Adventure Gamers Awards
Back in 2012, The Walking Dead made Telltale Games a force to be reckoned with in the sphere of interactive stories. Everyone seemed to be talking about the journey of Lee and Clementine, an escaped convict and a young girl doing everything they can to survive a world in ruin – reckoning not only with the undead, but also the darkest depths of humanity. It was the first game to ever truly make me feel emotionally connected to its characters. I cared for them, thought about them when I wasn’t playing. I’ve cried watching films and reading books, but in a video game? Never. Until then.
The immense popularity of that first season inspired Telltale to release two more full seasons, a standalone episode and a shorter mini-season. Unfortunately, none really captured the spark of the original, instead showing increased signs that the post-apocalyptic zombie drama was wearing thin. Still, the story of Clementine was unfinished, and fans were pining for closure for a character they'd come to embrace throughout the years.
Enter The Walking Dead: The Final Season. To say it was a struggle for this four-part conclusion to get completed would be an understatement. Midway through development, Telltale suddenly closed shop, leaving the fate of Clementine and gang more up the air than ever. Happily, Skybound Games stepped in, recruiting a small batch of the original developers to see the season through to the end. It’s a remarkable achievement that it got done, let alone at such high quality. Of course we’ll never know what might have been, but play all four episodes together and you’re unlikely to notice any behind-the-scenes transition at all.
Jumping forward three or four years from the previous season, Clem is no longer the adorable little girl we met all those years ago in the treehouse. We’ve watched her grow in the various games, both physically and mentally. Having spent most of her life trying to survive, she’s become much stronger, but still manages to be sensible and caring. That is even more important now that she’s looking after a walking and talking AJ, who appeared hitherto only as a baby.
Indeed, “AJ is always listening.” Those words gave me pause when they appeared on-screen. While AJ doesn’t actually call Clementine his mother, that is essentially her role, and like any child he is learning from you, just as Clem once learned from Lee. She teaches the child mantras to live by – and when death is around every corner, these are even more meaningful. I wanted to make sure that every action I performed, every word I spoke, was geared towards making AJ the best he could be. Not only the best at staying alive, but also as a decent and friendly human being, like telling him not to swear. Those who do the same will find it can prove difficult, not least because AJ hasn’t had much of a chance to integrate with others.
It’s the relationship between Clem and AJ that provides the appealing core that kept me engaged, and it's both delightful and distressing to see how their relationship grows over the course of the season. Considering the hell that Clementine has been through, it’s a miracle that she’s as well-adjusted as she is. AJ, on the other hand, is struggling with a lot: violence, mortality, knowing the difference between right and wrong. It’s the latter which proves contentious – in a world like this, what’s considered right anymore? Though at the beginning AJ is accepting of his guardian’s rules, like any child seeking to exert independence he soon begins challenging them. I wanted to keep him sheltered, but it’s just not possible. As is the raison d'être of these games, there are times when there’s no good outcome, and AJ will have to make tough decisions based upon everything he’s learnt.
As the game begins, we join the pair as they’re driving through the country, on the hunt for food. Clem is at the wheel, and AJ is fiddling with a loaded gun. While he says he’s too old for the nickname “goofball”, seconds later he’s complaining about having to practice his reading – still a kid at heart, despite the violence all around. They soon come across an abandoned railway hut, but things take a turn and they end up at a boarding school, occupied by children of various ages after the teachers abandoned ship. Marlon, an older boy with an awful haircut, is in charge and seems to have a good thing going with mapped safe zones and hunting grounds. I never feel completely safe when playing as Clem – disaster seems to follow her, or maybe it’s just inevitable for everyone – but it’s a nice change of pace to meet others that are all similar in age to our protagonist and aren’t completely jaded by the grimness of reality, each possessing various levels of childhood naivety.
There are ten kids in the school and you’ll get a chance to interact with all of them over the course of the season, albeit some more significantly than others. One early scene involves Clem leading AJ around the group to try to integrate him, which is serviceable as a device but a bit by-the-books in its execution. You’ll meet Louis, quippy and full of swagger; Violet, more hardened and sarcastic; and Brody the anxious dreamer. Some skirt close to archetypes, but time spent with them is never dull. As usual, it’s often the quieter moments that stand out. Early on, Louis is playing the piano while a hesitant AJ watches, convinced that it must be dangerous because it’s loud. But when he hears a rendition of “Oh My Darling, Clementine”, he gasps and his eyes light up. It’s simultaneously heart-warming and sad. In this universe, music has become a luxury and is perhaps even more powerful because of it.
