Telltale Games has reached a level of narrative mastery with its Walking Dead episodic series that makes gameplay inconsistencies all the more apparent. That’s not intended as a major slight against the latter: the (relatively) seamless shift between exploratory gameplay, riveting dialogue, and intense cutscene has always been one of the strongest suits of this ongoing tale. All the same, what Telltale is doing so right with characterization, plot development, and pacing make moments where gameplay immersion breaks down more frustrating. These moments don’t stop "In Harm’s Way" from being the most impactful episode yet, if not the most consistently great.
Minor spoilers for "In Harm’s Way" ahead. My discussion of this game’s quality necessarily demands reflection on characters and events critical to the plot.
Take, for example, a combat section about halfway through. The usual Walking Dead window dressing is observed: tense music kicks in, the camera starts shaking, pint-sized heroine Clementine runs away from an approaching zombie threat in a space with limited options for escape. The quick-time prompts are subtle: a red arrow pointing to the left, an X button that needs mashing. Clementine crawls behind an up-turned table and attempts to wriggle away from the walker behind her. The subtlety stops: "Hold LEFT on the left stick to escape!"
Well, thank you for the warning–I probably wouldn’t have moved without that prompt. What’s problematic here isn’t the controls or even that I’m given warning, it’s that the warning is even necessary to begin with. Unlike with Uncharted, where the blurring of cinema and gameplay is established very early on, I’m never playing The Walking Dead with a constant push on the analog stick. I’ve grown used to the smaller button prompts, and I expect them to jolt me back to reality from the pleasure of watching, not playing, the on-screen action. A sudden moment of directional freedom demands explanation because it’s not the norm, and that explanation–where I prefer invisible mechanics–snaps me out of the experience.
The interplay between exploratory sections has been handled better, too. Walking Dead episodes always seem to trade some amounts of investigative freedom and linear dialogue, with each "type’s" prevalence changing in each episode. "In Harm’s Way" refuses to spread this content. Early on, we get what promises to be an extended exploration of Bill Carver’s makeshift prison yard, where Clem and gang are now being kept. You can even hear background conversation while deciding whether to chat up group members or look for a way out–the embedded choices are many and the emergent storytelling rich. Your exploration gets cut off by the game proceeding with scripted cutscenes–I LOVE the urgency of knowing I don’t have time to exhaust all the on-screen options. But that’s it. The rest of the game’s runtime (long, by Telltale standards, at nearly two hours) is almost entirely dialogue branching, scripted action, or moments of freedom where my environmental choices were so minimal as to be irrelevant. Every one of these gameplay sections has its place in crafting a story that grips me, but the sweet spot is likely an even spread of all of the above.
In other respects, "In Harm’s Way" impresses and even surprises. The opening credits appear throughout the first cutscene, which elegantly eases us back into a world we take month-long breaks from. Background conversation makes exploration feel less sterile. Unremarkable characters are introduced to new faces, reminding me of their names and identities. Unfortunately, some of these characters are still failing to leave a lasting impression on me. Luke and his brother, Nick (whose name I had to look up), are probably the biggest offenders. There hasn’t been much in the way of exposition for either character since the first episode, and any action sequences involving them are extremely short-lived. There’s just not enough reason to care when you stand guys like this up against Clementine, Carlos, and even newcomer Jane, whose four or five lines before episode’s end made her infinitely more interesting than most of the established cast.
On the whole, though, "In Harm’s Way" leaves a serious emotional impact. Its biggest strength, and what it brings to the table more than any prior episode, is characterization of the self. Clementine’s interactions are, occasionally, as much an interaction with her own feelings as with her fellow survivors. Whether she tells Carver he has the right idea of governance, calls him out as a murderer, or responds to his emotional prods with silence, she’s convincing herself at the same time. This human phenomenon of talking oneselves into and out of things–identities, ideas, values–makes dialogue choices more difficult than ever. We are challenged to not only shape Clementine’s identity on the fly but instead consider how internal conflict (ours and hers) fuels those decisions. The fact that she’s convincing herself as much as other people deepens her character on a level unseen in modern video games–she’s growing up in the apocalypse, making identity decisions that are all the harder for it.
Even in the face of a review with more negative talking points than positive ones, "In Harm’s Way" must be commended. This is Walking Dead storytelling at its very best, pushing things forward at a comfortably exhilarating pace while injecting small gameplay surprises and deepening characters (at least, the important ones). The usual gameplay trappings–rooms of the "exploration" and "scripted" variety–remain fun, but an overabundance of the latter relaxed my intense involvement to more complacent viewing. But familiar technical issues weren’t to blame this time: framerate dips are almost non-existent, and long loads aside, the entire experience was uninterrupted. That leaves "In Harm’s Way" firmly among The Walking Dead’s better episodes, and in a collection of nine and counting, that’s no easy feat.