the reset button so everyone was on the same page in their stories. Please, Telltale, make branching stories part of Season Three. It doesn’t have to be too major. Just don’t kill everyone off and give us a fresh group fifteen minutes into Season Three.
It’s very easy to write a review for a game (or part of a game) where there are big issues to delve into. Of all the episodes of The Walking Dead: Season Two, this was the hardest to write about but that’s because this was the best episode of Season Two. The decisions mattered, each moment had an emotional impact and you felt like you were put into the shoes of a helpless little girl in the midst of a world gone to hell.
While I was very, very worried about The Walking Dead after 400 Days and All That Remains (Episode One), Telltale was quickly able to get their feet under them and end the season by delivering one of the best games of 2014. After five episodes and seven hours with these characters, I can’t help but feel that this could be the high-water mark for storytelling in games. I know that was thrown around in Season One but I’m buying into the hype now.
As much as I can’t wait for Season Three, I don’t want Season Two to end.
The Walking Dead: Season Two – Episode Five: No Going Back was played on Windows PC but is also available for OS X, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PlayStation Vita and iOS. The review code for this game was provided by Telltale Games. Your impressions of the game may change depending on platform played on, PC specs and who you really trust.