Power Hour Review: The Walking Dead: Season Two, Episode One
At last: the game I’ve waited for all year, or at least, the beginning of it: the debut episode of The Walking Dead’s second season, All That Remains, starring the young and vulnerable Clementine. For me, this episode’s release was an Event (capital E), and so I hope you’ll forgive me if I speak (write) overmuch here. Power Hour Reviews are supposed to cover only one hour of gameplay, but my playthrough of the first episode of The Walking Dead: Season Two took only a little more than an hour in its entirety, so I figure I might as well talk about the whole thing, though I’ll keep all spoiler mentions to the second half — and warn you before they begin.
When we first learned that Clementine would indeed be the protagonist of Season Two, we spent some time on the podcast (and in my post) speculating on her age here. Without giving too much away, Episode One starts off at least a few months after the end of the first season, and then quickly jumps sixteen months past that, which makes Clementine ten-and-a-half to eleven when the events really pick up here. That time jump is important for two reasons: Clemetine’s age and level of experience are major factors in what happens… or at least, they should be.
Clementine is heartbreakingly young, even in this new, more experienced incarnation. The changes in her character design are subtle but clear, and are very well rendered: her face and body are leaner than at season one’s beginning, and at times she takes on a very serious, adult look. She’s been through hell, too, and without getting into specifics, I’d expect that to have as dramatic an impact on her demeanor as it does on her look, and at times, it does. Clementine demonstrates determination and capability here at key moments, skills and composure that would be far beyond her age and emotional level if we weren’t talking about an apocalyptic scenario. In those moments, Lee’s influence — indeed, the influence of all the events of season one — are clear, strong, and sensible.
And then there are those other moments, like her tendency to yell, “Hello?” when entering a new space. In those moments, I want to shake her, even granting her youth. Particularly following the dramatic moments that begin this episode, Clementine should know better — even if she is scared, even if she is feeling more alone and vulnerable than ever before. Then again, she’s not the only one with a tendency to spend her time in the walker-infested out-of-doors hollering in this episode, so maybe it’s not just Clementine that’s the source of my frustration, but everyone. I found myself wondering often how any of these people had survived for so long. On paper, that may not sound like a big deal; after all, to err is human, and these folks, well, they’re real human. But in season one, we saw the early months of the world under the influence of walkers, and again in 400 Days. We developed with these folks. Here, some two year later, is it wrong to expect people to have figured out that yelling in the woods brings zombies? Throughout this short episode, I found my level of immersion challenged, and since that’s one thing I often look for first in games, for me, that’s an issue. Not a major one, because I feel this episode brings enough drama and character development that I’m willing to be a little forgiving. But at the same time, the narrative handles the incorporation of grief and trauma so well that I’m puzzled as to the lack of growth in what must be this world’s most important aspect: the adjustment of behavior to constant danger.
Here, we do see a Clementine who has been through so much that her most childish aspects have fallen away, and it’s there that the episode shines. Telltale doesn’t shy away from putting its young heroine into truly horrifying situations — at times, I found it difficult to watch the events onscreen, in fact — but that also feels like it may be skirting awfully close to shock value. What’s more interesting is the player’s ability to develop their own take on Clementine. Will you be manipulative or straightforward? How much will you play on your vulnerable status when presented with new people? Will you instead attempt to present a Clementine hard beyond her years? Those options are fascinating, and presented some of the most intriguing aspects of play on offer here. I ran the timer bar down to the smallest of nubs quite frequently, debating my answers, which is something I rarely did through the first season. I knew where I stood, or wanted to stand, with Lee. Here, things are muddier, at least for me.
Let’s talk mechanics. The major features of the first season, and its 400 Days DLC are in place here: lots of lip-biting moments of decision, the at-times limited point of view (I swear, my country for the ability to rotate and see everything), and clickable points for searching and interaction. The moments of action, however, have continually evolved since the first episode’s release, and while this season isn’t wildly different from season one, the progression of buttons and controls from the franchise’s beginnings are clear. 400 Days introduced some more intensive moves, and that trend is continued here. Unfortunately, I find those elements as clunky and odd as ever, but in Telltale’s defense, the limited view and QTEs also add to the panic and tension of the experience, so while I don’t always enjoy TWD’s mechanics, I can’t say I dislike them, either. Enough to say: everything still works here, sometimes a little better, but a small part of me still sometimes wishes for a third hand so I can manipulate everything at the right moment.
What I did like was the way Clementine’s combat was handled. She fights — I was afraid we’d see a lot of running and avoiding, and sure, that happens, but in this world, a survivor has to kill, and kill she does. But Telltale smartly reminds us that Clem is not the powerhouse that older, larger characters are. When faced with a tied-down zombie, for instance, she can’t just cave its head in on the first strike. There are constant small reminders of her weakness and vulnerability here that feel very organic rather than forced, and I appreciated that throughout.
And now: spoiler territory, because there are elements of the story I feel merit discussion. All That Remains is a tragic, wonderful title for this episode, because it seems to me that the answer is: not much. When we were speculating on the time jump for this season, we thought it might be linked to 400 Days, or to age Clementine up so she’d be stronger and more capable. Instead, the move forward feels motivated by another reason: the encapsulation of past grief. Not enough here that Clem has lost both her real parents and her surrogate parent, Lee. She quickly loses Omid, who narrowly survived season one only to die in the most random, heartbreaking encounter here, and when we jump ahead again, we see that Christa, heavy with pregnancy at the episode’s open, is no longer pregnant… and there’s no sign of a baby.
Dealing with the loss of Lee, Omid, and Christa’s baby would have overwhelmed the story so completely that there would have been room for nothing but grief in the narrative, and I think the writers here made a perfect decision in skipping head to a time in which those things were absorbed. Not moved past, mind you, but absorbed; when we pick up sixteen months after Omid’s death, we find a Christa and Clementine who are so beaten down, so empty, that they move sluggishly, as though all that motivates them is simply not dying for the sake of not dying. That, I think, is the other strength of this episode, and it makes Clem’s journey here from empty shell to possible badass, in the episode two preview, something I’ll be chewing over for quite some time.