When Telltale Games released the first season of its episodic The Walking Dead series – many were taken aback by just how much it altered the adventure game formula. The narrative focus that eschewed intricate puzzles and backtracking and combing over every room looking for items and clues felt like a breath of fresh air. And the story itself told a remarkably emotional and personal journey for its protagonist Lee Everett and the small-child he ‘adopts’, Clementine. So new and notable the experience, it subsequently led to all future Telltale Games releases following its template. Or, walking in its shoes.
Episodic, character driven stories with thematic and meaningful choices. And all without leaving players stuck or trying to figure out what to do or where to go next.
The only problem was that without any major technical or structural overhauls, after a few years the idea of a new Telltale adventure began to feel less and less like an event. Last year’s sudden and surprising closure of the studio brought to light stories of mismanagement and an unwillingness to invest in anything more than, well, more of the same. Throughout the studio's post-Walking Dead transformation though, the zombie series has always been seen as the flagship franchise from the studio. Even though development was a matter of licensing.
Since the original’s 2012 release we’ve had two more Walking Dead seasons, a few side stories, and the beginning of the fourth and final season. One that would complete Clementine’s narrative arc and close the series in a way that, hopefully, felt true to the original. And then, the studio closed its doors in the latter half of 2018.
And right before The Walking Dead: The Final Season was set to become a tale of videogame legend, Walking Dead owners Skybound stepped in to complete and release the final two episodes with assistance from the development team. Which is good because the third episode manages to capture the desperation, depth, and horror of the series’ most memorable turns.
Although it features a standalone story with new characters, settings, and challenges for Clementine to face – the parallels to the first season are undeniable. Going full circle, or back to where it all began, is not a new thing – but in the case of The Walking Dead: The Final Season it serves as a great way to bring some of the series strongest and most important ideas to the fore. With Clementine now all but becoming a parent to orphan AJ, what lessons you impart on his young impressionable mind will factor into how this final tale plays out. As a mirror to Lee and Clementine’s relationship in the first season it’s true to the series in a way that feels earned.
The problem isn’t so much this repetition or re-treading of ground already covered, it comes with the setting and harsh reality of The Walking Dead’s world as it stands in season four. Gone, for the most part, is the hope of finding a brighter greener pasture - as found in the first-two seasons. In its place a focus on survival, holing up somewhere safe, and hopefully making it to tomorrow. This gives the overall arc of The Final Season the feeling of a single movie as opposed to a full season of narrative stories ala a television series. Perhaps a matter of budget or resources but this leads to only a handful of locations being explored, with a relatively small group of characters making up the bulk of the story. A single ‘villain’ and hurdle to overcome.
The flipside to this is a feeling of intimacy that the writers make full use of, with tension and dramatic events serving as bookends between episode. As mentioned earlier, the third episode is up there with the most memorable and tension-filled moments in the series. And as a series that is renowned for dramatic turns, killing off key characters, and surprising players with bleak and startling outcomes – that’s quite the feat. Especially when it’s common for these moments to suffer a bit from diminishing returns. All adding up in a way that makes you hope for some form of happy ending after so many trials and tragedies.
And really, when it comes to any final season of a long-form story that people have invested in for many years – how it sticks the landing can become the be-all end-all. Without delving into spoilers, the final episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead is definitely an emotional roller-coaster with dramatic twists and turns – some of which land, whilst others feel rushed to get things to some form of conclusion. Above all though, it’s understanding of the series long history and Clementine’s journey make these final moments pack one hell of a bite.