The central question at the heart of Telltale’s The Walking Dead games, I have argued both in these reviews and elsewhere, is whether survival in a broken society means favouring the needs of the strong or giving the weak your support (a rather loaded theme in Australia right now, considering the political landscape). The third episode of this season, released the day before the Walking Dead comic series went ahead and provided further elaboration on Robert Kirkman’s thoughts on this question, is heavily focused on what it means, and what is required, to move forward in the zombie apocalypse. It’s the strongest episode of the season yet, and by far the most gruesome and upsetting too.
The Walking Dead continues to move further away from resembling a classic ‘adventure’ game, with control being handed over to the player very rarely outside of conversations. Puzzles have been dropped completely by now, the focus shifting purely to your choices and reactions. Happily the writing on this one is tighter than it was last episode, which makes for a more gripping, compelling hour and a half. The action shifts to a single setting, which works really well: the stakes are established early on, and the cast is allowed to flourish. The purpose of the 400 Days DLC starts to become clearer as well, and the full scope of everything you’ve done throughout both seasons is felt.
The focus on Carver, the venomous, Michael Madsen voiced villain we met last episode, gives the episode a lot of forward momentum as well. Carver is a great villain, clearly modelled after the Governor and Negan from the comics, but unique enough to stand on his own. There’s a strong sense of unspoken backstory here: subtle hints and reactions are enough to tell you what sort of man Carver used to be, and to outline the choices he has made since the dead started walking. It all comes back to that overarching question, and the importance of displaying personal value in a post-apocalyptic society (a theme embodied wonderfully by Ben last season, but still very prevalent here).
And it’s here, in the third episode, that the choices you make really start to sting. Tellingly, the final stat screen shows that the majority of players, at the first major turning point choice, chose to help one character, and then, at the final point, chose to revel in another’s suffering. It’s a logical series of choices (although, if I’m being honest, I was one of the 18% who didn’t help out on the first choice), but also one that exemplifies how players are choosing to develop Clementine. This is a brutal episode, and it makes sense that she would emerge out of it changed.
Zombies are pushed into the background for the first half of the episode, unmentioned and unseen, allowing for a focus on the strong personalities that emerge. It takes a while for the zombies to even put in an appearance, and when they do it leads to the episode’s weakest scene, a toothless quick-time event with misleading instructions that, mercifully, lasts all of a minute. For a brief moment, I found myself almost wishing that the story would drop the focus on zombies entirely…but then there’s a shift in the second half, a potent reminder of the zombies’ potential uses as terrifying plot devices.
In Harm’s Way feels particularly self-contained, informed by what has come before but singularly strong in its writing and character development. It doesn’t give much in the way of set-up for the rest of the season though – if I were to hazard a guess Season 3 is already in the planning stages, and will carry on directly from this one, because there’s no real sign of a resolution or ‘goal’ for the last two episodes. If The Walking Dead keeps producing episodes this strong, though, I’ll happily keep playing it for years to come.
James “Jickle” O’Connor is a freelance games critic, journalist and occasional editor, based in South Australia. His favourite game of all time is The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and he is absurdly, comically rubbish at most fighting games (except for Killer Instinct on the SNES, which was, incidentally, the first game he ever owned). He has huge soft spots for point and click adventure games, third-person shooters, and Deus Ex.
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