The Walking Dead Season 2 - Episode 5: No Going Back Review
Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360Also available on Apple Mac, PC, Sony PS Vita, Sony PlayStation 3, iPad, Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One
(WARNING! Big spoilers for Episodes 1 - 4 of The Walking Dead Season 2 follow!)
There’s a scene about twenty minutes from the end of No Going Back where even the hardest heart will soften, and the softest hearts will melt. It’s a quiet, reflective moment, so steeped in both meaning and portent that one can’t help but be affected. Conversely, the scene is so damn perfect that it makes you feel wistful for the first season of The Walking Dead where almost every other conversation had that level of both quality and pathos.
To suggest that this season has been an uneven ride would be putting things politely, with the highs of the formidable second episode A House Divided tempered by the comparative lows of the previous instalment Amid the Ruins. The main criticism of the franchise throughout has been a lack of direction or purpose. Whilst the award-winning first season had the double whammy of a fresh approach to interactive storytelling combined with an excellent narrative arc, this time around things have felt a little fatigued. Much like the survivors in Clem’s group, there are times where we wonder what the point of it all is - dangerous ground to walk on when your entire genre is almost all centred on plot. We can be thankful, then, that with No Going Back Telltale have just about recovered from their fourth episode nadir to bring us a finale which is marginally more satisfying, but not without its share of flaws.
Zombie fans will feel a little short-changed here, as there is very little in the way of brain-spattering action other than a mundane point-and-shoot exercise on an icy lake, and a Carmageddon-esque chase which happens so quickly that you’ll be hard-pressed to recall that the undead were even involved in it. Instead, No Going Back focuses solely on the survivors and their conflicting emotions, using a quiet evening around a fire to solidify relationships and provide some of the most personal, most human dialogue of the season to date. The voice cast needs special mention here, as for most of the episode it didn’t feel like there was a bum note at any stage. The exception here is Bonnie, a character so poorly written that one could only feel sorry for the person reading her lines. Being forced to vent your ire at an eleven-year-old girl for not doing enough to protect the group, whilst playing a bitter character in their late twenties must be soul-destroying. Yet it happens, again and again, as if the game is taunting you to hate her in order to generate some conflict. It’s forced, awkward, and detracts from the overall arc.
On the positive side, there are moments of genuine tension and terror mingled with tenderness, which left us experiencing a gamut of emotion throughout. Some old faces make a surprising reappearance, whilst one later scene could potentially have provided a natural, satisfying end to Clem’s story had the narrative not taken a further, slightly unrealistic turn. It should be noted too that the denouement offers a variety of endings, each with their own individual epilogues dependent on the choices you have made. That said, those choices ultimately boil down to a combination of two key decisions right at the climax which act as a substitute for anything that has previously happened, as if Telltale were determined to demonstrate a branched ending even if it meant tightly scripting the game in order to drive you towards those two decisions.
This forced causality is something that you’ll ultimately either love or loathe, but shouldn’t be unexpected at this stage, given the nature of the journey to date. Some characters are still offed in cheap ways, whilst many make choices which annoy, confuse, and go against any sort of common sense. Unlike Amid the Ruins though, there are enough decent scenes to offset the bad; an exercise to cleanse a wound which could have been squeamish turns out to be rather touching, whilst the group gently teasing Luke about his encounter with Jane in the previous episode felt wholly warm and natural.
However, the dissonance between the decisions you make and the end result is a common problem that has afflicted the season throughout and isn’t addressed in any satisfactory way here. We went back to certain key scenes which felt like different actions might have resulted in different outcomes, only to find out that the end product was the same regardless of our choices. The initial scene - minor spoiler ahead! - is a great example of this. You’re tasked with the decision of running to cover or making a run to save Rebecca’s baby which is stranded in the wilderness with bullets flying overhead. After we decide to run to cover - correctly assuming that the game wouldn’t let the baby die - another character saves him instead, and gets shot in his leg for the trouble. Revisiting this decision, we saved the baby only for the exact same secondary character to end up in a convoluted situation where they… get shot in the leg.
This is one of many, many instances where the scripted storyline intrudes on the gameplay to the extent that the flimsy curtain hanging limply between player agency and narrative outcome is torn asunder, revealing a much more rigid framework than Telltale would have you believe exists. No amount of brutal fight scenes or poignant cello music can mask the whirring automaton over which they’re draped, leaving you wondering at exactly what stage your decisions make a difference. In this case, it’s right at the end. You’ll have made up your mind by that point about the direction in which you want things to head, and the pay-off in each instance may not resonate as much as it could, or indeed should, but it does at least lead to one of three distinctly different endings.
What that means for the third instalment remains to be seen, but as the conclusion to this particular story No Going Back lacks the punch of the first season’s finale and becomes an analogue of the second season as a whole: an above-average game which has vainly struggled to step out of its predecessor’s shadow.