When I finished Episode 1 on May 1, I was proud of myself for choosing all of the minority actions, ready to set off on a unique storyline for the four following installments. When I reformatted my computer on May 12, it failed to cross my mind that maybe I should check my Steam files first.
This is a lesson I won't soon forget.
Luckily, unlike many of the characters in The Walking Dead, I get to live and learn, and to begin a fresh story with random choices in the second episode. I have a pretty terrible memory, so I figured I'd be able to assimilate any arbitrarily generated choices with reality fairly easily – any of them except one. The climax of the first episode presents players with a high-tension, life-and-death (literally) decision, and I knew that I had ended the game with Doug, the robot enthusiast, by my side. If Starved for Help didn't start me with my little robot-loving, nerd buddy, I'd flip. Fortunately for my blood pressure, I got Doug on the first boot-up, and all was well.
As well as surviving the zombie apocalypse can be, anyway.
Within that near temper tantrum lies a major flaw in my approach to The Walking Dead. Every moment of Episode 2 is grittier, gorier and more intense than the entirety first episode, and the story is just as compelling, the characters just as diverse and rich. As a reader of The Walking Dead comic series, I know that this is all an elaborate setup for pain, misery and loss. The only way to consume The Walking Dead is to approach it with the knowledge that every single person you see will die. They will die suddenly, painfully and probably while their intestines are ripped from their flailing, screaming body.
The fact that Telltale's The Walking Dead manages to make me block out this mental preservation mechanism and actually care about these characters – Doug in particular, for some reason – is a testament to the writing and story development of the game itself. The writing is superb and flows through the choices that Lee, the main character, must make in conversation and with every zombie-slaughtering action. I want Lee to be a strong, direct protagonist who only shows compassion to Clementine, the young girl he is tasked with seeing through this hellish world – and Telltale allows me to do that. Mostly. There was no predicting that Clementine would be standing right behind Lee when I had to make a particularly gruesome decision, for example.
Along with the physically violent aspects of group survival, Telltale manages to capture the emotional strain just as well. Lee is tasked with mediating two warring, self-proclaimed group leaders, doling out four rations of food among 10 people, and making decisions that affect the chances of survival of his entire camp. To players who may be more accustomed to brawny, god-like heroes in their action games, these moments of humanity highlight that Lee is not perfect, but neither is anyone else he encounters. This adds a beautiful depth to an otherwise action-heavy, point-and-click adventure.
Episode 2 finds Lee and his merry band of misfits three months after the end of the first episode, happening upon another farm run by a seemingly jolly, apparently kindly family. Remember, you can't trust anyone, especially anyone who greets you with a basket full of biscuits and an empty smile. It's impossible to base reactions on the look in people's eyes in The Walking Dead, since that is the one bit of faulty animation that really stands out. Most of the characters suffer from a severe case of lazy eye, or are outright cross-eyed – yes, even Doug – and it can lend some unintentional comedic relief to otherwise high-stress conversations. It's much easier to make a calm decision when you're discussing strategy with Crazyeyes McHick or his brother, Slackbrow Jenkins.
That's the over-arching sentiment of Telltale's The Walking Dead, beginning with Episode 1 and only getting better in Episode 2 – it's gross, it's gory, but it's mostly just an outstanding game. Episode 2 ends on a note that highlights the detail and thought behind its mechanics, with a video recording that includes a conversation of unique choices players made early on in the game, word for word, decision for decision. It's presented in a terribly disturbing manner, of course, but that's part of what makes it so wonderful.
But mostly wonderful.
This review is based on the final PC version of The Walking Dead: Episode 2 - Starved for Help.
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