The Walking Dead: A House Divided Review

As the second season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead began, it had a tough act to follow.  Premiering last December, the first episode delivered a solid outing, but failed to capture the magic of what made 2012’s journey so great.  While Clementine serves as a solid replacement for the controllable protagonist, All That Remains spent a lot of time trying to sever ties to season one and get Clementine set up for season two.  However, because the first episode took its time to establish a new cast and setting, the second episode, A House Divided, can start raising the stakes and give players the rock-and-a-hard-place feeling the series is known for.

While the lead writers of the first season, Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin, have left Telltale, the series seems to be in quite capable hands.  The writing hasn’t missed a beat and A House Divided is filled with fantastic dialogue.  Many of the characters introduce in the last episode are beginning to flesh out, quickly becoming indispensable.  Like so many characters we have come to know in our time with The Walking Dead, each of your new crew have depth and history, for better or worse.  You feel for the people who let you down, you get angry with those who betray your trust.  The finale of season one and the premier of season two spent so much time tying up one story and beginning another, it has been a while since we have been able to settle with a group of characters and get to know them.  It feels fantastic to do so again.

One of the best parts about having a group to interact with is how decisions start to have weight.  A House Divided plays on its title, forcing the players to choose between the interests of two factions.  It is not heavy-handed or apparent, Telltale uses their subtlety to muddy the water, making your choices more difficult.  No one is out to kill each other–well, some people are–but the choices seem extreme because the characters are so well crafted.

Throughout the episode, decisions arise that make you choose between Clementine’s past and future.  The game asks questions about where you place your trust and how much you cling to friends, it is some of the more interesting choices Telltale has had players make.  These decisions, like most of the one’s made, don’t define anything in the game.  Like all Telltale’s efforts, you can not change the destiny of Clementine, but it allows you fill in the game with your choices that speak more about you as a player than the game itself.

The gameplay of Telltale remains the same as their previous entries.  The game offers you some exploration, but is mostly concerned with moving you to the next dialogue section.  There is one impressive action sequence, where Clementine’s will to survive seems to drive the gameplay in an exciting way.  I wish there were more of these sections.  It is starting to feel like the balance is being lost between gameplay and dialogue.

The story offers plenty of opportunities for puzzles and exploration, especially in tense situations, but they are mostly passed over.  Squandering opportunities to let players feel smart or empowered.  Some of the best parts of early episodes was walking around and interacting with the world.  More and more Telltale is starting to feel like interactive television.  The dialogue is fun and interesting, it colors the world in a nice way, but since it really doesn’t alter the story the importance of the player can be questioned.  It is unfair to dub the player, “dialogue selector and part-time action sequence passer”, it dismisses the opportunity to give the players more to do when the opportunity seems obvious.

In between the dialogue, action sequences, and the all-too-easy puzzles, The Walking Dead seems to have sorted its technical hiccups.  There are still painfully long loading screens that leave you wondering if the game has crashed, but the frame rate issues and other pain points–especially during the teaser for the next episode–seem to be smoothed out.  Furthermore, the game continues to improve on the first season with more refined animations and better looking character models.  The bar has been set so low for Telltale in this regard, any improvement feels like a good improvement, but it is appreciated nonetheless.

The days of Macon and Lee are far behind Clementine and far behind us as players.  Season two feels like its own entity and stands defiantly apart from the lineage it has so long been beholden to.  Telltale’s series has always done a phenomenal job of blending the core concepts of The Walking Dead with it’s own beautiful story.  It can also now boast about its ability to carry characters, plot elements, and themes from season to season, continuing to flesh out its own throughline while still maintaining that same homage to its source material.  With so many balls in the air, so much expectation, it is truly impressive to see The Walking Dead maintain the high level of quality so many have come to expect from it.  I still worry if the series is losing its hold on gameplay.  Gameplay has never stood out in Telltale’s catalogue, but it feels like these games have spent little time trying to improve it, opting to dismiss it instead.  That being said, the series continues it’s impressive string of success and leaves you with the feeling that the best is still yet to come.