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The Walking Dead Season Two - Episode 4: 'Amid The Ruins' Review

24 July 2014

The penultimate episode of The Walking Dead: Season Two gets back toward the long-lost Telltale tradition of exploration and puzzle-solving. Neither is here in any great supply, with the former constrained in fairly small areas and the latter boiled down to merely trying a few things until something works. But even in small amounts, both serve to make the bleak world around Clementine and company feel a little more real, lived in, and worth fighting to remain a part of.

Editor’s note: This review contains spoilers for players who are not caught up with the end of Episode 3, “Amid the Ruins.” For those caught up, this review contains only minor spoilers for the importance of certain characters to Episode 4’s plot. Read at your own risk.

Deeper immersion in the environments of "Amid the Ruins" kept me engaged during otherwise detached moments where characters talked a lot without saying anything meaningful. There's ample opportunity here to continue forging Clementine's personality, even though her available responses err toward 'cynical' and 'world-weary' more often than not. The uninteresting scripts given to much of the supporting cast are offset by the fantastic characterization of Jane, Episode 3's surprise newcomer, and Kenny, a series mainstay who's seen plenty of hardship. As Clementine confronts more and more of humanity's darkness, transitioning from child to full-fledged survivor, these two characters start to mirror different options for developing Clementine as a character. Further details risk spoiling this episode's heaviest moments, but each character's behavior and outlook on life are at opposite ends of the post-apocalyptic spectrum. Jane and Kenny represent different possible futures for our once-meek protagonist; the way you respond to each character becomes a metaphor for what's morally right or most valued at the end of the world.

Heading into the finale, the player's freedom to shape Clementine into a personality mirror or carefully composed narrative anchor is the best part about The Walking Dead Season Two. The meandering plot is a far cry from holding the same intrigue. A notably high number of deaths and departures shake up much of the cast we've just started getting to know. Meanwhile, new faces, potential villains, and a somewhat plodding pace make "Amid the Ruins" feel like anything but escalation to a final conflict. In fact, after completing this episode, I have no idea what the finale's conflict will turn out to be. None of the narrative seeds planted by episode's end carry the kind of gravitas that builds feverish excitement for a conclusion. Still, the twists and turns of "Amid the Ruins" are surprising and well-executed, so I'm inclined to view this episode's seemingly aimless direction as a mishandling of the episodic format and not representative of a dip in overall narrative quality. Only time with Episode 5, and a broader look at the complete story, will justify Episode 4's many shake-ups or confirm they were purposeless.

In other respects, "Amid the Ruins" sets a precedent of quality I can only hope Episode 5 lives up to. At a technical level, this is Telltale's best console effort to date, retaining the heavy shadows and cel-shading that give the series its distinct graphic novel style while making few of the usual stuttery slips. The framerate still occasionally dips, in combat and conversation, but never enough to affect gameplay. The intermittent freezes that have soured my opinions of past Telltale games are nowhere to be seen. This comes at a certain cost, though. I noticed a little more aliasing than usual, and character animations seemed less articulate. But I'll take these concessions over failed button prompts and constant hitches any day.

That "Amid the Ruins" succeeds on a technical level benefits its QTE-heavy action, but combat is also handled better than in previous episodes. There's still some disconnect with aim-then-click prompts that arbitrarily place your reticle away from points of interest, but many of these moments offer meaningful mid-combat choice. Walkers can be attacked at different body points for varied results, and tense situations can demand you choose between a few objects around you. Wrong moves don't penalize you much; characters or cutscenes merely giving you a verbal or visual slap on the wrist. But in line with the episode's greater degree of overall freedom, options still make the world feel alive and responsive to your actions. Finally, the branching-path moments, where Clementine decides between who to follow or stay with, are a bit less obvious than ever. I couldn't always tell at a glance whether a choice would change something significant about my narrative, including where Clementine goes and who she ultimately interacts with. The world felt less like a programmed environment and more like a dynamic setting, in kind.

The supporting cast of "Amid the Ruins" is underused and shuffled around enough that I had trouble identifying or caring about the larger narrative direction, but I'm as invested in Clementine as ever. Almost every character represents a different type of survivor or inevitable victim; what type this increasingly corrupted girl will ultimately become is largely up to the player. Developing Clementine by navigating these relationships is the series' biggest draw. This bit is enthralling, and Episode 4 steps up the gameplay and polish to match. But without more interesting threads tying it all together, Season Two's yarn will never approach the lasting legacy of its predecessor.

-The Final Word-

"Amid the Ruins" is as polished and absorbing as The Walking Dead has ever been, but narrative missteps and throwaway characters diminish the impact of Clementine's growth.
  • Major characters mirror Clementine's growth
  • More exploration and freedom
  • No glitches and freezes
  • Slow pace
  • Broader plot loses steam
  • Supporting cast is boring
8.0
Platforms reviewed : PlayStation 3
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