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Beta’d Review: THE WALKING DEAD: SEASON TWO – ALL THAT REMAINS

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by on December 17, 2013

Note: while I will endeavor to avoid spoiling major events and reveals of Season 2, I will likely be discussing elements from Season 1 and 400 Days, so please bear that in mind, dear reader.

When I first encountered The Walking Dead: Season One, Telltale’s brilliant little series of choice and consequence, I was a bit late to the party. By the time I discovered the game, all five episodes were out, and I tore through them with a quickness. Then, much like when I had caught up with the first part Breaking Bad‘s final season, I found myself faced with the prospect of having to go cold turkey, sweating the addiction out of my system for nearly a year. Telltale’s phenomenal Fables-inspired The Wolf Among Us was my methadone, but nothing compares to the sweet rush of plunging back into the bleak, dangerous apocalyptica of The Walking Dead, and, to stick with this forced metaphor, Season Two is the Blue Sky of adventure games and a worthy successor.

The grand question of The Walking Dead has always been one of how do we live after the dead come back to life. Zombies are inherently horrifying, but the slow agonizing death of a walker bite pales in comparison to the truly awful deeds of which only mankind is capable. In Season One, we stepped into the shoes of convicted murderer Lee Everett who, in addition to having to escape zombie hordes, had to contend with dairy farmers with a taste for human flesh, roving bandits hellbent on stealing their supplies, and make snap judgment decisions that would save lives and cost others. All the while, Lee had to take care of Clementine, a young girl who he found trapped in her treehouse after her babysitter returned from beyond the pale.

Clementine was the moral compass of Season One. Whenever I found myself fretting over what to do, I reminded myself that at the end of the day, the only thing that mattered was that Clementine and I made it out alive, that she emerged unscathed from this charnel house of horrors and learned how to survive in this world gone mad. She is precariously perched on a moral tightrope and even the slightest twinge could send her hurtling down the wrong path. Much like many players of The Last of Us felt a special connection with Ellie this year, Clementine was near and dear to my heart, someone who you desperately want to protect.

And as the tragic final moments of Season One‘s Episode 5 made apparent, we won’t be playing as Lee anymore. Rather, we are put in control of Clementine, a bold move on Telltale’s part, especially after you spent the whole previous season interacting with her, getting to know her, and acting as a surrogate father. Do you try to stay “in character” and keep her in line with how she acted in the previous season? Do you put yourself in her shoes? Do you just say, “Fuck it”, and make her a little badass with a mean streak a mile wide? It’s your call. Personally, I raised Clementine to be a shrewd operator, one who knows when to kill them with kindness and when to tell them to take a long walk off a pier.

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Lessons learned in the first season are just as prescient in Season Two – much like Mass Effect, your save files and major choices carry over. Trust no one, keep your hair short, and don’t get too close to anyone. The prologue reminds us of this all too well as it shows how Clementine has grown. She’s still young and fragile, but there’s a hardness to her. She wields her gun like a pro and knows to sweep the perimeter for lurkers before plopping down and setting up shop. Every time you click the mouse, some new horror or heartbreak could await, and it makes for supremely compelling gameplay with some devastating twists and turns.

Whereas I played Season One on my pre-Retina display MacBook Pro, I played through a Season Two build that was running off of a PC laptop with a wireless Xbox 360 controller in a darkened studio in LA’s Glassell Park, projected up on a giant screen. So, in other words, ideal circumstances for having the daylights scared out of me and my heart ripped out through my throat. I still prefer using a keyboard and mouse compared to the controller, but the controls were smooth and responsive the entire time, whether I was frantically fleeing a walker or determining whether to lie about my past or tell the truth.

Graphically, the game looks cleaner and more vibrant than Season One. Once again, the game looks to Charlie Adlard’s comic book artwork for inspiration, creating a vivid, tremendously unnerving atmosphere where danger lurks around every corner. If the leap in graphical quality between Season One and The Wolf Among Us wasn’t immediately evident, series diehards will note how much crisper and cleaner the game looks without sacrificing any of the game’s gritty, sometimes dreary palette.

Once again, the sound design is outstanding with all manner of atmospheric effects and ambient noise coalescing to create a constant sense of dread and unease. Even when you feel like you’re safe, the low moans of nearby walkers or the wind whipping through the woods is enough to make the hairs on your neck stand on end. Even better, though, is the voice acting, which stands out as some of the best of the year. Between the subtle facial animations and deft voice work, Melissa Hutchinson’s Clementine feels like a living, breathing person, and given that we’ve already had the benefit of hanging out with her for a season, she is emotionally accessible in a way other protagonists aren’t.

Eagle-eared players may have detected a familiar voice behind new addition Luke — it’s Scott Porter (Friday Night LightsHart of Dixie) flexing his V/O muscle and adding yet another well deserved merit badge to his geek card. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose (hope in the face of turning into a flesh-eating monster).

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Gameplay-wise, Telltale offers up more of the same: a combination of environmental exploration, puzzle-solving, adrenaline-pumping quick time sequences, and conversational decision-making that has a lasting impact on the overarching narrative and how other characters view you. Clearly Telltale has learned what players enjoyed from The Wolf Among Us, like the opening fight sequence between Bigby and the Woodsman, because there are several more reflex-intensive moments of action that make the quick time events more palatable. Even the term “quick time event” is anathema to some players, but with The Walking Dead they make for some really heart-racing moments. Some casual players may be turned off by this addition, but honestly if you can play Temple Run, you can make it through these sequences unscathed.

Like any first episode, it’s a lot of table-setting and reorienting the player to the rich, terrifying world that Telltale has carved out, but All That Remains is a masterwork for fans of the series. Clementine is no longer under Lee’s protective aegis; she is on her own in a bold, new world with Playing as Clementine feels like an oddly natural progression and the urge to protect her is just as strong as ever, especially during some of the intense gotcha moments and white knuckle quick time events.

While Clementine’s future may seem unclear – and that has been a point of derision for some – I would argue that the lack of clarity is exactly the point All That Remains is trying to make. Clementine is no longer under Lee’s protective aegis; she is on her own in a bold, new world and it is up to us, as the player, to help determine what kind of woman she’ll become in Lee’s absence. It’s difficult to judge “All That Remains” without considering that it’s part of a whole, but for my money, it’s a home run. Lightning, meet bottle — again.

The Walking Dead: Season 2, Episode 1 – “All That Remains” is available now on PC and Mac (via Steam) and PS3. It comes to iOS and Xbox 360 later this week.

Have you played “All That Remains”? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below or tell me on Twitter.