It is fair to describe the first season of Telltale's The Walking Dead as the huge surprise of last year's gaming canon. Arresting, emotional, gripping and exciting for most of its five episode run, it surpassed every expectation placed upon it. Although far from perfect and prone to accusations (justified to a point) of being merely an interactive video rather than a fully fledged game, its strong, involving narrative coupled with the brutality of Robert Kirkman's universe meant most were swept away by its brilliance. All That Remains, or Season Two: Episode One, or even Episode Six depending on how you wish to look at it (either way, it is brimmed with colons) has now appeared above the parapet; can it improve upon the original, or has it lost its edge?
After the climactic events of No Time Left, and the supportive instalment 400 Days, the focus is now on Clementine, ostracised from her protector Lee and left to survive alone in what remains of the world. The shift from a capable, physically imposing and charismatic 'traditional leader' character in Lee to the young and vulnerable Clementine drastically alters how the game world is seen.
However, Clementine has grown with experience, and although still very youthful she is wily and clever, knowing when to play defenceless and how to get what she needs to survive. As ever, the emphasis is on survival. Left without a group, this is a lonelier, more individualistic world; without anyone to trust, Clementine can only rely on herself. This itself illuminates some harsh moral dilemmas: is it fair to manipulate an impressionable, naive young girl to do your bidding for you, at the behest of her father? Is it even wise to leave a girl naïve in this sort of world?
As in the first season, the moral dynamics and intrinsic storyline are terrific, although some of the concerns which started to become apparent towards the end of the season are now becoming endemic. The pacing of the script is becoming too obvious, too predictable. Although this is probably due to the episodic nature, Telltale must by now be aware their pacing is becoming trope-like. Two characters go off with Clementine for a walk? One will die, and you must choose which to save. Quiet area looking for an object? Something will jump out. Dinner time? More like crisis time. I admire the series and script-writing hugely, but more variation is needed. Episode Three, Long Road Ahead, was the best of season one because it broke this mould; for season two to really step-up, it must break this peg-hole framework quickly.
The high production values of the first season are continued in the second. All That Remains' score is superb, while the voice-acting once again is some of the best in the business. Clementine is particularly convincing. Her emergence from the shadow of Lee's protection is expressed in a stronger, more authoritarian tone. Although we know Clementine to be tough as boots, her new compatriots see a little girl lost, as expressed in the different reactions to when she is there and when they talk between themselves. This may just be good acting, but it is a rare thing in gaming which must be celebrated when done well.
The Walking Dead's trademark graphical style is still apparent and as absorbing as ever, and appears to have been improved for this season. This may just be my eye, but the textures seem clearer and animations better. Either way, it is still a wonderfully animated, characterful feast for the eyes and a major factor in the series' success. Whether they are worth commenting on after this point except for a major change in environment is debatable, but such is the problem of reviewing episodic content.
All That Remains is thus a continuation rather than a revolution or even evolution. The gameplay is much the same and the engine appears minimally changed. The difference here, as one might expect, is the change of character and therefore tone. Except for Clementine and a few others, the slate has been wiped clean (or mercilessly killed). We now have an experienced Clementine, young yet hardened, lonely in a direction-less world interacting with a new set of characters to trust and mistrust. This was always The Walking Dead's appeal - humans in in-human situations.
As great as the characters are, as absorbing as the choices and moral directions continue to be, the series is in danger of becoming formulaic. Once this happens, it will become prosaic and its audience will become apathetic. Without caring for the characters - wishing some lived and others died, questioning our own moral compass - this series is nothing special. It's still good, but Telltale have to arrest the slide quickly to avoid losing the hideous momentum of the first season.
This review is based on a digital copy of The Walking Dead Season Two: Episode One - All That Remains for the PC, provided by the publisher.