In my review of Episode 3, I worried that The Walking Dead had played its best hand already. The emotional gut-punch at the centre of that episode was so devastating that it was hard to see the team at Telltale topping it, and the ‘next episode’ preview for this one looked a tad meandering, as though what had come before made it too hard to effectively continue on with the series’ narrative.
I need not have worried, though. Around Every Corner ignores the gut and goes straight for the heart, offering up some of the most harrowing hours of gameplay I’ve ever experienced, offering an expertly laid-out and extremely dramatic exploration of what it truly means to care for other people when the world is falling apart. Around Every Corner will, if you’re not careful, ruin you. And for that reason, it’s easily the best episode of The Walking Dead yet.
What this episode has in spades, which the previous episodes, I now realise, were slightly lacking in, is confidence. It’s only now that the real genius of Telltale’s episodic structuring -– which I have lamented slightly in previous reviews –- has become clear, too. Not only has Telltale managed to turn The Walking Dead into a reoccurring event (in much the same way as, say, every new episode of Breaking Bad has been an event for the die-hard fans), but they’ve allowed their characters, and their world, to breath, to exist within the players’ minds for months. This episode is, for its first half, quieter than the previous ones, but that’s a good thing –- after all this time, it’s good to simply be able to hang out with these characters, to check in on them, and get a reading of how their relationships with the people, and the messed-up world around them, have changed.
In this episode, the group ends up in Savannah, hoping to hop on a boat and get out of there. Without spoiling too much of the previous episodes, the slightly-kooky angle the game seemed to be going down at the end of Episode 3, thankfully, isn’t followed through on quite so much here, the focus instead being on the quest for a boat, as well as a bevy of surprisingly great new characters. There’s a sense of melancholy and dread over the whole thing; the inevitable end point of any zombie story that isn’t also a comedy is that things will go very poorly, and way the characters, and the world, deal with this is very interesting. This episode is closest in tone to the Governor arch of the comics, in that we get a glimpse at a Woodbury-esque community gone savage, but in ways that are generally less cartoonish and, historically, more feasible.
The Walking Dead has, in its own quiet, blood-splattered way, become a game about families – not just the surrogate family of Lee and Everett, but lots of different intersecting ideas of what a family unit is, and the obligations that come along with that. It’s a game that forces you to think about what really matters to its characters, and just how much what’s going on outside really changes the dynamic of how a family operates... and then, of course, it forces you to make decisions based on these thoughts. It’s all but impossible to not get caught up in the bonds between these characters, to care about them, to get angry and huffy at them, and to occasionally consider doing something monstrous for the greater good. All too many reviews of zombie fiction excitedly point out that people are always the real villains (the Walking Dead comics do it, in fact, extremely awkwardly), but in this game, the importance of saving humanity rather than condemning –- of putting the needs of others ahead of your own, so that the world remains a place worth living in –- is reiterated again and again. To this end, the decisions you need to make here are harder to make than they’ve ever been, and the ramifications for your actions throughout the previous three episodes are truly felt. As before, the puzzles aren’t challenging, but they’re also less obtrusive than ever before, and play off adventure tropes of using ‘A’ on ‘B’ in some incredibly macabre ways.
It’s hard to review an experience like this without talking around the bits that are best left for the player to discover for themselves; it’s more about your reactions, your fear and your passion, than outstanding gameplay mechanics (although, for the record, this episode is loaded up with surprisingly tense action scenes and memorable choices). Around Every Corner isn’t simply the best episode of The Walking Dead yet – it’s the single most significant game I’ve played so far this year, and perhaps the most emotionally devastating gameplay experience I’ve ever had.