The Walking Dead: Season Two Review: Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death

the-walking-dead-season-two-bannerTelltale Games had a bit of an up-and-down reputation prior to the release of The Walking Dead. That game completely changed the way that most thought of Telltale and many critics felt that they set the bar for storytelling in games. After the numerous game of the year awards for TWD and a critically acclaimed launch for The Wolf Among Us, Telltale’s second comic book adaptation, The Walking Dead: Season Two was one of the most hotly anticipated games of 2014.

The problem with a game with all that hype is that it occasionally bogs down under the weight. The problem with a sequel is that they struggle to balance the needs of new gamers to the franchise with the desires of people continuing the story. There were times when TWD:S2 caved to these pressures as Telltale tried very hard to copy what made Season One so loved but missing the emotional mark that Season One hit. However, once Season Two came into its own, Telltale had put out another stellar experience.

Spoiler Alert: After five episodes of spoiler-free reviews, I’m going full-spoiler in this review of the whole season. If you’d rather avoid spoilers, go back to the episode reviews.

The ever troublesome sequel balancing reared its ugly head right at the beginning of Season Two. Killing Omid inside five minutes and quickly separating you from Christa shortly thereafter was really a case of levelling the playing field for new and old fans of Telltale’s TWD. I’ve never been a fan of the reset trope in sequels. In this instance, Telltale made it work for new gamers who probably didn’t care one way or another what happened to Christa and Omid. As someone who liked the characters, I wasn’t particularly fond of two important characters being dismissed with a wave of a writer’s hand. It wasn’t as if they were trying to rebind a branching story. It was just clean slating the second season.

I can understand why Telltale immediately brought in a new group for Clementine. If TWD was just Clem wandering through the world, trying to make it through the day, it would make for a different but decidedly less interesting game. The strength of the game is in Telltale’s writing which pretty much forces them into having other characters for Clem to interact with. If it was just Clem trying to Don’t Starve her way through the zombie apocalypse, it would be throwing away all the progress Telltale made in writing strong characters and plot in the first season.

That said, the first episode suffered from trying to level the playing field for everyone. I can understand why going “sixteen months later” and all of a sudden Clem and Christa are with a new group of people wouldn’t have worked because it would have taken away the fun in learning about characters and their motivations. It also helps explain why Christa would have been written out before Clem joins a group of survivors. It wouldn’t make sense for the pair to find and join a group when they likely would have found other groups over the last sixteen months and not joined them so splitting them up makes sense and it allows another supposedly dead character to return next season.

the-walking-dead-season-two-episode-one-screenshot-05And speaking of that group, they started off quite weak. When you just throw eight people at someone all at once, everyone becomes a caricature. Sure, the same happened last season but Lee and Clem were fleshed out first, Kenny and family second and then there was everyone else. This time, we just got a bit of time with Luke as an older brother type character rather than a protective father figure like Lee. The other half-dozen members of the group came and went so quickly that you didn’t even particularly care when Pete was bitten by a zombie. I cared more about the dog that attacked Clem than I did about the rest of the group.

The reintroduction of Kenny (through the classic trope of if you don’t see them die, they aren’t dead) gave Season Two much-needed emotional weight that was lacking from the first episode and a half of Season Two. Forcing you to choose between Kenny and Luke was the turning point where the season started to pick up. People started dying. Decisions

It was Episode Two that introduced Bill Carver and the concept of a big bad to The Walking Dead. Sure, that lasted all of two episodes but Carver sparked the only real interesting character development arcs of the season. We saw the parallels in the characters of Carver and Clementine and the development of Carver and Kenny.

Both parallels were really about a matter of perspective and circumstance. Carver is a leader who ends up making the hard decisions for his group, whether you think he’s right or wrong or good or evil. Clem’s morality likely mirror’s your own so it makes you good from her perspective. She’s doing what’s best for the group and becomes the de facto leader as a result. Carver recognizes her drive and importance to the survival to other and the similarity to his own. They’re both the thinkers, doers and leaders of their group. From his perspective, the only difference between the two is the decisions that the two have been forced to make for the good of their group. There is nothing they won’t do for survival.

That perspective is what made Carver such a strong character. A villain that’s just a villain because he’s opposed to our heroes isn’t a good villain. A villain has to be an actualized character. Carver believes that what he does is necessary for his and other’s survival. He brings the group in and puts them to work for the survival of his group and his unborn child. In his mind, the ends justify the means, regardless of what those means are. He has a reason for being evil and is able to justify his actions as a result. The means makes him evil from Clem’s perspective but maybe Carver and your Clem aren’t too different after all. There were certainly hints of having the ends justify the means from my Clem.

the-walking-dead-season-two-episode-three-screenshot-05The Carver/Kenny parallel only worked if you believed Bonnie that she said that Carver was a nice guy before we were introduced to him. Something happened that caused him to snap and lose all perspective of civility and morality. His only cause became his survival and those in his group that could contribute to their collective survival. If you keep that in mind, Kenny’s two-season arc is about the downfall of the character. From a friendly family man when we met him in Season One, repeated tragedies drove him to a complete mental breakdown that saw him lash out violently at anyone and everyone as a coping mechanism.

