Playing ‘A House Divided’ reminded me of The Walking Dead: Season 1’s best moments. Our first chance to play as Clementine, in January’s ‘All That Remains,’ was emotionally charged and mechanically competent, but a few narrative missteps and shoddy character exposition–alongside the usual Telltale engine screwiness–left it feeling a bit underwhelming compared to Season 1’s best. But in ‘A House Divided,’ The Walking Dead is firing on all the cylinders that make truly memorable experiences. Gameplay fat has been trimmed to leave a series of intense dialogue choices and exciting combat scenarios. At over two hours’ runtime, there’s ample screen time for moments with each of Episode 1’s characters–moments that, crucially, contribute to meaningful character development and don’t feel rushed. There’s even time left for some new faces, including a positively gut-wrenching antagonist that adds much-needed focus to this season’s story and where it might end up.
To say much about where ‘A House Divided’s story takes Clementine and her new group, as always, risks ruining narrative that hinges its emotional impact on surprise. And there are plenty of surprises to be had. We’re reaching a point in this season where Clementine (and the player) is starting to grow attached to certain members of the cast, and any Walking Dead aficionado knows what tends to happen next. In a season’s early throes, we know not to expect an abundance of character deaths and story shake-ups; even if there are, it’s unlikely they’ll emotionally rattle us in the same way as later twists, which have the advantage of deeper characters and a longer journey to up-heave. Episode 2 steps into that mid-season intensity with confidence, taking advantage of unpredictability to wield a sharp narrative knife. My expectations were challenged at every turn. As a viewer of the AMC television series, it was very easy for me to draw parallels between the original series’ Governor and Telltale’s new, positively sinister villain, William Carver. But even that assumption betrayed me–there are stark personality differences to offset the surface similarities, and by the episode’s end, my hatred for Carver was perhaps even greater than my disdain for the Governor.
My emotional investment in Episode 2 has a lot to do with the frequency of branching dialogue and how closely your choices are tied to the way characters perceive Clementine. Episode 1’s focus on defining Clementine’s personality continues here, with options ranging from sweet innocence to cynical badassery, but there are so many more moments of "So-and-so will remember that." More and more, Clementine is trusted with making decisions on behalf of the group, and as these people seem to have moved past their initial distrust of her, there’s room for real feelings to develop at just about everything she says. On top of that, the instances in which your urgent decision can have a life-or-death impact on the group are more frequent than ever. This, combined with my greater understanding of all the supporting characters, made the conversations in ‘A House Divided’ the most engaging part of the episode–no small feat, given other gameplay improvements.
Primarily, these come through the way Telltale has "purified" The Walking Dead’s moment-to-moment action. I’m reminded of Season 1’s first couple episodes–how big chunks of gameplay involved walking around as Lee, talking to several different people and pursuing every dialogue option while collecting items for esoteric uses. These sizable exploratory sections are (almost) completely absent here. More so, the game jumps from conversation to combat and back again, with punctuated moments of full character control in-between. This works to the benefit of the experience–Episode 2 feels fast and fluid, and without an undue amount of downtime handed to the player, the pacing is rock-solid. There’s an underlying confidence that strengthens the game, as if the creators understand that now we’re invested in the new cast and aren’t sure what’s going to happen next, there’s no reason not to spend every gameplay moment on character interaction or moving that mysterious plot forward.
To top it all off, it gives me great pleasure to say that ‘A House Divided’ brings The Walking Dead closer than ever to technical perfection. Given my annoyance at issues of framerate, loading times, and stuttering visuals in just about every Telltale game I’ve played, I was watching like a hawk for those things to reappear here. For the most part, they didn’t. I noticed two or three framerate drops upon loading certain scenes, and the beginning (summary) cutscene was just a little jittery. But by and large, I don’t think The Walking Dead has ever looked and played this smoothly. That’s to say nothing of the typically excellent music, including a very nostalgic tune from Season 1 played at the perfect time and an emotionally charged cover during the credits that fit my post-episode feelings perfectly.
For me, there’s little question: ‘A House Divided’ is the best episode yet of Telltale’s The Walking Dead series, Season 1 included. What its longer runtime affords in terms of character development, story progression, and can’t-look-away gameplay moments creates a sum-total excellence that will be extremely hard to beat in future episodes. Episode 2 earned my investment in characters that Episode 1 mishandled, introduced new heroes and villains that will shape the story to come, and kept framerate drops at bay for a smooth experience that never broke my immersion. Interactive stories have never been this good.