(WARNING! Big spoilers for Episodes 1 – 3 of The Walking Dead Season 2 follow!)Like the difficult second album for an emergent music sensation, Telltale appears to have crafted the gaming equivalent: the difficult fourth episode. We’ve seen it not only in the previous season of The Walking Dead but also in The Wolf Among Us – in both cases we were given a penultimate episode which struggled to establish its own identity in a self-contained ninety minutes. Instead, both series took the step of using the fourth instalment as an outlet for copious amounts of exposition in order to line up the pieces and tie off loose ends ahead of the finale. In doing so they sacrificed gameplay for story, something that the interactive story genre can ill afford to do given the limited amount of player agency available under normal circumstances. Unfortunately, Amid the Ruins does nothing to curb this trend, once again leaving us with the weakest episode of the series to date.Guns don’t kill people, post-apocalyptic survivors do.Picking up from the shocking finale of In Harm’s Way, you were left with the ramifications of your decision to either chop off Sarita’s infected arm or leave her be. Either way, you’re left with a maddened Kenny, a character whose mood swings have gradually eroded away much of the sympathy he built up in the first season. Fortunately, Jane takes centre stage this time around and proves to be a strong, interesting female lead – even outshining Clementine for most of the episode. This is a boon, as it helps cover over the holes in the creaking, meandering plot which has taken a wayward turn since Carver – a focal point for everyone’s hatred, and a core character holding the story together – was bumped off last episode. This time around, Clem’s main goal is to regroup with the survivors of Carver’s bloodbath and try and get a heavily pregnant Rebecca to safety. The stage here is Parker’s Run, a Civil War museum on the site of a battle which houses potential food and shelter. Despite the area being a lot more open than previous episodes, the game feels more restrictive this time around with limited locations to explore and minimal interaction with the environment. Similarly, the conversations you have with your comrades are little more than a series of complaints and arguments about others in the group. Despondency is obviously an important driver for illustrating how the group dynamic is breaking down, but it doesn’t make for particularly interesting or engaging dialogue. What’s worse is that characters like Luke who were such strong contributors in some of the previous episodes either barely get a look in, or make decisions which are so out of character that it undermines their inclusion to date. Ruh-roh!As events develop, you may get the uncomfortable feeling that the majority of the episode consists of tactlessly killing off certain characters in order to make the fifth episode a more manageable, impactful experience. However, even this assumption proves to be incorrect as a whole bunch of new characters are introduced throughout. It feels like the companions in Clem’s groups are no longer provided with enough characterisation to establish their own unique personalities, and serve simply as emotional tools to be used and discarded when the story demands that you feel something, be it sadness, horror or regret. Some characters aren’t even given the privilege of dying on screen, their journey with you culminating in an afterthought of “Oh, it’s X – why are they a zombie?”. Robbing players of the emotional payoff of a particular person’s demise whilst heartlessly nullifying any investment that you may have spent interacting with that person isn’t even a cheap trick, it’s simply sloppy writing.Even Clem’s journey has taken a sideways turn. The strong, manipulative survivor she was evolving into over the past three episodes barely makes an appearance here. Her interactions with Jane, ostensibly acting as a big sister, are a delight but have the unfortunate effect of reducing Clem’s role to that of ineffective mediator for the most part. When she isn’t flitting between the bickering group and trying to patch up relationships, she’s once again being used as a person-shaped key to fit through a small hole in order to open a door. We’ve been down this road so many times now, that you will barely will bat an eyelid on the discovery of a zombie on the other side. Routine and familiar, it feels like you’re going through the motions in a game that has done it pretty much all before, and better. Aside from the opening and closing moments, even action is sidelined for pretty much the entire hour and a half, leaving a gaping hole which fails to be adequately filled in the middle. Instead you’re bounced from one character’s demise to another, killing time as ineffectively as your friends. Some fresh ideas are needed for the plotline of the inevitable third season – a smaller cast of believable, interesting characters, and a selection of puzzles and decisions which we’ve not experienced before should be high on the agenda.Repercussions are still felt from your choices but the outcomes aren’t as wide-ranging as you’d expect.However, even a weak episode by Telltale’s standards is better than many adventure offerings can hope to achieve. The factors that drove Telltale’s success are still in play: the superbly haunting music and the wonderful cel-shaded graphics remain as fresh and interesting as ever, and the cliffhanger ending once again provides enough momentary distraction to make you forget that the path you took to reach that point was uneven and flawed. It’s just a shame that a promising start has once again been squandered at the penultimate point, leaving a great deal of damage control to be done in the finale.
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