Outrunning The Walkers
So, here we are at the third episode of the Telltale take on Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead series. For anyone that is jumping into the series now, I have some absolutely essential advice; don’t do it unless you’re willing to play through the previous two episodes. This is a “serial” episodic game in that what you play now has all of its meaning and context derived from decisions made in the past two games. Unless you’re the sort that loves to jump into well-established situations and characters with little clue as to the subtle and significant ties of everything around you, it’s not advised.
It’s A Dark, Dark Road
In the classic narrative arc, “the middle” is usually the good part, where established characters now get into conflicts, stakes are raised the proverbial fecal waste impacts at great velocity on the thermantidote. That’s pretty much what happens here, as much out of design necessity as out of any natural sequence of events. The mechanics of The Walking Dead’s particular spin on the adventure game genre are well established now. Players know there are timed dialog responses, that certain “action” sequences require a steady hand, and there will be some puzzle solving and inventory management, though not to the heights of twisted logic the genre normally loves to dabble in.
So what Telltale does is put the screws to these characters you’ve already spent two episodes getting to know and care about. It’s just about all Telltale can do without the design challenge of introducing new mechanics, but fortunately this episode’s writer, Sean Vanaman, is up to the task. I’m not going to venture into spoiler territory since what happens next is the heart and soul of this episode, but I will say that if you’re at all familiar with the source material, then what transpires in episode 3 isn’t a complete shocker. Robert Kirkman crafted a series in which humans are a far greater threat than zombies, and no character no matter how likable, is safe from a random, brutal death. Those rules still apply here. This episode really ups the ante for all the characters and by the end of it, one of the great highlights for narrative in gaming has entered the books, with the kind of water cooler moments that bear discussion with other fans.
Once again, all the actors contributing to the game do a fantastic job of pulling engaging performances out of these characters. In particular the dynamic carefully nurtured between Dave Fennoy’s Lee Everett and Melissa Hutchinson’s Clementine builds a crucial emotional core that the rest of the story relies on. In this regard, The Walking Dead series continues its impressive climb to be not just one of the best adventure games of the year, but one of the all time classics.
The only place where the game really stumbles is in the mechanical department. Once again, probably as a result of Telltale’s commitment to a monthly episodic series, bugs creep into the game. Nothing actually breaks it outright, but with so much of the game’s impact reliant on its emotional moments, things like a mother embracing an invisible child, or a high angle look down at a character who should be sitting—and is instead standing, blocking the view of the camera with his chest—pull players out of the wonderfully crafted character moments Telltale worked so hard to create.
As with the past episodes, Long Road Ahead is a winner by adventure game standards, as one of the most successful adaptations of a comic property, and perhaps more importantly, a game that even non-fans of the adventure genre can enjoy. Some of the best storytelling in games is going on right here, and while it doesn't have the production values of Heavy Rain, neither does it have that game’s large, gaping plot holes. I’d urge everyone to put up with some immersion-breaking bugs for the best adventure game of 2012.