Here at Darkstation, we don’t wind up getting most of our review codes until after a game has come out, and my code for Walking Dead Episode 4 came a little later than usual. As a reviewer, it’s really best to try and avoid hearing other people’s opinions about a game as you’re reviewing it, because even subconsciously, it might wind up influencing your thoughts. It can be pretty difficult at times- I follow Gary Whitta, the lead writer of this episode, on Twitter, I listen to a couple of gaming podcasts, and I like to check out Nick’s reviews. Needless to say, some seeped through, and I was pretty sad to hear that a lot of people felt this was a step back after Episode 3. That had been the episode which finally won me over and convinced me that the game was worth continuing with, so I was pretty dismayed to hear that this episode wasn’t as good as what came before.
Those people who said that this episode just felt like filler, though? Those people are completely crazy.
After the fantastic Episode 3, all Episode 4 had to do was tell a decent story and move towards a good conclusion. As the penultimate chapter, it really needs to just set up the ending, so I’d have understood if nothing had happened in this episode and the point was instead to quietly set up the final episode.
Luckily, the team at Telltale decided to actually put in a very eventful story, with the characters barely having a chance to stand still as they venture around Savannah, Georgia for supplies to get a boat up and running to let them leave. Despite this episode containing its own discrete story, it does still add towards the characters and events, and it does in the end succeed at jazzing you up for the final installment.
The characters do advance very well, too. Kenny is now a broken man, and an early experience does a lot to really emphasize his mental state and how messed up he’s become. Ben, ever the useless one, is starting to fall apart with the guilt of being the one who caused everything to go wrong in the last episode. People start questioning Lee’s ability to actually take care of Clementine, and the poor girl is dying for a chance to explore Savannah for any trace of her parents.
There are also a lot of moments that really help you understand even what the newer characters are running through. The choices are also very impactful, making huge differences in the outcome of the episode- there’s actually a second outcome screen after the usual one, and the choices on it were very evenly spread across all possible outcomes, indicating a vast array of player preference over the choices.
I was also surprised to see that there was MORE gameplay in this episode, including some of the first-person sections and, probably more surprisingly, some adventure-game style puzzle solving. It’s actually pretty classic, what with valves being rotated in a specific way or doors needing to be opened to get around an obstacle. There were also some smart moments where the game had you performing a task multiple times, but each time you input your command, the game lingers on it and uses the camera motions in a way that greatly emphasizes the tension and poignancy of what’s going on. It’s a smart way to create a mood through interaction, which is something that the series has definitely needed in the past.
Every time there’s a new episode, there are also a new series of graphical hitches that come along with it. Kenny, for some odd reason, had a giant line that extended from his shoulder up the entire game. The world seems like it’s poorly stitched together, with weird white seams at the edges of the textures. It still looks good, but, as always, feels a little rushed.
I will also say that the characters are starting to look a little same-y. Some of the newer ones have a look to them like they’re just reused, somewhat changed versions of previous characters. Actually, since these episodes have to be rushed out pretty quickly, that’s probably EXACTLY what happened, and it was a little weird to see.
One of the biggest problems I’ve had with this series is that it’s more like a choose-your-own-adventure book than a video game. A lot of the interactive elements barely went past the depth of “flip to page __” outcomes, so while the story and characters were interesting, it seemed like there was a lot more that the player could do beyond making a choice and watching it play out.
This episode was very smart in the way that it used player input to create an emotional response and an atmosphere. It’s a big step forward for these types of games, which have tended to rely on passive storytelling and cutscenes. This, combined with a choice system full of decisions that are finally making me have to think about my actions more, show that the Walking Dead is finally living up to the promise of what it could have been.
It winds up being the technical problems that wind up hurting these by now because they go a long way to squander the game’s momentum and atmosphere. Having to replay areas because of the near-constant hitching is getting more bothersome as time goes by. I’m not sure if they’ve been going back and patching them, but after hearing how silky and nice the PC version is, I don’t think there’s any excuse to leave the consoles like they’re second-class citizens.
There are also a lot of clichéd moments in this one, especially the jump scares. They’re almost put there to emphasize how pointless the zombies are. They pop out, you punch them, they’re dead. I know that the point of these things is that it’s always the humans that are the threat and not the zombies, but those aren’t even filler or anything. They’re just wastes of time. So while the characters continue to develop smartly, and the story continues to move somewhere interesting, the glue holding parts of it together is the same glue that’s been used in previous products, with little appreciable difference.
Episode 3 of The Walking Dead finally put interesting characters into a plot that I was actually interested in.. After that, Episode 4 started creating a series of gameplay moments that not only influence the game, but are set up in such a way and smartly enough to influence how the player feels at that moment. While it would have been a better series if they’d had this in place from the beginning, the way that the series has picked up as it nears its conclusion is great, and has me waiting for the end excitedly.