Telltale's The Walking Dead is a milestone in video game history. It popularised the episodic and narrative-focused adventure genre, and the first season was truly inspired, characterised by great writing and gruelling decisions. And so it is both with a sense of sadness and delight the final season has come to a close. Sadness that this is the end of Clementine's journey, and delight as we nearly didn't get to see that end.
In the first season of The Walking Dead, we play as Lee who takes care of an orphaned girl named Clementine. In the second season, we take control of an older (but still young) Clementine. The third season is something of an intermission that doesn't follow Clementine even if she's in it. The fourth focuses on Clem and the orphan she herself has taken on, Alvin Junior (or AJ).
The final season offered some sort of resolution (we're not going to spoil the possible endings), but it wraps up Clementine's story and the inclusion of AJ gives it a sense of coming full circle. It's well rounded, and there is some additional payoffs for players who have followed the series. However, don't expect this to be the sort of ending you'd expect from a major RPG, instead this final season offers a tight narrative that's self-contained along with the resolution of Clementine's journey. Then again, most characters left behind in previous seasons are dead anyway.
Our chief complaint is the premise of the season; a group gets tangled up with another, with the expected kidnappings and deaths that follow and the ambiguous questions as to whether your acts of violence are any more warranted than theirs. It's well-worn ground for the franchise by now, and it feels a bit predictable for something as grand as the conclusion to Clementine's story. There are some great moments thanks to the setup, however, and the game manages to pull off scenes like Clem torturing a member of the other camp, in front of her orphan friend, without it feeling contrived. The problem is that the game doesn't really do enough to establish the characters before (potentially) ripping them away from you. We had the feeling that we mainly cared for Clementine and AJ throughout the season, and so, losing one or two of the other kids (or more) didn't have the sort of impact it could have had. There are, however, some really key scenes that test your altruism to its limits, especially when it comes to Marlon, even if much like the rest of the characters there's much more to him than simple malice.
Having played Life is Strange 2 in parallel with this season, it feels like the interactions and nuance in educating and guiding your younger companion are far more diverse and organic in Dontnod's episodic road trip. To some extent the bond between Clementine and AJ boils down to one key event, even if it flavours the journey there and makes things more interesting, but it is not as elegant as in Life is Strange 2 where you're able to really take the time to get to know Daniel and you're more invested in him. To some degree dealing with AJ is more about trying to manage what's clearly a severely damaged young boy, rather than truly setting an example for him.
The very last episode ties the narrative up neatly, and it really feels like this the last season was a sprint rather than a marathon, not just thanks to the four-episode format, but also because the pacing was much higher. Particularly with the last episode which basically was a rollercoaster ride full of quick time events and dramatic moments. It left us feeling a bit disappointed as the setup in prior episodes was much more enjoyable.
In terms of the presentation, there are certainly some flaws here and there as you'd typically expect from Telltale titles. There are ample loading times and there were other technical issues that while not ruining the experience did annoy to some degree. We do appreciate the use of songs as a means to offer less tense moments during the episodes, and the collectibles and how they were displayed in your room at the school was a neat addition. A benefit of the tighter premise and narrative perhaps.
Was the final season rushed? We can't help but think so... Telltale Games was at death's door during its production, and while we can't judge whether any corners were cut in development, it sure had the feeling of a game that was a bit abbreviated. Possibly by design, perhaps by necessity. Skybound did gamers a great favour in securing the rights and bringing the final season to a close, but by then most of the groundwork had been laid down, and it was more a matter of finishing up rather than expanding on the existing design.
The ending will satisfy most players, but it's not the sort of spectacular end Clementine deserves in our opinion. As it stands the first season of the series remains unrivalled, but maybe we should play through the entire saga in a few years to take in the full narrative and catch more nuances and references. In fact, we quite look forward to doing just that.
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