Telltale’s episodic return to its Walking Dead interpretation feels so much like 2012’s entries that it’s easier to see "All That Remains" as just the next piece of an ongoing saga of narrative mastery. Sure, Clementine’s return to your PlayStation console stands well on its own as post-apocalyptic interactive fiction and riveting character drama, but if an uninitiated player loaded up this installment immediately after playing the first season, I doubt they’d recognize "All That Remains" as anything loftier than "The Walking Dead: Episode 6." Obviously, this is a great thing, as exciting twists, intense dialogue, and gut-wrenching moments when the world and humankind are stripped to their worst elements are all here in spades. But along for the ride come the usual ruiners: Poor framerate frequently rears its head. Long loads separate distinct areas. Stuttering pauses interrupt everything from scene transitions to the Episode 2 preview. The game’s simple puzzles feel like pretty minor (even, unnecessary) roadblocks to progress.
Yet, The Walking Dead remains enthralling. Clementine is my favorite character in gaming right now, and taking this horrifying journey alongside her is a privilege.
Elevating Clementine to playable-protagonist status might be a logical, "next step" design choice, but the depth of emotion and personality imbued by voice actress Melissa Hutchison and the series’ writers always deserved more than being the story’s moral compass. It’s liberating to make dialogue and action choices as Clementine, rather than making similar choices around her presence, as some might have done with Lee in Season 1. Here, there’s no daughter figure to protect, impress, or shield from the world’s evils. You’re free to shape Clementine into a cynical survivor, vulnerable child, conniving rogue, or anything along the spectrum. I felt a great deal of ownership over Clementine’s personality and the journey we had undertaken by the episode’s all-too-quick end, and some of the game’s toughest choices actually come via her words and potential consequences, not from choosing who to save or leave behind.
In fact, the aforementioned dilemmas are conspicuously absent from "All That Remains," with one in particular barely eliciting an emotional reaction from me. For all my talk of this episode feeling like a seamless continuation of the story established in Season 1, there is a need for exposition as a host of new characters are introduced. It would be somewhat wasteful to expend character lives so early in this five-part arc, so it makes sense that less of the "Choose who lives" two-way streets would be present, but the exposition itself isn’t given time to breathe, either. Clementine only gets extended interaction with a few of several new characters, so some of the game’s choices–like picking sides mid-conversation or judging others’ behavior–feel premature and lack the kind of emotional weight that comes with having intimate knowledge of a person and what he or she might be thinking.
Still, there’s plenty of emotional weight behind the episode’s standout moments of grotesque mutilation and suffering. Telltale doesn’t pull many punches in presenting a world ravaged by scarcity–and truly presenting, not using cameras to hide the unpleasant stuff. I noted a few examples where harsh reality that Clementine witnesses is knowingly hidden from the player, but for every cop-out, there’s something horrifying to pull us right back into the world. Before this series is over, I want to know, feel, and understand Clementine’s pain in this world. That can’t truly happen without visualization of all the events that affect her.
The Telltale Tool game engine’s control scheme still does a great job of pulling you into the experience, though. It’s easy to see, at a glance, what you can interact with without those objects distracting from the scene at large, and the two-step combat action of moving your reticle to the right spot and pressing R1 adds frantic urgency to fights in a way that mere button presses cannot. Of course, timed movements in the cardinal directions are used to great effect when escaping from sticky situations, and the arrows are easier to spot amidst the chaos than in the previous season. The environmental puzzles, if they can be called that, feel toned down from Season 1, but taking their place are a few situations where simply being observant–remembering details about a room, or taking time to examine everything–can save your hide or open new dialogue branches later. The whole experience feels thoughtfully structured, with some the most relevant environments and objects in the series to date.
The understated music is fantastic, as well, with instrumental leaps and low, pulsing rhythms in equal measure. No matter what’s happening, the happenings are perfectly accented.
Despite the Telltale Tool’s obnoxious technical shortcomings, which I’m becoming increasingly less patient with, "All That Remains" is a riveting 90 minutes and a promising start to Clementine’s story. I’m on the edge of my seat to see where this still-young story goes, and I expect newcomers and Walking Dead veterans alike will feel the same. Bring on the cel-shaded aesthetic, branching conversations, and unrelenting bleakness. Hell, bring on the long loads and janky cutscenes. I’ll march through anything to take this journey. For Clementine.