Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Developers: Telltale Games
Publishers: Telltale Games
I never thought I'd feel sorry for a zombie.
There are times in this series, of course, where bad things happen to good people, and tragedy befalls the innocent and unaware, but even in those moments, you feel more for those left behind. But last night, playing through Episode Four of Telltale's masterclass in interactive storytelling I felt incredibly sorry for the creature whose head lay beneath Lee's boot, so much so that after it finally perished I had to take ten minutes or so away from the screen.
A game has never produced that kind of effect in me before. There have been plenty of moments of shock and awe, the excitement and the exhilaration that action games can bring, the moving nature of often bittersweet epic romances and relationships that are the domain of many an RPG, the satisfaction that comes with meticulous stealth, the personal narratives offered up by player choice. In this case, the choice is simple: do you do the dirty work yourself to spare the duty from others, or do you wash your hands and walk away?
But Telltale have a knack for making us care almost immediately. Whether through the stylised aesthetics that render facial expressions superbly, or through the superb voice acting on display, and indeed through the writing itself - Sean Vanaman's scripts in particular delivering some light and delicate touches that provide a little warmth in amongst the horror, and maybe even provoke a smile or two.
Gary Whitta's script for this episode is commendable, indeed, with some absolutely outstanding plotting. Lee's ragtag group of survivors find themselves in Savannah, on the hunt for a boat. But it's not just Walkers that they have to worry about; someone out there is playing games, fro the mysterious voice on Clementine's walkie-talkie, to whoever it is ringing bells all over town. Worse yet, they have an injured member, desperately in need of medication in a city that appears to have been gutted.
If Episode 3 was all about fragmentation, then this latest tale sees the group forced to band together more than ever before, faced with infiltrating a society that has cut itself off from the rest of the world, and has left the old, the young, the sick and infirm to die - forcing anyone who can't pull their weight, who isn't 100% healthy, into exile to protect a "pure" environment. In the isolated compound of Crawford, we're privy to one of the ugliest shades of the human condition,with the tenet of "survival of the fittest" replicated in harrowing fashion.
In this episode, more than ever before, you're forced to make serious decisions that affect the relationship between Lee and Clementine, none more so than who to trust when necessity separates the two of you. The unknown figures that stalk you, and the new faces you'll meet create situations where each choice is fraught with future consideration. Rather than immediate tension, or decisions where you've had most of the relevant information at your disposal to make informed decisions, Episode Four presents scenarios where you'll have to act on faith to a certain extent, hoping against hope that the choices you make are at least the right ones for her.
With that in mind, it's unsurprising that there aren't as many stabs of violent drama as perhaps there were in the last episode. New characters arrive in the form of a doctor, Vernon, who makes Lee a difficult, thought-provoking offer; Brie, a woman who's overcome cancer, just to see Mankind literally devour itself; and Molly, something of an action-heroine, who uses her hooked climbing blade to scale buildings and shatter the skulls off zombies.
The action setpieces are relatively numerous in this episode, so you're glad for the extra manpower, with more direct Walker encounters than ever before. The clunky shooting and button-mashing QTEs are still the order of the day, but certainly for the former, Telltale have changed the format ever so slightly. There were one or two moments where the horrifically clunky interface pulled us out of the story and made us swear repeatedly, but only one or two.
We also rather wish that Whitta had resisted the urge to put a couple of Star Wars references into the script, such as when Molly lends Lee her hooked blade. "I got your promise, now. Not a scratch," she says. Although no doubt attached to the blade - so much so that she named it - it seems strange, and frankly a little forced. The fact that we recognised it broke the immersion a little bit too, which wasn't great considering how crucial that particular quality is to this series. If you're going to be lighthearted, do it within the confines of the world for a game like this; the series is too good to have to resort to pop cultural references like that.
That being said, the penultimate episode does pretty much everything else right. It's tense, nervous, and a challenging experience, and the final few scenes come out of nowhere to raise the expectations for the finale through the roof. There's a slower pace to this episode, but the last moments will make the wait for Episode Five absolutely unbearable. It's been such a fantastic journey, and the thought of it coming to an end soon is almost heartbreaking, and when the final choice at the end of this episode comes, it's difficult to know who I'm doing it for. Is it for Lee? For the group? It's almost certainly for Clementine. In those moments, the way you've treated everyone, the way you've spoken to those around you, your loyalties and betrayals, they all come flooding back. It might not be the rollercoaster ride of the previous episodes, but number four is just as excellent, engrossing, and deeply emotional as those that have come before it.
- It nearly made me cry at a zombie's fate
- Some cripplingly difficult decisions and excellent plotting
- What an ending
- Pacing perhaps not quite as thrilling as the last episode
- Many of the new faces are disposable
- I spent half an hour trying to retrieve my previous save files. STUPID BUG!!!!
The Short Version: Whitta's script may not quite have the relentless explosive drama of the last episode, but it's incredibly moving in parts, brought to life by brilliant animation and fantastic voice work, with an ending that will make you beg Telltale to deliver the final episode as soon as possible.