Just as a heads up, I mention a name in this article that could give away one of the bigger plot twists of the second season. If you’ve already played the previous episodes, you’ll know who I’m talking about. But, if you’re saving yourself for the disc release of the second season, I’d avoid reading this review. You have been warned!
The Walking Dead franchise has taken the world by storm. Robert Kirkman’s humble graphic novel, which gained a cult following soon after its first release back in 2003, has had a meteoric rise from its niche beginnings to become one of the most talked about shows on our TVs. Suffice to say, The Walking Dead is pretty much a household name. The thing that makes The Walking Dead so popular (other than the graphic violence and Kirkman’s penchant for ruthlessly killing off key characters) is the masterful way in which the story is told. The franchise is incredibly story and character driven and, whilst the violence and action wins over some audience members, the thing that most people come back for is the character relationships and how these characters develop over time.
One of my favourite things to do is to look back at the old graphic novels, or watch some of the episodes from the first season of the show, and then compare the characters there to the characters in the later editions and the later seasons. Just as the black and white Rick of the comics has changed considerably over the issues, Andrew Lincoln’s Rick is almost unrecognisable when you look at the character from the first season and compare him to the fourth. Why am I talking about this in a review, you might be wondering. Well, for me at least, the key component to the success of The Walking Dead franchise isn’t the zombies. There are plenty of zombie games, TV shows and films out there that don’t have the cult and mainstream following of The Walking Dead. The thing that The Walking Dead does better than anything else out there is tell a deep and meaningful story through characters that you can connect with, and no game developer can emulate that better than Telltale Games.
The first season of Telltale’s gameification of The Walking Dead was brilliant, but the second season is exceptional. Telltale used the first season as a spring board for the series, by creating characters that we grew to love and by weaving those characters into a story that is capable of running across a multitude of episodes and a number of series. The risk with anything ‘Walking Dead’ is to get too far ahead of yourself. It is, in its most basic form, a story of survival. To create the true Walking Dead winning formula, you need to base any sub-plot around the overriding theme of survival. You can’t have the main theme being anything other than that, otherwise it just won’t work. Telltale clearly considered this because, in the first season, you play as Lee who is safeguarding and ensuring the survival of his group but, most importantly, the survival of Clementine. In the second series you play as Clementine with the most important theme, once again, being her survival. I spent much of the season thinking “what would Lee want me to do in this situation” and the majority of my decisions weren’t based on the survival of the group, but on the survival of Clementine. I think that’s a real win for Telltale; in Clementine they’ve created a character that you truly care for, and that’s no mean feat. The season just passed wasn’t about finding a cure, or building a safe haven for the survivors. The season was about keeping Clem alive and moving forward (wherever forward may be), and that’s why ‘No Going Back’ was the perfect end to another perfect season of story telling from Telltale.
Much of ‘No Going Back’ is rather slow as it built up quite gradually, especially when you consider the violent end to the previous episode, ‘Amid the Ruins’, which flowed over into the beginning of this episode. But, when you contrast it to the final episode of the first season, a slow start is rather fitting. Season one ended on pure action and a massive cliff hanger, where you felt as though there was still more story to tell. Season two feels like it has brought the unanswered questions of the first season to a close; it kind of feels like we can finally leave Lee to rest. It highlighted that not everything about survival is action packed and, rather than having epic shoot-outs galore, Telltale opted for a more personal finale. Obviously that doesn’t mean that you won’t be loosing people along the way, as the episode itself is actually quite traumatising. But instead of having all out action, all of the time, the episode is punctuated by moments of intensity which calm down as quickly as they bubble up. It helps to make the big events of the episode more meaningful as, rather than moving between each powerful moment in rapid succession, you’re left to dwell on the events in the frequent periods of downtime. It gives you a greater sense of the magnitude of the events, as you can sit and contemplate your actions once you’ve made your decisions. Thoughts of “could I have saved them had I made the other choice?”, or, “what would have happened if I had done this instead of that“, rattle through your head as you try to make sense of the events that had previously unfolded. The choices you’re faced with are not easy, by any means.
Something that has been quietly simmering in the background of this season is the mental stability of Kenny. Kenny had always been a bit of a hot head / prick, depending on how you want to look at it. Throughout the second season, Kenny has been getting more and more erratic; the trauma of loosing his wife, son, close friend and countless other people has clearly affected him and it has all warped him as a character. I had a slight love for Kenny in season one, but towards the end of the season that love quickly turned to sympathy. I saw a once confident man, wonderfully voiced by Gavin Hammon, become damaged and emotionally scarred; he seemed to be drifting through the apocalypse towards the end of the first season. I was at first pleased for his return in season two, but I quickly realised that Kenny had changed – he was now bitter, angry, and dangerous. He wasn’t anywhere near the man he once was, which is a real testament to both the writers and Hammon. This damaged man becomes the focal point of the final episode, representing more than just an emotionally scarred human being. Kenny becomes synonymous with the apocalypse, with decay and fear, anger, hatred, even death. He becomes everything that Clementine is trying to survive and you’ll quickly realise that there is no hope for people like that.
The title ‘No Going Back’ is fitting for this episode in so many ways. It punctuates characters like Kenny, who are mere shadows of the people they once were before the apocalypse, and it also highlights the plight of the survivors; this zombie problem is here to stay. But, for me, ‘No Going Back’ represents the departure of Lee and the closure of the first season. Season two has been all about Clementine but, in a way, it’s also been about Lee. Throughout the season, Lee has been our moral compass and we’ve almost been sitting and waiting for him to come riding to our rescue, on the back of a stallion. For me, I wished and prayed that Lee would return, that Telltale would make up some awful plot-twist where it turned out he had survived in some miraculous way. I knew it wouldn’t happen but, at the same time, I wished that it would. But in season two we’ve been working towards letting Lee go and cutting the apron strings, as it were. For me, the final episode represents the progression of Clementine, which has been building throughout the season. Clementine is no longer a child that needs taking care of, Lee has finally served his purpose.
In a way, that’s Telltale’s greatest achievement with this season. It has felt completely different to the first and, whilst I was a little sceptical about playing as Clementine, Melissa Hutchinson and the writers have done an incredible job of bringing this character alive and allowing her to stand on her own two feet. Season two has answered my questions from the previous episodes, it reaffirmed my connection with Clementine and warped it into something more meaningful; with Clem evolving from a child that needed protecting to a teenager capable of survival. Once again, Telltale Games have told the perfect story, an achievement which is shared amongst the developers themselves and the incredible cast of actors that voiced each and every wonderful character. So, all that is left to say I guess is here’s to season three, there’s definitely no going back now.