As the credits rolled at the end of The Walking Dead, it was clear that Telltale Games had something special on their hands. Rewriting the rules of the adventure genre, The Walking Dead shifted the focus from slightly obtuse inventory puzzle solving to dramatic choices, zooming in on moments that - whether real or imagined - allowed players the opportunity to shape their own story. Lee’s struggle to survive, amplified by the words “Clementine will remember that,” drew the majority of players into a world covered in the undead and ravaged by the inhumanity of humanity.
While Lee was the player’s initial conduit into Telltale’s world, Clementine was undoubtedly the star. Our decisions directly affected her, and that added weight and amplified every choice. While Season 2 placed us in control of Clem, a move I consider a misstep in the series, we nonetheless continued to see her grow and change in the face of the world’s endless horrors and disappointments. Season 3 found her again as a side character, an adult trapped in a body just starting to go through puberty, continuing to learn and grow, though this time with a goal all her own. When we last left her, she was headed out into the night to find AJ, the young child she’s been raising nearly on her own since the end of Season 2, and who was taken away during the events preceding Season 3.
Billed as The Final Season, Season 4 Episode 1, titled Done Running, opens with Clem having accomplished her goal. AJ is no more than four or five, and their relationship clearly calls back to Clementine’s time with Lee. Sometime near the start, the words “AJ is always watching” appear in the upper left of the screen, reminding you that your decisions will help to shape his character, in the same way you shaped Clem’s. There are some clear differences between the two, though. Where Clementine was a child forced into a horrible situation, AJ was born into one, and it shows through his reactions to both people and situations. He carries his own revolver, casually swears when situations get out of hand, and knows to always be on the lookout for monsters. Clem is always reminding him of the lessons that their harsh world teaches; always be vigilant, always know where your exit is, and always aim for the head.
Staying away from spoilers, I found myself multiple times weighing the need to make sure he was prepared against trying to let him just be a kid, to instill some sense of hope that he might not always have to be on high alert. And yet, that’s just not the world he lives in, and The Walking Dead, time and time again, shows us that the very thing that we need to hold on to, our humanity, is the thing that over and over again places us in danger. It’s also extremely sad that any happy moments that are found have their colors dulled by the grey spectre of inevitability. Nothing good lasts in The Walking Dead, and these four seasons have done nothing but re-enforce that knowledge.
The explorations into humanity are also what The Walking Dead does best, and I think The Final Season does possibly the best job with this aspect since Lee and Season 1. Because she can’t remain alone, Clementine finds herself among a new group, one comprised entirely of kids, both around her age and a little younger. Seeing Clem among peers is amazing, and in contrast to player’s being in control of her through Season 2, these interactions served to increase immersion. While these kids have survived by depending on each other, it’s clear from the get-go that none of them have seen or been through the amount of pure insanity that has forged Clementine.
Telltale does a great job of letting both Clementine and the player reach this realization naturally, as there is a bunch of quiet time in The Final Season’s first episode. One of the best scenes happens over a card game after a less than satisfying dinner, where the winner of each hand gets to ask a question to the other members of the group. As the three other players already know each other, their questions are directed to Clem, and it’s up to the player to determine just how honest you want her to be with her answers. These quiet moments add extra weight to the hard decisions which invariably come down the pipe, and it’s clear that Telltale has pulled out all the stops for this one. The main conflict, which slowly begins to reveal itself throughout the episode, comes to a head in a moment that turns The Walking Dead into a straight horror movie.
The quiet moments also serve to highlight just how old the Telltale Engine is. The Final Season serves not only as an end to Clementine’s story, but the swan song of Telltale’s game engine, and it honestly can’t come soon enough. Taking some pages from the more action-oriented scenes of their Minecraft series, the action in The Final Season chugs under the weight of what they are trying to do. The camera sits at an angle behind Clem, invoking a look close to Resident Evil 4, and while movement is controlled with the keyboard, the camera is mapped to the mouse, allowing for swings in vision that the engine just can’t handle without some stuttering and occasional straight up freezing.
The combat routines also end up being incredibly repetitive, both in action and animation. Clem has two or three zombie kill animations, and you end up seeing the main two every single time you come up against a group of two zombies. Plus, should you mess up the timing of the initial stun, Clem’s familiar kick to the leg that she learned in Season 2 from Jane, which proves extremely easy given the stuttery quality of the combat, you see the same death animation and are forced to start that particular section again. I kind of admire that Telltale is still trying to push what they are able to do with tech that has clearly aged out of types of stories they want to tell, but it has finally reached the point that it is actively taking away from my enjoyment.
As a first episode, Done Running managed to hook me in with its quiet, character moments, allowing for a closer connection to a character I have watched grow from a child into a young woman. I know there’s a lot left to come, but if these moments are any indication of where this season is headed, I am quite sure that the combination of Clem and AJ will have me breaking down in a flood of tears at the end. While the action detracts from the overall experience, I can’t help but look forward to the end, and the hope, that maybe, there is a happy ending inside the world of The Walking Dead.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!