Another friendly face is Tennessee, a younger boy near AJ’s age who has lost his sisters. The two bond over a different artistic exercise: drawing. Tennessee is one of the few who believe in the afterlife, or at least openly talk about it, and he reflects that in his artwork. When AJ picks up the pencils, he draws himself protecting Clem with a gun. It’s not lingered on, and I appreciated the subtlety as again I felt that mix of emotions. It’s great that this young boy can express himself through drawing, but that his inspiration is rooted in wielding a weapon is dismaying. But he’s a product of this world and hasn’t known anything before it, a fact clearly demonstrated by his jumpiness and possessiveness.
During the third episode, before a battle commences the kids gather together to plan a party within the school. You get to help choose the decorations and music selections, which is a cheerful departure from the usual bleak decision-making. They all sit around reminiscing, sharing stories both light and dark. This nicely fleshes out certain characters’ backstories, but also helps slow things down for a moment and remind you that these are still children, surviving not only the troubles of their present, but of their past as well.
The brief scene that directly follows is sure to get eyes welling up. Some may feel it lessens the impact of a pivotal event in Clementine’s past, and I would have been inclined to agree except that it’s written and portrayed so well that I couldn’t help but appreciate it. In a season that focusses on Clem caring for others, it’s great to hear her internal thoughts and get support from someone she loves. Plus, knowing that this is the final season of The Walking Dead, it only seems right to include such a welcome callback.
As is standard with a Telltale production, though always worth highlighting, the voice acting is high calibre across the board, and Skybound thankfully was able to retain the same cast when taking over. Special acknowledgement must go to Melissa Hutchinson as Clementine, who once again infuses the role with raw and powerful emotion at yet another age of development, one of the key reasons the character continues to be so endearing. I went back and listened to her in previous seasons and the transformation over the years is stark, displaying a remarkable range of acting talent – I’d forgotten how young and innocent Clem used to sound. Everyone else is great here too, lending authenticity and natural flow to the dialogue. Taylor Parks sounds slightly too old but does a wonderful job of conveying AJ’s curiosity. Some of the later episodes, where his fear and anger are heightened, are incredibly convincing.
If you’ve played a Walking Dead game before (and if you haven’t, this isn’t the place to start), you’ll already be familiar with how to progress the story. What’s changed is that the occasional ‘exploration’ elements are now presented in an over-the-shoulder camera perspective that you can control separately from character movement. This has the benefit of drawing you closer to Clem, both literally and figuratively, and is a great addition. Nevertheless, the actual adventuring is as limited as ever. You’re always confined to a specific environment or room, and if you try to veer elsewhere you’ll encounter a conveniently placed blockade or just a dismissal of your action from Clem. Frankly, at this point it’s expected so not a big deal, plus it keeps the story moving. There’s stuff peppered around that you can inspect or pick up, some of which, in a cool touch, can be placed in your room at the school later. But there’s once again nothing that would constitute a 'puzzle' with the inventory you collect.
How you dispatch the ravenous zombies has also been tweaked, though the infamous Quick Time Events – mashing the right button on either keyboard or gamepad as dictated by an on-screen prompt – still exist. Some battles give you direct control of Clem, though they’re on-rails with no finesse or complexity involved. Sure, you can choose which enemy to approach first, but you’re moving inside a small zone and they all need to be killed anyway. A press of a button will let you temporarily disable a walker or go in for the full kill. Despite the varied animations, these two actions soon grow repetitive. I was also disappointed with some of the scenes where you freely aim with a weapon, in which the controls aren’t tight enough to be satisfying. I ended up dying a couple of times during these encounters and never felt they were deserved because the enemies behaved inconsistently. I actually prefer the older QTEs because at least they make for a more cinematic experience – that’s what this franchise excels at, not half-hearted combat mechanics.
