It's been an emotional ride. The third season of Telltale's The Walking Dead certainly provided drama, both on a private level where love, loyality and family were at the centre, and from a societal level too, where camps and politics of post-apocalyptic Virginia kept us on the edge of our seats. Improved visuals (though still not free of some graphical imperfections and some moments of uncanny valley facial expressions), swifter pacing, less exploration, more tough choices, is what we've experienced during the season. Some parts show Telltale maturing as a developer of narrative adventure, other parts show them abandoning things we enjoyed in past games.
There will be some minor plot spoilers below, in order to give examples of how we felt about the various characters and their development in the game. If you haven't played the game yet, you have been warned.
The main group of characters, Javi, Gabe, Kate, Clem, and eventually David, do get plenty room to develop and there is some great writing here to really make the player feel both sides of the family drama that unfolds over five episodes. Should Javi honour his brother and dismiss the feelings he and Kate share, or should he set his eyes on making this new family official? There are no easy answers here, and players will have to dig deep to figure things out. The one thing we'd question is why a former baseball player (Javi) insists on wearing a baseball shirt. Did Pete Rose wear a baseball shirt every day after being barred from baseball? Maybe he did. But it just feels a bit cheap, particularly given Javi's complex emotions regarding his past life.
Some of the other characters felt a bit underdeveloped, though. We particularly felt David's "right-hand man" Ava lacked some of the depth we've come to know from the series, and Jesus is another character we felt was a bit abbreviated. Perhaps on purpose in the latter case, but with Ava it felt a bit weird to have to choose between her and Tripp at a certain point in episode four; sure we'd seen her softer side with Clem, but convincing her to be on our side earlier felt a bit "shoehorned" if we're being honest. We realise we're dancing around things here to avoid outright spoilers, but overall she simply felt like a character that could have done with a bit more work. Eleanor who has a key role in how things unfold in New Richmond, also felt a bit underdeveloped and her reasons for doing what she did (given what The New Frontier did in Prescott) also felt a bit odd (it's as if Eugene in the TV series would have flipped in a week). Now it's entirely possible that things unfold differently given your choices, but for us it played out in a similar way in two playthroughs with Eleanor.
This slight tendency for some of the characters to be a bit undercooked may have to do with the change in episode length, as the episodes clocked in at under 90 minutes each, giving less time to explore character motivations, yet keeping the pacing great throughout. Maybe Telltale has pushed it a little too far in this regard, and the same can be said about the lack of any engaging puzzles. The quick time events have been made a little more interesting, there are even ones where you'll try to hammer the A button (or equivalent) only to find success isn't possible. A neat (if somewhat dirty) trick that actually helps fuel the narrative and the urgency of a situation.
What was interesting to see and we were helped to see this by (for reasons out of our control) having to replay some of the chapters, is just how much our choices shaped the story this time around. It often feels like things are very linear, but the gravity of your choices is certainly highlighted when you play a scene twice and make different choices. Part of it may just be window dressing (does a character die now or later?), but some of it really shaped the narrative in meaningful ways regardless. This is where Telltale really shows their strength and hopefully they can evolve this even further to a point where their adventures can be truly branching at times.
In the first season Clem was vulnerable and someone we started caring for simply because we needed to protect her from what was going on. She became the main character of the second season, but here she takes a step back and, while she's involved in much of what goes down during the season and we get to experience some of the events she went through between seasons, she's kind of taking the backseat to Javi. It certainly appears as if the third season is meant to set up a more Clem-focused fourth. One where we understand her motivations as a young woman better. One where we better understand how she's become the person she now is. As usual, Clem tends to leave a trail of dead in her wake, but that's par for the course with The Walking Dead. It's nice to see that some key characters made it through the season, and we'll potentially see more of them in the future. We're certainly looking forward to it and hopefully Telltale won't leave us hanging for years.
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