Before we get into this review, let’s cover a few crucial points that will better help you understand my feelings on the second episode of Telltale Games’ adventure game adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s excellent, dark, zombie comic book series. First, I’ve been a huge fan of Kirkman’s series since its debut. I own every single issue of the book in the fancy hardback trade collections, I’ve seen every episode of the TV series (despite it currently ranking as the worst version of Kirkman’s undead-ravaged universe), and at this year’s E3, when asked if there was anything at the show that I would absolutely hate to miss my only answer was, “Telltale’s Walking Dead game.” In short, I’m a massive fan of the series and having been initially exposed to The Walking Dead via Kirkman’s comics, I’m very particular about how any bit of media bearing the name should be constructed.
Second, I utterly adored the first episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead. Like Kirkman’s comics it was superficially a game about the undead rising from their graves to menace the living, but in truth it was an examination of how a small, lonely group of survivors deals with the zombie apocalypse and their imminent deaths at the clawing, bony hands of revivified cadavers. The aesthetics and sound of that initial episode were spot on, with the former designed to impressively mimic the artwork of the original comic book source material drawn by artists Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard.
Even more impressive however, was the way that Telltale designed a relatively traditional adventure game that palpably changed course depending on a player’s actions within the title. Not only did this give Episode 1 a level of replayability that you almost never see in the adventure game genre, but it also meant that it was entirely possible for two friends to play through the game and have almost entirely unique gameplay experiences. Save one survivor and another dies, find a useful item and maybe you’ll discover a way to ease your frantic, zombie-plagued life in the future; No matter what choices you make the story is intense and engaging, and more crucially, a perfect adaptation of Kirkman’s ideas.
Alright, disclaimer over. Now that we’ve covered my fondness for the first episode of The Walking Dead, let’s discuss how the second episode turned out.
Those of you who followed our coverage of the recent E3 convention in Los Angeles will recall that I was given a chance to watch the first twenty minutes of The Walking Dead: Episode 2, played in real-time by one of the game’s designers. My reaction to that relatively short glimpse of the game was incredibly positive, and I stated that “it looks even darker and more faithful to the themes of the source material than the original.” Having now played through the final version of Episode 2, I can confirm that my impression at E3 was totally spot on. Episode 2 is not only darker than the first episode, it’s also one of the most horrifying video games I’ve ever played — and I mean that in the most literal, classic sense of the word.
Though both Resident Evil and The Walking Dead could be described as “horror” games, the former relies on cheap jump scares and gore, while the latter cultivates terror in both its characters and in players by presenting an oppressive atmosphere filled with life or death decisions and an ominous sense that no matter what you do, no matter how successful and intelligent your choices in the game are, every single living person you encounter will most likely be dead in short order (and turned into a shambling corpse only a few hours later).
While I don’t want to spoil any of the plot points seen in Episode 2, I will say that toward the beginning of the episode your group of survivors is presented with a rather shocking revelation that instantly changes the tone of the entire series. One single line of text, delivered by a nervous teenager, utterly deflates any sort of hope the characters may have had for the future. It’s sounds bleak (and it absolutely is), but given that Kirkman’s comic series is widely known for its tendency to utterly annihilate any shred of contentment, happiness or hope that any of its characters might have, this pitch-black tonal shift is a perfect fit for Episode 2. No one stays happy for long in Kirkman’s books, and things can always get worse. Call me morbid, but Kirkman’s blatant efforts to create the most depressing, dark universe possible is one of the key selling points of The Walking Dead comic series, if only because it’s so unlike the vast majority of other stories presented in any medium. Telltale deserves propers both for perfectly capturing Kirkman’s trademark sense of oppressive, melancholy horror and for its brave insistence that things in The Walking Dead should never, ever turn out for the positive.
Remember, in my E3 piece, where I said that Episode 2 manages to faithfully adhere to the themes of its source material even moreso than the objectively excellent Episode 1? It’s absolutely true, and I couldn’t be any happier about how utterly dismal Episode 2 quickly becomes.
The other point I think should be addressed in this review is how massively Telltale has managed to expand the far-reaching effects of decisions made in both Episode 2 and its predecessor. From the very beginning of Episode 2, you’ll notice things that only exist as a result of choices you made in the previous game. Obviously none of the people you neglected to save in Episode 1 return for the second episode, but more than that you’ll notice that your choices in the previous release have wide-ranging effects on the characters, environment and story of Episode 2. The example I gave in my E3 preview involved a balcony that, depending on a certain stark choice in Episode 1, will either be a rickety deathtrap in Episode 2 or completely collapsed.
There are instances of this sort of thing peppered throughout this latest episode that are only really apparent if you’ve been explicitly introduced to them by the people who created the game, or you opt to replay The Walking Dead with a conscious effort to make completely different choices your second time through. Telltale deserves massive praise for offering this kind of branching story structure in a genre that is normally more closely related to reading a novel than actually playing a game, but more to the point, Episode 2 is intensely impressive by virtue of its ability to offer completely different gameplay experiences that will, for the most part, go unnoticed by the majority of players who simply burn through each episode once before waiting anxiously for the next addition to the series. I won’t claim that this replayability must compel you to play through each episode multiple times — I’m playing each episode once, in order, while faithfully coping with the consequences of each of my decisions — but it’s quite a feat that Telltale was able to craft an adventure game that offers a fully engaging experience the second, third or fourth time you play through it.
After all this abundant praise for the game, I could certainly see you readers wary that maybe I’m just sleep deprived and particularly hyperbolic this evening, but for anyone who sees it that way, I simply implore you to try the game for yourself. Unless you’ve got an intense aversion to the undead or refuse to enjoy anything that doesn’t end with the hero riding off into the sunset with a pretty lady by his side, The Walking Dead should absolutely be at the top of your “must play” list.
Episode 1 was great, Episode 2 is even better, and the only real qualm we can come up with for Telltale’s efforts is that waiting for the imminent Episode 3 is going to be very difficult. “Anxious” is a good word to describe our feelings as we settle in for the long hiatus, though “eagerly frothing with anticipation and an unending craving for the further adventures of Lee, Carly and their infinite legions of consumptive foes” is far more accurate.
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Telltale Games)