The Walking Dead Season 2: Episode 1 - All That Remains
Microsoft Xbox 360Also available on PC, Sony PS Vita, Sony PlayStation 3 and Ouya
[Note: Massive spoilers for Season One follow.]
We were excited to return to Telltale’s world of The Walking Dead, over a year after we left Clementine behind. With the excellent series of minisodes in the shape of 400 Days serving as a taste of things to come, the second season kicks off properly with the first episode: All That Remains. The question is whether the award-winning magic of the first season is still present. The answer is “partially”.
Following the loss of Lee at the end of the last season, you take control of his protectee Clementine. Sixteen months on, Clem is maturing into a young teen who has been through the emotional wringer whilst still somehow managing to keep a grip on the iron core she needed to survive this far. The transition from secondary character to lead is a tough one, especially when you have a gaping hole left by a previous protagonist to fill. With half of the surrogate father-daughter relationship removed, there’s a lot of ground to make up in a short space of time in order to flesh out Clem, and the game isn’t wholly successful in this regard.
Fundamentally, the fault lies not with the lead, but the supporting cast. Falling in with another disparate group of stragglers may sound interesting but they simply aren’t explored in any detail, and at this stage appear to be analogous to characters from previous episodes. Pete is the new gruff father-figure, uncle to slightly dim Nick, whilst doctor Carlos and his slightly odd daughter Sarah, hen-pecked Alvin and his wife Rebecca, and nice-guy Luke round off the cast. The problem is it all feels too familiar. Nick may as well be a new version of Ben. Pete is a blend of Kenny and Larry. Luke has the characteristics of Doug. There are mutterings of extra-marital affairs and an explanation of why the group don’t trust Clem when they first meet her, but the characterisation is superficial at best and a far cry from the previous instalments. It can be argued that this is a common trait of episodic gaming, specifically in the introductory episode, but the first season’s opener felt a lot more rounded in comparison.
It would be more forgivable if parts of the game didn’t feel like they were added for padding. Anyone who has played Season One would be familiar with the gameplay: a combination of fluffy hotspot investigation and QTEs. Nothing has changed here aside from the pacing, which oddly sacrifices the opportunity to add meat to the bones of the story in favour of needless busywork and a number of voyeuristic and unnecessarily gruesome actions, most of which deliver very little in the way of narrative. It’s an unusual misstep for a developer who has been so assuredly confident in the stories they have been telling over the last couple of years.
Misery is king more than ever before, and anyone looking for an emotionally enjoyable ride should look elsewhere. The oppressive nature of humanity’s desperate survival instinct is explored in many different areas, whether scavenging for food, fighting off walkers or trying to decide whether to allow a potentially infected person to live. It is relentlessly bleak, and where Dave Fennoy’s calming delivery of Lee previously offered some level of comfort even when things hit the deepest levels of despair, here there is no vocal counterpoint. It makes for grim playing but still remains enthralling, albeit from a slightly murkier angle.
Not much has changed in the QTE department, other than making the events slightly tougher to navigate through. On more than one occasion you’ll find yourself toe-to-toe with a zombie, desperately wondering what to do; the hotspot objects you need are not usually placed within easy reach and even when you find them you’ll then be challenged to use them correctly. It remains one of the weakest points of the series, ironically dragging you out of the action as it tries to engage you with its clunky interface.
The seamless integration of the decisions from Season One and 400 Days is promised, but isn’t really touched on - at least in this episode. Similarly, it’s unclear at this early stage how far-reaching the decisions you make in All That Remains will be. There is one major choice to make but it isn’t delivered with the gravitas present before, feeling instead like a last-minute addition hurriedly thrown in to appease the fans and losing its impact because of it.
What hasn’t been lost, though, is Telltale’s knack of ratcheting up the tension. Whether you’re listening at a door, playing fetch with a dog or checking out bathroom stalls for walkers, the opportunity for the situation to turn at any time is always there and usually hits you when you least expect it. New friends can become instant enemies, and the shocks are frequent but wholly plausible. The game’s cool palette reflects the environment’s dropping temperature well, neatly juxtaposed with crackling fires and the welcoming glow of candles inside a log cabin. If the story has taken a hit, the artistic character certainly doesn’t reflect it. Furthermore, the engine issues which plagued the previous games (and The Wolf Among Us, to boot) are not quite as pronounced here, with most of the delay and juddering banished to the loading screens, rather than in the transition to action sequences. Suspense is also helped by the music, an orchestral undercurrent of dread which is used to good effect, particularly in its absence at key moments.
Similarly, the story - whilst slight - is nevertheless delivered realistically. You don’t get to know the cast particularly well, but nothing they do or say feels ridiculous or on-the-nose. Clem, in particular, has had to grow up fast. The more interesting aspects of the episode stem not from watching her stitch a wound through gritted teeth and screams of pain, but in seeing opportunities to manipulate people to achieve her aims. The little girl from the first season is fast disappearing, and the young woman replacing her has the chance - should you take it - to become a far more nuanced and interesting character, potentially at the expense of her likeability. This is reflected in the dialogue options available to you, such as giving a character “sad eyes” to try and get them on your side, or using what you’ve overheard to blackmail another person.
This is certainly not the scared little girl from Season One; instead she is becoming a product of the world around her, taking actions which would have been inconceivable in the last game. It will be interesting to see which path the writers decide to take Clem down, especially when compared to the redemptive road we travelled with Lee, who was firmly established as a sympathetic character from the beginning. It would be a brave move to turn Clem into an uncaring badass and Telltale aren’t known for shying away from controversial storylines, but any significant character change would need to be handled intelligently or they’d risk incurring the wrath of Clem’s loyal fanbase.
Voice acting is as reliable as ever, soured only by the lack of any major arc driving the motivation of the characters forward, and therefore feeling at times like you are in a soap opera rather than a daily battle for survival. However, Melissa Hutchison does a fantastic job of making Clem sound like a slightly older version of herself, whilst still retaining all of her characteristics of the first season. The green shoots of a potential storyline push through the topsoil near the end of the episode, but only minutes before the credits roll.
The burden of constructing a whole new storyline is ultimately greater than anticipated, and All That Remains buckles somewhat, feeling more like a reboot than a continuation of Lee’s legacy. It seems like a missed chance but is far from disastrous; a solid but unremarkable opener in the face of its notable predecessors. The seeds of a story are there, however, and we can only hope that the writers are more confident grasping this particular nettle in future episodes.