It's taken four episodes, but this second season of Telltale Games' hugely acclaimed The Walking Dead series appears to have finally hit its stride. Although there were hints of inspiration, Season Two had the slight hint of becoming a damp squib compared to its majestic older sibling. So what has changed?
Circumstance. Circumstance, momentum and careful set-up. Amid The Ruins is in effect the second part to In Harm's Way. This continuation allows the dramatic tension and momentum of the previous episode to spill into this one. It works a treat. The narrative is breathless; decisions are forced on you quickly and harshly. You bluster through, left without time to even consider your choice before another is thrust upon you. Instead, the player is left to make gut decisions rather than considered, consistent actions. The result does not always cast the player in the finest of light.
Perhaps some of the criticism of previous episodes has started to sink in, or the writers were becoming as aware of potential stagnation as some critics. Gone are the dangerously repetitious 'decision' moments where you choose between characters; gone too are the 'calm before the storm' scenarios, when any character who strikes up a serious conversation is sure to be eaten. Amid the Ruins dispels these tropes, and The Walking Dead is all the better for it.
This does not mean that Amid the Ruins is as subtle as it quite believes. The theme of this episode is brotherhood and infighting; in effect, the dangers of Civil War between elements who would otherwise do anything to protect each other. An admirable context, but one bludgeoned into submission by the painfully blunt usage of American Civil War material and locations.
It's an admirable and understandable homage, but one forced beyond breaking point. There are only so many times you can have a character talking in-front of a statue of one man carrying another before you have to shout 'I get it!' It's symbolism painting-by-numbers; fill it in and you get the theme.
Nonetheless, Amid the Ruins is a significant step-forward for this season. Carefully placed foundations start to come together, and previous decisions become horribly exposed. After the isolation of In Harm's Way, the world suddenly looks huge and hostile, without shelter or hope. This has always been The Walking Dead's strong-point in all of its incarnations; it embraces the possibility that things can always get worse, and they generally do. Capable individual or resourceful team, all will soon be found out. As Jane says, 'sooner or later, your luck will run out.' There is a moment of hope, the light that brightens any life; that of a new born. However, so fleeting is this joy that the sudden change of fortune is all the more jarring.
Graphically, Amid the Ruins is a beautiful game superbly realised. The style, already striking, is becoming more nuanced. The Civil War Memorial setting, despite bringing with it the above problems, is striking, with superb environmental details. Characters are even more expressive (somehow), and the voice-acting is field-leading as always. Although The Walking Dead is now an established series with a third season on the way, the production levels are absolutely impeccable; they just never drop the ball.
Amid the Ruins, perhaps later than anticipated for this season, finally brings The Walking Dead to the peak of its own exceptional high-standards. Easily the best episode of this season, Amid the Ruins is arguably one of the best of the whole series. Fun, rollicking, emotional and horrifying, Amid the Ruins reinforces exactly why so many gamers love this series.
This review is based on a digital copy of The Walking Dead: Amid the Ruins for the PC, provided by the publisher.