*** So, here’s the thing, writing reviews for individual Telltale episodes is getting difficult to do. Trying to review these two-hour chunks of an overarching experience as stand-alone products isn’t really helpful or fair to a what Telltale is trying to do. While I won’t be assigning a score or really breaking the game down piece by piece, I think it is important to cover these titles, as the episodes do yield enough content to warrant critical thoughts and analysis. Here’s my first recap of the episodes. Enough housekeeping, let’s get to the meat of why you are here. ***
The last time we saw Clementine in The Walking Dead’s eighth episode (episode three of season two) she was deciding whether to cut off Sarita’s hand or attack the walker nibbling on the poor woman’s wrist. In Harm’s Way was such a climactic episode, punctuated by Michael Madsen’s turn as the series’ best villain to-date, Amid The Ruins feels like an apt title to describe an episode which has to live in the shadow of the knock-out which preceded it. It’s been hard to effectively say what Clementine’s objective has been since the start of season two. “Stay alive” seems like a forgone conclusion, but what is she really looking for, what does she really want out of this zombified world? The first season of The Walking Dead clearly had a conclusion you felt was inevitable, at some point Lee and Clementine’s relationship would come to a head. That kind of emotional investment is what is lacking in season two and Amid the Ruins makes it painfully obvious.
The biggest problem with Amid the Ruins is it drifts back into the technical issues which plagued the first season of The Walking Dead. While following Lee and Clementine these issues seemed forgivable as so many people were desperate to see the series’ emotional conclusion, but now that we’re halfway into season two, the laggy framerates, long loading screens, and other nuisances are getting more than annoying. Loading up your Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 is also starting to date the series. Telltale clearly has designs to make The Walking Dead look better and play better, but one has to wonder how much they can really improve the series while still using the previous generation. Hopefully, the upcoming release of season two on current-gen hardware means we’ll have the option to continue the series on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in the near future.
I feel like I have been harping on this next issue with Telltale for a while now, so maybe it just doesn’t matter anymore, but The Walking Dead still lacks a lot of interactivity. Telltale stuffs in a couple of quick-time sequences and some painfully obvious puzzles, but even compared to the first season of The Walking Dead, there’s very little action you need to take in order to keep the game moving.
The flip side of this argument is, while there are fewer interactive puzzles or sequences in The Walking Dead, they are a little more well-crafted and implemented with more action. These sequences last only a couple minutes and rely on your fast reactions more than anything else. Long shooting sequences, or chases scenes are really slimmed down to capture the action quickly and get you back to the story. It leaves you wanting, but it feels a little more thought out.
But let’s face it, when it comes to The Walking Dead, or any other Telltale game at this point, who is asking for more gameplay? People are coming to these games for the story and to follow the next chapter of Clementine’s fight for survival. Amid the Ruins delves a little bit deeper into the characters introduced in the previous episode. Jane, the short-haired anti-hero and Mike, your other prison compadre, are fleshed out to add depth to a party which is looking thin after the bloodbath of the last episode.
The Walking Dead, whether you are talking about the comic or the TV show, is notorious for ruthlessly axing characters and aimlessly wandering about, being a series more about survival than actually narrative. While this is very effective in a TV show or comic format – where you are getting bite-sized pieces of content in a structure which is meant to be infinite – Telltale’s narrative feels a little clumsy when mirroring this structure. Long monologues meant to add depth feel like melodrama when the characters come in, tell their sad tale, and leave in the same breath. It feels like it harder to connect to characters in season two and sometimes you wonder why Clementine doesn’t just up and leave this squabbling party.
While the characters surrounding Clem don’t feel nearly as compelling as they did previously, excluding Kenny who has become a staple of the series, the real issue lies in central plot conceipt. The first three episodes of season two built tension surrounding certain characters and reached a climax during the third episode’s imprisonment and capture. But now that Carver lies in the rearview mirror, the focus of the series revolves around Rebecca’s pregnancy. Telltale uses pregnancy and the unborn baby as a crutch, assuming players will care about this character with no dialogue or interactivity. And the tropes don’t stop there.
Amid the Ruins is desperate to get you to feel one way or the other about characters and haphazardly shoves moments into the limelight. A weird hook up is revealed, mood swings are unearned, the adults continue shoving a little girl into perilous situations, its all stretches the story a bit thin. These odd twists and bizarre turns are born out of the fact there isn’t a lot of story to tell after the escape of the last episode.
So what does this mean for the decision making in episode 4? It means, you don’t really have a lot of crucial decisions to make, at least not ones you feel strongly about. With characters who don’t inspire emotion and a plot which is unstable, you might find yourself being the quietest Clementine the series has seen. The game assumes you are going to care for Rebecca’s unborn baby the same way Lee cared for Clementine, but the correlation doesn’t stick and in the heat of the moment it left me shrugging my shoulders instead of biting my fingernails.
For the first time since the series began, I am not left in suspense, wishing I could have the next chapter of Clementine’s adventure now as opposed to in a couple months. Season two has been a good ride, but Amid the Ruins doesn’t feel like the occasional place-setter episode you would expect before a season finale, it just feels like a sigh after an exciting climax. It’ll be interesting to see if Telltale delivers a finale which leaves us as emotionally gut-punched as the first season did. But right now, it’s hard to imagine how they would pull that off.