There’s a curious sense of ennui surrounding the Walking Dead: Season 2. It’s a peculiar case given how sequel-happy gamers usually are, but the relative lack of fanfare around the follow up to 2012’s Game Of The Year is palpable. Perhaps it’s the fact that even entering that world again feels like setting yourself up for an ordeal, such was the intensity (and completeness) of the first season. Can anyone really fact that again?
Or maybe it’s the fact that the core writing duo behind most of the first season’s finest moments, Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman, have left Telltale to start new studio Campo Santo. Can this world be trusted in the hands of others?
Let’s answer that question straight away, then. Yes. All That Remains, the first episode of a new five-part season, stands comfortably with any of its predecessors; combining world-class writing and dialogue with stump-gnawing tension and compelling (if not exactly technical) action. More of the same it may be, but when the same is this good, that’s hardly a problem. You now play as Clementine, for reasons that will be very well known to those who finished the first season. After a brief introductory sequence involving a couple of recognisable faces, the story moves forward 16 months and a slightly older, definitely wiser Clem finds herself alone and in desperate need of the type of company that still has all its skin.
Interacting with the world is largely identical to the first season. You can move around confined environments and interact with specific props and characters, using either the mouse or both sticks on a controller. Far more interesting, of course, is what happens during those interactions. Telltale’s engine is context-sensitive, awarding what’s on screen far more gravity than your own dexterity with a controller.
Discussing a Walking Dead epsidoe without divulging the story is pretty tricky, as so much of the pleasure of these games comes from the shock of not knowing what’s coming next. Still, an early scene with a dog is an instant-winner; mixing basic environmental puzzling with choice and consequence in a way that enhances your own understanding of Clementine, the situation she’s in, and the urgency of what you need to do to survive.
The fact Telltale makes you not only care for a protagonist, but actively stress about her wellbeing, is masterful. Remember there are no traditional videogame crutches here – no health bars, no permadeath – so the tension comes purely from the writing and direction. Yet you still feel like you’re in control, that it’s you directing the story rather than the other way around.
There are some people who enjoy picking holes in these games, finding the joins or the scenes that would play out regardless of your input. All those people are doing, though, is spoiling it for themselves. This is a game to be played on instinct; a world of reactions. Your Clementine might walk the same path as someone else’s, but she’ll be a different girl at the end of it. And we really should talk about Clementine. A brilliantly written character by the end of the first season, and now a masterfully-written one. Her dialogue choices are so skilfully drawn; retaining a sense of fragility and fear, but absolutely understanding that she is no ordinary little girl. She’s seen way too much for that.
Given the relative lack of interesting or cleverly-drawn female protagonists in games, Clementine instantly stands out and even over the course of a single two-hour episode proves a beguiling and fierce lead, more than capable of carrying the game. Some may have baulked that Season 2 didn’t entirely transpose the story to a new set of characters, but it’s now easy to see why Telltale stuck with its girl. She’s special.
It’s not a perfect episode. A later section that sees you moving around a house is hampered by a lack of choice and some very obvious invisible walls which don’t do much for your suspension of disbelief. One particularly gruesome scene feels a little overly nasty, too. That being said, much like the first season, this episode earns its shocks and squeals through prominent foreshadowing and careful, diligent scripting. Compare it to the TV series, which seems hellbent on putting horrendous scenes in front of you just with no narrative justification whatsoever, and it’s not hard to see which version of this world is superior.
And talking of superior versions, once again the PC reins supreme. The stuttering and freezing issues that have always plagued the console versions are entirely absent from the Steam game, and the game looks gorgeous at a crisp 1080p – its expressive faces and soft colours doing wonders to mask a presumably modest budget. What more can be said? The benchmark narrative game of the last generation has come back just as strong and just as skilfully as before. You should already be playing it.