It’s difficult to talk about The Walking Dead: The Final Season without talking about the checkered track record of Telltale Games. Ever since the San Rafael-based studio hit a cultural watershed with 2012’s The Walking Dead, it’s churned out a dozen more seasons of games built upon the formula of formula of protagonists making choices that say more about the player than alter the storyline.
The Walking Dead: The Final Season arrives on the heels of several months of drama for Telltale that include layoffs and executive malfeasance, and it shows. There’s a sense of assured confidence on display here, not just in the game’s fancy HBO-esque title sequence, but in the desire to try new things and double down on past strengths.
Always crashing in the same car
Episode 1, “Done Running,” opens with series mainstay Clementine on the road again with A.J., the young boy she assumed care of at the end of Season Two. The game wastes little time on exposition, leaving us to understand they’ve been surviving on their own. Clementine’s had several years experience with the walkers at this point, while A.J. has never known a life before them.
It’s not long till Clem and A.J. make contact with another group of survivors, and while this development seems a bit predictable – I’m not sure Telltale is ready to tell their version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – it immediately sets of a dread of the inevitable broken sanities and shocking deaths. Telltale has found a clever spin on this one though: the new survivors are exclusively kids.
Holed up in an abandoned boarding school, this group has established a relatively safe haven. They have designated safe zones around the area, placed out traps for wild-life, a nearby fishing spot but it’s falling apart. There’s only so much these children can do with smaller bodies and no formal training: the greenhouse is overgrown and there aren’t nearly enough hands to maintain everything.
Even a dog can shake hands
Of course, there are always choices that need to be made and risks that need to be taken in these games. The underlying theme of the series has always been that idle safety and other people can be just as dangerous as the walkers themselves. But rather than place Clem (and by extension, AJ) in constant peril – a frustratingly constant occurrence in Season Two – this episode focuses on building trust.
The kids mostly get along and appreciate their roles and responsibilities more than the adults of Season Two, and don’t greet Clem with the same level of mistrust she encountered in Season Three. And while it’s true that in their eyes, Clem is an incredible badass to have been on the road for so long – their attitude displays an astonishing level of maturity.
While dangers and secrets definitely lurk in this episode, getting out of one scrape and into another takes a welcome backseat to determining what impression you and Clementine make on the group by the end.
Keep calm and carry on
Ever since The Final Season was announced at Comic-Con 2017, Telltale has been keen to play up some of the technical advancements they would be making in this game. The unfortunate truth, though, is that these advancements don’t do much to differentiate The Final Season from previous seasons in the series.
In previous seasons of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, the camera was usually locked to a tight pan. The Final Season introduces a free-orbiting camera that lets you spin your view to get a better sense of Clementine’s surroundings, but there isn’t really much to see that lets it add to the experience. Previews have celebrated the new combat system which lets you approach walkers, but it boils down to initiating the same old quicktime events (QTEs).
The art and graphics are probably the most dramatic improvement in The Final Season. Clementine’s hair flaps in the wind – and while it’s no Nvidia TressFX, it’s still something – and character models are even sharper than they were in last year’s The New Frontier. Environments look rougher and tougher than ever, and a switch to global lighting lets some moments shine with atmosphere.
The road ahead
‘Done Running’ is a solid enough opener. While The Final Season is off to a slow start, with only the barest attempt in technical advances, it sets up an intriguing dynamic between Clementine, A.J. and the world around them. The story’s scope has yet to be laid out, so it remains to be seen how Clementine will close her journey. Will this series go out swinging, or is it taking one step deeper into the grave?
Continuing improvements to graphics and art are welcome
Casting children as the new group of survivors is a novel and inspired idea
Technical additions like orbiting camera and unscripted combat add less to the experience than you'd think.
Clementine's relationship with AJ as surrogate mother provides as intriguing player mirror.
What I’ve Played
Finished one episode, about three hours of gameplay.
Acquired all collectibles.
[This review is based on the Steam version personally acquired by the reviewer.]