In his mind, Kenny wasn’t a ticking time bomb. He wasn’t violent. He wasn’t on the verge of a breakdown. He was just doing what he had to in order to protect the few friends that he had left, especially baby AJ. In that way, he was very much like Carver. Taking a step back from the situation, it’s easy to see that Carver and Kenny were the same person whose moralities were only differentiated by your perspective.

Both men also drove the most important decisions of the season. If there was a decision where I felt under pressure to make the right decision quickly, it involved either Carver or Kenny. As much as this is Clementine’s game,

The problem with a lot of the other characters is that we didn’t get much time to give them a character. Pete was there to save Clem only to die at the end of the episode. Alvin and Rebecca only got feature time right before getting killed. Luke was the older brother who had Clem as a sidekick. Otherwise, no one really had a noteworthy character. I couldn’t connect with Sarita, Carlos or Sarah. They just didn’t matter. Who didn’t matter in Season One? Mark who showed up randomly in Episode Two so we could eat him? More effort was put into the secondary characters in Season One compared to Season Two.

the-walking-dead-season-two-01At least more effort was put into Clementine. Some of that had to do with her being the player-character this season. There’s also the fact that Clem is growing up and is seeing the need to take charge to ensure everyone’s survival. A joke is thrown in that she’s the one that does everything which would be unrealistic in an actual zombie apocalypse but it gives you something to do. Suspension of disbelief is a key part of entertainment. If you can be entertained by a game that features the undead and not complain about the inclusion of zombies, I suppose that I can’t complain about the realism of Clem being the game’s protagonist and group members turning against her if she doesn’t do what they want or expect.

And one of the more divisive parts of the writing was the overall sense of hopelessness. I didn’t particularly mind that you just got battered with death and injury and despair for all five episodes. I thought that was fitting for a game set at the end of humanity that it would be a dark season. Still, some missed that little ray of hope that Lee and Clem’s and Christa and Omid’s relationships were in Season One. Any moment that gives you a little smile or a little hope is quickly dashed. You don’t notice it in the moment because your along for the ride and I certainly enjoyed being on the emotional roller coaster that was this game.

Since it’s largely inconsequential to the overall experience of the game, I’ve left all the actual gameplay commentary for the last two paragraphs. The game still works the same as the prior year. Click dialogue snippets to talk. Different characters react differently to what you say which is what makes the game interesting. The game is a hybrid of point-and-click adventure with some quick-time events thrown in to keep you on your toes. At least QTEs feel sharper this time. Targeting attacks is easier because the circles for clicking have been made much larger this time out. It makes action events where you’re shooting zombies and various other ne’er-do-wells much easier than Season One.

Season Two also benefits from some refinement to their Telltale Tool game engine. The graphics were a little sharper than Season One and I found the strain on my hardware to be a little easier than I remember from Season One despite a bit more mileage on my laptop. Scenes with a long draw distance resulted in framerate drops but those were few and far between enough that it wasn’t a problem. Between that and some lip syncing issues in Episode Three, there weren’t the technical issues that there were in Season One.

Conclusion

the-walking-dead-season-two-episode-three-screenshot-06Perhaps I didn’t have to write a spoiler filled of the whole The Walking Dead: Season Two. I thought I covered the major themes of the whole season pretty well without spoiling the major plot points but I don’t think I really covered the Kenny/Carver arc really well. In the moment, it’s hard to see because you want to believe that Kenny’s a good man whose actions are questionable but it’s exactly what Bonnie said about Carver.

That was the highlight of the season, though. I liked Jane’s arc trying to be Clem’s older sister who is more needy than she lets on. Luke trying to be the older brother was a bit too close to Lee for my liking. Apart from those two, Kenny and Carver, there wasn’t too much memorable this season.

Without that strong bond between Lee and Clem, there wasn’t a central relationship to build the season around. The season suffered compared to Season One as a result and had a few ups and downs. There were far more ups than downs this season.

Rating: 8.5/10

The Walking Dead: Season Two was played on Windows PC but is also available for OS X, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PlayStation Vita and iOS. Releases on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Ouya are upcoming. 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.

Cross-posted from et geekera. For more from et geekera, follow on FacebookTwitterGoogle+Tumblr and RSS.

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