Speaking of zombies, there are a couple instances throughout where they seem to exist only to advance the plot. Clem and the gang can find themselves reasonably safe one moment and then suddenly surrounded by hordes of the undead the next, without any proper sign of where they came from. It makes for solid thrills, but it’s illogical. There are also a few times where previously established rules, like how to blend in with the undead or how they infect people, are dropped for dramatic license. These quibbles are minor when you consider how well-written and plotted everything else is, but they did take me out of the moment on occasion.
The bulk of the gameplay is of course handled through conversation. At points you get three dialogue options – and silence – which let you choose how Clem responds and interacts with those around her. You’ve only got a limited time to select, which puts the pressure on. There are no changes to how this works from previous seasons, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. There are contextual choices that affect short-term circumstances too, like whether you let AJ sleep under the bed as he wishes, or who you turn to for support during an argument. Some of these don’t have any major consequences when comparing one choice over another, but often work well as morality questions.
There are decisions, however, that do have a bigger impact. It’s no spoiler to say that not everyone will make it to the end. You have influence over how that plays out, though whether it’ll go exactly as you want is an entirely different matter. This means that segments of the game can play out slightly differently depending on who remains in your party. Completionists will want to play multiple times to check out the various permutations, but while some interactions or conversations may change, the overarching story itself always remains the same.
Much of the season is spent within the school grounds and its surrounding area, which can feel restrictive and sometimes presents pacing problems, but does succeed in establishing it as your home. Despite falling into disarray, with broken windows and collapsing roof, the building is surrounded by a solid brick wall and make-shift barriers that form a fortified perimeter. Annoyingly – but perhaps understandably given the upheaval mid-season – there’s a general reliance on recycled locations; when venturing out you’ll spend an awful lot of time wandering through similar-looking woods. There are not many standout locations aesthetically, but it’s the moments within them that make them memorable anyway.
The more you explore, the more you’ll notice how superior the graphics are compared to previous outings. Characters retain their distinctive outlines and sketch-like marks, but are more expressive than ever before, or at least better at showing nuance. Their eyes now effectively represent windows to the soul, especially in close-ups. Backgrounds really extend the graphic novel feel, submerging things in deep, inky blacks that push the gritty atmosphere. The use of lighting is better too, like shadows cast on people’s faces or fires illuminating an area. Elements like hair, clothes and plants have more movement to them too, though sometimes this is overdone and looks out of place.
One thing I want to single out as wholly impressive is a sequence near the beginning when Clem and AJ are escaping a horde of walkers, which offers some of the most thrilling action the series has ever produced. It’s presented without any camera cuts, smoothly switching between cutscene and player interaction (a combination of third-person and brief first-person) and masterfully directed. You feel right there in the moment; the unrelenting panic of the pair is palpable, visible on their faces as they do everything they can to survive. These games often highlight the horrors of humankind, which is wise, but sometimes at the expense of turning the zombies into more pedestrian obstacles – that’s not the case here, where it’s properly tense and the protagonists are confronted with an all-out threat.
There is similar excitement to be found in the other episodes, too. Another favourite of mine comes in the third instalment, where some of the kids are infiltrating a docked ship at a pier on the forest outskirts while under attack. Not only are they up against the zombies, but also humans raining bullets down upon them. Visually it’s excellent, with a beaming spotlight adding to the dramatic tension and disorientation, and the scene keeps its foot on the pedal as Clem wades through undead-infested water in a bid to remain hidden. Sadly, it was hugely frustrating for me that this entire sequence chugged from technical problems – a Telltale staple that I’d hoped had been eradicated, or at the very least not carried over by Skybound. This was the only time it happened, unsolved by a restart of the game, but it sucked nonetheless.
Total playtime is around eight hours for the four episodes, which is a satisfying length. Now that the game is complete, you’ll likely wolf them all down one after another, since the first three end on shocking cliffhangers. Despite the unsteady development cycle and restrictive scope sometimes working against it, The Walking Dead: The Final Season mixes strong interpersonal dialogues with superb action set pieces, and it ultimately represents an entirely suitable closure to Clementine’s story. The idea to rest the narrative on the unique dynamic between her and AJ was a smart one. Seeing how their relationship grows and changes throughout the course of events is always engaging, allowing for no shortage of tender and gut-wrenching moments alike. In my eyes, the ending is pitch perfect, so it feels right that this is the finish. Goodbye Clementine, The Walking Dead and Telltale Games. Thanks for the ride.