The recent successful years for Telltale Games is thanks in large part to the mega-hit The Walking Dead (season 1). This five part story tells the tale of a little girl who is shaped by the lessons of the season’s protagonist, and takes players on one of the most emotionally-tied roller coaster rides in recent gaming history. Fast-forward to today, The Walking Dead: The Final Season will conclude the story of that little girl, Clementine, who is nearing adulthood and passing on lessons to the orphaned child she is caring for – drawing many sharp parallels between the series’ first season and this final one. The first episode in that conclusion, titled Done Running, sets up the rest of the season with and endearing yet tattered crew of new characters to interact with and several powerful plot devices that are sure to spell trouble for Clementine in the coming episodes.
Done Running starts with Clementine and AJ (Alvin Jr., whose name he takes from his father after his parents were killed in Season 2) on the road and looking for a place to call home. Clementine has a little emotional/survivalistic baggage with the prospect of settling down because when she has tried to do so in the past it has always backfired, resulting in the death of her comrades and destruction of the places she’s called “home.” The causes a dynamic between Clem and AJ, as he just wants to stop living on the road, which leads to some really interesting dialog between the two. An example of this happens early on when the two stop to loot a train station for food. AJ is eager to point out ways that the location could become the spot to settle down yet Clementine, and her survival-hardened instincts, is quick to find imperfections. The player has some control over how Clementine communicates this to AJ, but all the dialog options have little influence on the life-or-death events that shortly follow. I wouldn’t expect this to be a common occurrence throughout the game, but it’s worth noting that many of the decisions in this episode tend to lead to the same events.
After their stop at the train station, Clem and AJ find themselves at a safe zone that use to be a private/boarding school before the zombie outbreak. Ericson’s School for Troubled Youth (fittingly) is run by a group of teenagers who are surviving together without any paternal or maternal influence. Kind of like Little Lamplight in Fallout 3, except when the children in Done Running grow up they aren’t sent off to live with the other “Mungos” in Lamplight. If fact, based on the track record of Ericson’s, it would be lucky if the children make it to becoming adults thanks to all the nuances and dangers of living in the zombie-infested world. Due to this Marlon (the leader of the children at Ericson’s) is eager to recruit Clementine and AJ into helping out around the school. It’s a plot that initially seems simple but takes a very sharp, unexpected turn during the finale of the episode. After the credits roll you are show a much more detailed recap of the choices you made (compared to previous Telltale games that I have played) which has me very excited for how they might impact this season going forward.
The story in this starting episode hits the standard of how Telltale typically writes out their first episode in any series/season. There is an action scene at the beginning giving you a taste of how combat and quick-time events are going to feel in the episodes to come. Soon after the story seems to play it very safe (especially in regards to Done Running), leaning more into letting you interact with the characters. You get to know your new associates on a decently intimate level before the finale rips your heart out based on your action at and up to that point in the story – leaving Done Running on a heavy, anxiety-inducing conclusion aimed at getting you intrigued at what could possibly follow up to it. This isn’t as much a critique on how The Walking Dead: The Final Season is structured, rather I was hoping Telltale might have created a conflict/story arc less in-line with all of their previous games.
The thing that has been fantastically overhauled is the combat in the game. I know what you’re thinking but bear with me. Where in the past the player character in Telltale’s The Walking Dead has been stuck executing combat in a linear, QTE structured way, The Walking Dead: The Final Season opens up the player’s ability to engage enemies in whatever order they see fit. This is done by putting Clementine in an open area and letting her approach any of the zombies in that area. When you get close enough you are given the option to stun or attack. Longtime fans of the series will surely remember that you will benefit from stunning a zombie first, then quickly finishing it off. The first time you are thrown into this (which you can try in the demo of Done Running if you aren’t quite sold) is in a more confined area aimed at teaching you how this feels. After that, areas are less restricted and there are environmental hazards and traps that Clementine can trigger. It may not sound as challenging but if a zombie gets to close before you stun and/or attack them, or if they are able to get behind you, then there is no escaping their bite.
The Walking Dead: The Final Season is off to a high-steaks and heart-pounding start with player choices that are sure to come back to haunt us in the episodes to come. It’s great to finally have AJ at our sides and seeing the way Clementine teaches him to survive brings back bittersweet memories of the relationship Clem had with Lee. I’m excited to see how AJ grows and where this path takes the both of them, and I’m leaving this episode feeling confident that The Final Season will pack a story worth remembering.