Merry Christmas, gamers. After way too long (even with “The Walking Dead: 400 Days” to tide us over), Telltale Games has given us a gift in the first episode of the second season of their landmark series, “The Walking Dead,” based on the Robert Kirkman graphic novel more than the hit AMC TV show. The first season of “The Walking Dead” in 2012 was breakthrough gaming, a blend of something nostalgic in its old-fashioned graphics and choose-your-own-adventure gameplay with a deep narrative that drew in gamers to the point that many named it the Game of the Year (it made our top ten, and, in retrospect, arguably didn’t rank high enough). The team at Telltale have heard the cries of fans looking for the next installment of what we hope will be a creatively vital series for years to come. Breaking apart the standard structure of a game by giving players something that feels like an interactive television program, “The Walking Dead” games are among the must-buys on the PlayStation Network and reason alone to hold on to your PS3 at least until this season is over.
With great anticipation comes great expectations. So does season two of “The Walking Dead,” which opens with a (roughly) 90-minute episode called “All That Remains,” live up to the hype? Yes and no. This is still undeniably a must-play but like a season premiere of a great show it’s going to be easier to judge this experience when we see the payoff for what it sets up. This is prologue, returning us to a character we know and love in Clementine but also introducing to several new ones and setting different plot threads in motion. Again, “The Walking Dead” is about how the title refers to few remaining living after the undead apocalypse as much as the zombies. These are people who seem even more emotionally and mentally damaged than the more-optimistic survivors of season one. The world of season two is darker, more dangerous, and more brutal – believe it or not.
The problem with reviewing something like “All That Remains” is that so much of the success of these games comes from the way they unfold for you, the player. I wouldn’t dare spoil the storytelling here so I’ll keep it vague. As you surely know, even just from the images in this review, Clementine, the child hero from season one, is back. The game opens with her with two new guardians, Omid & Christa, as they come upon a gas station, where they use the restrooms to clean up. Of course, that doesn’t end well. Before you know it, Clem is back on her own, scavenging for food, before coming upon another group of survivors with whom she has to form a tenuous trust. There’s no other kind in this world.
As with season one, “All That Remains” features dozens of choices, some of them major and some of them minor, that will add up to make your experience with the game truly your own. One of the truly marvelous things about “TWD” is the unpredictability of the ripple effect of every decision you make. Sure, deciding whether or not to intervene when your travelling partner is in jeopardy is obviously a major decision but I love how often little dialogue choices that you are given can influence the overall fabric of the game. We’ve all seen the little pop-up that says things like “Nate will remember you said that” and gone, “Really? THAT was a big deal? I should have thought about it longer.”
And when one considers the true picture of “The Walking Dead” over both seasons and “400 Days,” its authorship becomes even more remarkable. Decisions you made over a year ago, presuming you didn’t delete your save data, will ripple into season two. And, presumably, the inevitable season three. The game will grow with you based on your history with it. Although, you should know, that if you didn’t play or even didn’t finish season one, the game will auto-choose the major decisions for you from it.
What’s new in “All That Remains”? Not much. The world feels darker, Clementine feels hardened by her experience in season one, and the gameplay is essentially the same – dialogue-heavy scenes that play like an interactive motion comic with the occasional outburst of action. The visuals once again look somewhat clunky at times – especially when you control Clementine’s movement – but the look of the game creates a mood more than shows off your HD TV.
Telltale Games is a forward-thinking company in the way they don’t merely present games that require hand-eye coordination or utilize the latest graphics engine. They tear gaming down to what so many of feel is lacking from the market in 2013 – narrative. Their games contain so much of what’s missing from the modern medium like mood, atmosphere, and emotion. How funny that a game about the undead feels more human than so much of its competition?