It's tough for Telltale Games to keep clearing the bar that they themselves continue to set, but somehow, the studio manages it with every game it publishes. The highly anticipated first episode of Telltale's "The Walking Dead" Season Two is a testament to how Telltale continues to innovate and improve its storytelling through video games, and boasts an improvement both over Season One and even the first episode of the studio's "Fables" game, "The Wolf Among Us," which debuted earlier this year.
Season Two of "The Walking Dead" casts players as Clementine, the young ward of Season One's protagonist, Lee Everett. While the gameplay of a point-and-click adventure is still core to "The Walking Dead," the two experiences couldn't feel more different. Although she's slightly older in Season Two, playing as Clem -- who, while capable of survival, is still a child in a world full of danger -- is a vastly different experience from Lee, who always felt like he could handle most of what life threw at him. It's an evolution of the entire experience, and almost makes Season One feel like a tutorial by comparison. The emotion that players experience in the first few minutes of the episode is much heavier living it through Clementine, and while Lee's presence -- or lack thereof -- still looms large over every choice Clem makes, it's impossible to miss him when the story is this good.
That said, there are other characters to fill out the episode, and they're all impressively three-dimensional. Telltale does an excellent job reminding players that Clementine isn't the only one facing down a world gone to hell, and that human problems are still the central focus -- even when humans are surrounded by zombies. Expect a few familiar faces to show up, but don't rely on them to stick around. After all, nothing's certain in "The Walking Dead."
Indeed, writers Nick Breckon and Andrew Grant do an incredible job of continuing the "no one is safe" attitude of "The Walking Dead." "Survive" is the key word for the game, and even in the quieter moments it always feels like survival is a struggle. Throughout the episode, Breckon and Grant remind players that nothing is really safe in this world and challenge the traditional approach many gamers take toward choice-based games. Kindness is not always reciprocated; being agreeable and empathetic doesn't always get you what you want; and trust -- as always -- is never given freely, but earned at a steep cost. The core tenants of "The Walking Dead" are here in spades, and to its credit, "All That Remains" doesn't pull its punches.
Episode director Dennis Lenart came on to "The Walking Dead" Season Two fresh off of "The Wolf Among Us," and it's clear that he brought a few tricks from the "Fables" game to "All That Remains." Clem is much more agile than Lee ever was, dodging walkers with gusto, and quickly utilizing every possible advantage she can muster. Lenart has a strong directorial sense that shines in the episode, and I wouldn't be surprised to see his name cropping up on some of Telltale's other upcoming projects. Every shot, every piece of music serves to further enhance the experience, and it's difficult to identify any superfluous material.
Of course, the real star of "All That Remains" is voice actress Melissa Hutchinson, who delivers a more mature, more self-assured portrayal of Clementine for Season Two. Whether it's the desperation in an impossible situation, or slipping back into trying to be a child for just a few minutes, Hutchinson's three-dimensional portrayal of Clem is admirable. Players have the opportunity to hear the contrast between Season One Clem and Season Two, and Hutchinson absolutely nails the changes that 16 months of experience in "The Walking Dead" world make to a child. Clem's voice isn't just more mature, it's actively world-weary, and at times make players second-guess exactly how old Clementine is supposed to be. She's the more sympathetic, more resourceful version of Carl from "The Walking Dead" comics. It's challenging to come back to the same role and subtly evolve it, but Hutchinson absolutely nails the nuances of Clementine in an award-worthy performance.
Those who played through "The Walking Dead" Season One and the mini-episode "The Walking Dead: 400 Days" will definitely get more out of Season Two than those that didn't -- but it's actually impressive how new-player friendly "All That Remains" is. Telltale seems to have taken the same approach to its games as actual comics: every issue is someone's first. Even those that never picked up Season One will find something to enjoy.
Also of note is how smooth the play experience is this time around. During my playthroughs, I experienced zero technical issues, which is a nice change from the debut of Season One. The product really feels polished in a way that Season One seemed to lack. Choice is still king in "The Walking Dead" game, and Telltale has a new menu option to see how your choices stack up against all others who went through the episode. It's a nice feature that was previously relegated to the end of each episode played, and it's cool to see what the major moments are after the fact.
It seems impossible that Telltale can continue to maintain the quality it demonstrates in its comic book adaptations, but "All That Remains" once again sets a higher bar for the studio to clear in subsequent episodes and games. Much like "The Walking Dead" comic and television show, it doesn't seem like there's much to stop the game from the critical success of its predecessor. Telltale continues to show the world's developers how to do a comic book game right.
"The Walking Dead" Season Two: "All That Remains" is now available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.