A note before we start: this is a review of the second episode in a series of five. As such, it will run a little short compared to other reviews on the site. If you are looking for a more broad overview of the game's look and feel, please check out my episode one review, then meet me back here.
Telltale Games has a long history with releasing games as if they were seasons of television. This approach has worked out well for them, but the combination of a long wait-time between episodes (one or two months, as opposed to one week for TV), and generally uneven quality throughout the seasons (again, think TV), kept me from playing an entire season of a Telltale game.
I was worried that this very thing would happen with the Walking Dead. The first episode grabbed me so profoundly, I was afraid that Telltale's take on zombie horror would start with a bang and end with a fizzle. After my marathon 3-hour session with "Starving for Help", which had me tweetingprofanitiesconstantly, I am happy to say that Telltale has not lost their way yet.
In fact, "Starving for Help" is the best episode of any game across Telltale's vast collection of intellectual property to date. A masterfully orchestrated piece of episodic gaming that I will remember a long time from now.
The gameplay generally remains unchanged from episode 1. Playing as Lee, a reluctant leader during the zombie apocalypse, you will reason with the other survivors, fight off zombies, and labor over some really tough decisions.
In my review of episode 1, I lamented that there was a lack of puzzle solving or brain-teasers in what appeared to be an adventure game. Episode 2 changes this. Not by adding in any puzzles, but by incorporating so many memorable setpieces that it doesn't feel like a traditional adventure game anymore.
It is true that episode 2 is just as linear, if not more so, than the first episode. But with a story this engrossing, I never found time to care. The Walking Dead does not require a lot of skillful button pressing or careful timing, but I don't find that to be a bad thing. Rather, the simple controls and action sequences allow you to be completely immersed in the narrative, without ever stopping to be briefed on a new gameplay mechanic.
After fumbling with my keyboard last week in Quantum Conundrum, I can't tell you how satisfying it was to play a game where I could just focus on what was happening in front of me.
Episode 2 retains the same comic book feel and vibrant, emotive characters that really made the first episode pop in terms of aesthetics. But, with most of the episode taking place on a farm, the bland textures from episode 1's city environment are nowhere to be found.
The character animations and facial expressions continue to be the MVP in the visuals department, though. There are a lot of gut-wrenching things that happen in three short hours, and the character's faces show it. This, combined with voice actors who appear to be more comfortable in their roles, really sells the drama of the situation.
I was able to finish the first episode of The Walking Dead in two, one and a half hour play sessions. Not so with episode 2. I had to finish. Immediately.
In "Starving for Help", Telltale games weaves a suspenseful tale with meaningful choices that test how far you would go to save the last shred of humanity during the zombie apocalypse. The first five minutes had a choice that made my stomach turn in knots. I was actually nauseous because of what was happening on-screen.
As if that wasn't enough, the transition between the second and third act of the story provides a wicked one-two punch of important character deaths and a sickening plot twist. That's what was responsible for the last two tweets I linked in the overview.
The pacing reminded me of the best thriller novels, movies, or television episodes. The first and second act of the story provide a few outstanding action sequences interspersed with a little bit of downtime to talk to the other characters. But once you get to the bottom of the mystery around hour three, the game does not slow down until you get to the chilling conclusion.
The Walking Dead Episode 2 is a perfect, three-hour nugget of story-driven adventure gaming. The immediacy of the gameplay and writing make it easy to boot up the game and instantly become engrossed in a world where nothing is sacred, and anything can happen at any moment. No tutorials needed.
It's not technically the most amazing looking game. It is not the most difficult game you will play this year, either. Or the longest. But it is the most engrossing, white-knuckle adventure game experience I have had in years.
If you have ever read the comic books, seen the AMC television show, or haveenjoyed any of Telltale's other games, this is a mandatory purchase.
Note: Those of you who have played through the episode can check out the choices I made here: MASSIVE SPOILERS.