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Beta’d Review: THE WALKING DEAD SEASON TWO: EPISODE 2 – A HOUSE DIVIDED

NoteWhile I will endeavor not to spoil anything new in Episode 2 – A House Divided, I will likely have to talk about some of the events of Episode 1, so if you haven’t played yet, beware — here, there be spoilers.

I don’t know what sort of unholy pact with the devil Telltale made, but they don’t seem to know the meaning of the word “sophomore slump”. Across the board, their second episodes have been outstanding exercises in interactive storytelling, and the latest installment of The Walking Dead, which I must disclose is one of my favorite titles in recent memory, carries on this tradition of greatness, offering up one of the most nerve-wracking, tense emotional high-wire acts yet. Some decried Episode 1 – All That Remains as not being up to par with the rest of the series and being a slow start to the new season. While their points aren’t entirely without merit, Episode 1 was intended to reacquaint you with the unforgiving, brutal nature of Robert Kirkman’s world and to get you accustomed to the unique dangers that Clementine faces compared to Lee Everett. That being said, Episode 2 – A House Divided takes off its kid gloves and forces you to make some of the toughest choices yet.

Previously on The Walking Dead, we picked up many months after the heartwrenching finale of Season One, stepping into Clementine’s considerably smaller shoes and trying to bear in mind the lessons taught to us by the late Lee Everett. Reunited with, then subsequently separated from, Omid and Christa, Clementine found herself the victim of a vicious dog bite and the even more dangerous specter of suspicion raised by her saviors-turned captors, a group of survivors holed up in a house deep within the woods. Quarantined and cornered, Clementine proved herself not to be an immediate threat to the group, but still there were those who doubted her loyalties, wondering if she was an agent of a mysterious man named Carver who is evidently tracking their whereabouts.

Some fans blasted Episode 1 for not giving us enough interaction and character development with the new group of survivors, which includes a couple of good ol’ boys (one of them, Luke, is voiced by Friday Night Lights alum Scott Porter), a pregnant woman, her husband, a doctor and his guileless teenage daughter amongst others. Telltale has heard your complaints loud and clear; while last time was all about table-setting for the adventure to come, A House Divided offers up a full-course meal of character development, offering Clementine a chance to move beyond interacting with mere archetypes and getting to know fully realized people. These new survivors have lives of their own, and you’ll find yourself wanting to ask just one more question so you can find out who they really, truly are.

As you probe, prod, and poke at those around you, they follow suit and ask Clementine about her past, offering up new morsels of information and opportunities to relive some of the horrors which she has endured. For better or for worse, this episode is where choices made in Season One and the 400 Days DLC begin to affect the plot in tangible, meaningful ways. Remember some of the choices you made all the way back in Season One? You may not, but the game sure does. Yes, there’s still a linear progression upon which the game must progress, but it’s so masterfully camouflaged beneath layers of conversation and ambiance that you won’t notice.

Whether or not it’s an illusion aside, Telltale’s strongest suit is in giving players a true sense of agency over how their story progresses. With so many potential versions of Clementine out there, you begin to feel a sense of responsibility for her, and you’ll weigh her words carefully, considering the potential impact and consequences that come along with them. Do you tell people about the tragedies in your past in an attempt to endear them to you? Do you play things close to the vest? Should you be truthful? Should you lie? Tread carefully because this time lives — lives plural — seriously depend on it.

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While the tense, sprawling conversation options are a highlight of the episode, there’s plenty of action sequences to be had, some of which will leave you breathless and your heart beating faster than a hummingbird on methamphetamines. As I mentioned in my review of All That Remains, Telltale has taken to heart the lessons it learned from Season One  and The Wolf Among Us, crafting more fluid, dynamic action sequences that test your reflexes just enough to offer a challenge without ruining the cinematic tension the game creates.  Like Christa sawing Lee’s arm off in Season One or Clementine suturing her gaping arm wound in All That Remains, there are some moments in this episode that will make intimate acquaintances of your heart and your throat. When the two elements, the action and the introspection, work in concert, the game transcends its source material and becomes a uniquely engaging experience that simply demands to be played.

As you may recall, the survivors were all immensely suspicious of you in Episode 1, because they’re on the run from a mysterious man named Carver. Suffice it to say, you’ll learn a great deal more about this imposing figure as Episode 2 plays out, as well as his relationship to your new companions. Is he good? Is he evil? Are your friends the people they purport themselves to be? I won’t spoil anything here, but when Episode 2 reaches its spectacular conclusion, it’s like a Rube Goldberg device of misfortune, a cavalcade of catastrophes with multiple conclusions that will leave you wondering, “Holy shit, did I make the right call?” Playing in the pitch black of my apartment and wearing headphones at 2 in the morning, I had to take a good fifteen minutes to myself to calm down and let the gravity of what just happened sink in. One thing is for sure, Telltale isn’t pulling any punches.

Initially, I was going to play A House Divided on my desktop PC, which I built essentially for the exclusive purpose of gaming, but foolishly I didn’t realize that your save files don’t transfer from Mac to PC even if they’re technically connected through the same Steam account and Steam Cloud service. Thus, I wound up playing on my MacBook Pro, which ran the game very smoothly with no noticeable hiccups or stutters in framerate. In addition to the crisp, lush graphics, the game’s sound design is masterful, balancing well-timed musical stabs with harrowing creaks and moans that will keep you on pins and needles even when it’s absolutely silent. Sometimes, it’s nice to just take a moment and soak in the vividly designed world the team at Telltale has created. You can almost smell the putrid mixture of rotting flesh and cool mountain air. Almost.

Gamers on the go, take note: this is one of my absolute favorite games to play on long flights, because it puts you in a weird, claustrophobic zone and you’ll likely wind up having other passengers watching your screen intently because it’s so much more compelling than watching yet another episode of Storage Wars. (Seriously, why is that always being shown on flights?) That being said, the game is now clearly designed for those playing with a gamepad. If you’re playing without a USB mouse or a gamepad as I was, you may stumble a few times when you’re trying to frantically grab a nearby object or wind up looking at it multiple times rather than picking it up instead.

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Final Thoughts

Having shaken off any lingering cobwebs from pushing out The Wolf Among Us and All That Remains in such a short window, A House Divided is some of Telltale’s finest work to date, offering up an endlessly replayable, emotionally gripping, and wholly compelling piece of interactive storytelling for the bargain basement price of $4.99. Cancel your plans, close the curtains, and boot up one of the finest releases of the spring season. I, for one, cannot wait to hit the Rewind button and have my heartstrings tied into knots all over again.

Highly recommended.

The Walking Dead Season Two: Episode 2 – A House Divided is out now for PC, Mac, and PS3, and coming to other consoles later this week.

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