The End of the Dead.
As one popularly quoted pessimist once said, all good things must come to an end. For the Walking Dead video game, like its sister comics, this is only partly true. Although No Time Left brings to an end the first series, the second series has already been confirmed for a 2013, meaning that those who enjoy heart-tugging Georgian zombie dodging won't have too long to wait until all (or some, or none) of your favourite characters return.
Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though; the dust has yet to settle on No Time Left. Assuming that you, dear reader, have played the other episodes (and if you haven't, you really should) then by this point in the series your gameplay experience may be very, very different to mine, with an entirely different set of characters and circumstances than have accompanied my Lee on the journey. No Time Left is not the best of the series - that title belongs to the scintillating Episode 3: Long Road Ahead - but neither is it the worst (Episode 4: Around Every Corner takes that honour). As such, it stands as a suitably chaotic ending to one of this year's stand out games (or series), tying enough knots to satisfy the immediate story but leaving enough strings dangling to leave prospective players gagging for the second series.
Do I have to say spoiler alert?
The problem for No Time Left, really, is that any narrative suspense within this episode was already dealt with by events at the end of Around Every Corner. Due to the unremittingly grim rules, values and harshness of Robert Kirkman's world, there could only ever be one suitable conclusion to this series. Yep. It's that. But you already knew that, didn't you? How could that not be the conclusion after everything that has been said, done and wept over. Anything else would be entirely illogical considering the context and lore, and Kirkman's Walking Dead is nothing if not logical.
This is part of a worrying trend that started to emerge in Long Road Ahead but is now firmly rooted within the series - predictability. The problem of creating such a well-paced, coherent narrative is that quickly the situations almost start to repeat themselves through the pacing of the situations, meaning that it soon becomes easy to predict potential danger and who may be the victim. If a character pours their heart out, it is likely they will be pouring their abdomen out in the next scene. Realistically, it is a difficult narrative problem to avoid in gaming, especially one with layered and varied scenes such as the Walking Dead, and especially one to avoid in horror, where repetition and expectation provide much of the thrills. It's not an annoyance per se, more an unfortunate by-product of a game that requires scrutinisation to the point of over-familiarity.
To Telltale's credit, the more desperate nature of the fellowship's survival necessitated the increased turn of pace that threatened to tip the cart in Around Every Corner has been re-tuned for rapid decision making rather than poorly implemented action scenes. Quick-fire decisions fits far more neatly within the Walking Dead's pondering structure than the action scenes ever did, and it is interesting to see how lessons have been learnt so quickly. This added narrative pace comes at the cost of the characterisation of the survivors, and while it is true that some have had four episodes worth of fleshing out, it is still disappointing that, when mercilessly disposed of, we had not learnt more about them up to that point.
Gameplay wise, the core concept remains the same; talk to your companions, search for object/way out, escape, zombies, repeat. However, that is not to say that it is anything other than utterly thrilling and full of intrigue. Don't be surprised if you finish this in one go. The 'do-everything' control still involves the player brilliantly, even if the original allure has worn off slightly. Shooting has been changed once again, this time involving hitting cursors by the target rather than manually aiming. This fits more snugly into the rest of the game, even if it is rarely used. Again, however, too much emphasis has been put on QTEs to force through action scenes rather than more inventive or hands-on ways like the rest of the game. It's not 2004 any more, get over them; once is involving, twice acceptable – the fifteenth in this episode alone, let alone the whole series, borders on the numbing. If anything, the QTEs make the game a bit too easy, resulting in the impression that the game itself is second to the narrative structure. This may be the case, but it has been better disguised in the previous entries.
For a game that relies so much on narrative, the Walking Dead's dialogue has always been exceptionally acted by a talented and convincing cast. After five episodes worth of gaming, it is clear that the acting and speech here is some of the best you will ever find in a game; it really is one of this year's high watermarks, a standard set for all other studios to reach. The graphic novel-esque style, as always, lends a surreal nature to proceedings; like Maus or Waltz With Bashir, the cartoon-esque nature makes the startling events all the starker, more real and shocking than if they had been photo-realistic.
And here is the crunch: the Walking Dead, as a collective series, is a magnificent achievement and easily one of the most enjoyable games of the year. No Time Left cannot just be judged on the standards of the series though, but as an isolated experience in itself. This is difficult. Unlike the first, or even the second episode, No Time Left is shaped entirely by your decisions made, characters saved or left to the horde, and is thus very, very difficult to take on its own account. Focus is spent tying strands (or killing them off) rather than expanding the story. Although this is understandable, it does mean No Time Left is less satisfactory than some of the others. In this instance it is more a victim of circumstance; it wishes to close the story, but cannot due to the subsequent series, resulting in a more formulaic conclusion than perhaps one had hoped from such a daring script.
What is left is a half-house, an episode that brings together the most recognisable aspects of the series but without using them in exemplary situations. Is it gripping? Yes. Horrifying? Yes. Shocking? No, but it is hard to be shocked after all that has gone before. But perhaps that saturation of horror, the extraordinary becoming ordinary, the shocking becoming everyday life is the lesson of the piece. No Time Left is ordinary within the context of the Walking Dead series, but within the greater gaming sphere it is part of an extraordinary experience and forms one fifth of arguably the best game this year.
This review is based on an Xbox Live Arcade version of The Walking Dead: Episode 5 - No Time Left, purchased by the reviewer. No Time Left is also available on the Playstation Network and PC.