Maybe not what you’re expecting, but in a good way.
I like The Walking Dead as a franchise. I may not be able to name every one of the Governor’s henchmen or the prison survivors, but I feel like I have a decent handle on this franchise. So, the overwhelming sense of déjà vu I got playing In Harm’s Way (the latest episode of The Walking Dead Season 2) may not apply to everyone. The episode spends its running time grabbing concepts and story beats that worked elsewhere, and repurposing them with new characters to varying degrees of success; there’s a reason these ideas worked in the first place.
After the previous installment’s explosive conclusion, the Clem Crew has been kidnapped and dragged back to Woodbury by the Governor. That is not entirely true, but it might as well be. Carver’s settlement doesn’t feel like a real place the same way that Woodbury did; there doesn’t seem to be much beyond the prison you’re stuck in. In fairness, the game does take advantage of the medium by allowing you to spend time with the people of Carvertown (as I will call it from now on).
As a result, In Harm’s Way addresses a problem that had loomed over Season 2 almost from the beginning: the characters. It was hard to not look at the Cabin Posse as a series of archetypes. But now the story is pushing and pulling at the characters in different ways. Now we get to see what these people are truly made of. And the game doesn’t chicken out; for me, the most uncomfortable scene in the episode had absolutely nothing to do with blood or zombies. It’s also mildly interesting to see characters from 400 Days, but aside from Bonnie, they’re relegated to cameo appearances.
There are some new characters introduced, but they just feel too familiar. There’s a new girl named Jane who has all the survival instincts of Season 1’s Molly, but without any of the personality. In some ways, she feels like a female version of Daryl from the comics. You would also think I’d immediately care about a character named Mike, but we have absolutely nothing to go on. We’ll probably get something to chew on from the both of them next episode, but for now, they feel like cannon fodder.
On the technical side, things have greatly improved. Now, when characters talk, the game doesn’t look like a grim and gritty sock puppet show. Which is great! In fact, the animations feel a lot smoother all round. It’s worth noting that I had to spend a fair amount of time futzing around just so the game would launch properly. Yes, I am well aware that a Mac laptop is not the best place for gaming, but to knowingly sell a game on a platform drops most of the responsibility on the publisher.
The game still runs quite well, especially during the sparse action sequences. In Harm’s Way is a generally quiet episode: apart from one scene, the game uses perfectly competent stealth levels and interpersonal conflict to carry the tension. This is a welcome return to form. A good dialogue between two characters will always be more interesting than scrambling to escape a zombie. And, now that we’re getting more depth from the cast, the interactive conversations are far more compelling.
Also, can we talk about the melancholy folk songs that have been playing over the credits? Look, that worked in the first season’s finale because it was the last episode and everyone was crying already. It was a real effective punch to the gut, and I will never forget that moment as long as I live. That song just washed over me as the more emotional parts of my brain processed what I had just saw. The first season earned that moment. Having a song during every credits sequence cheapens the effect, and I’ll be expecting it come finale time. The songs aren’t poorly chosen, and I listen to In the Pines on the ‘reg, but I can’t shake the feeling that Telltale only used this technique because it was in the first season.
I like what I’ve played of The Walking Dead Season 2 so far. And there’s nothing inherently bad about taking existing ideas and repurposing them. Telltale hasn’t screwed up yet in that regard. They’ve been smart about using what has come before. It would seem the new Walking Dead team has finally found their groove, at least in terms of how to move this series forward.
However, it might be too late for Season 2 to establish its own personality. This is very much a reactionary game, a long-form experiment in finding your way back home. It’s a good experiment, mind. I’ve made peace with the notion that all future Walking Dead releases will never reach the highs of Season 1. And that’s okay.