Late in the fifth and final episode of The Walking Dead: Season Two, a character grimly announces, “So much time is spent trying to stay alive that you’ve got no time for living,” and that hectic grind pretty much sums up this interactive novel/game. Whereas Season One found a balance between the light point-and-click adventure-game puzzles it based itself upon, quick-time events that could get through to more active gamers, and the moral decision-making and branching narratives that made games like Mass Effect 2 so popular, Season Two is a cannibalized shell of itself. The puzzles are now all but abandoned (episode three, “In Harm’s Way,” rarely grants you any environmental control) and the zombie-shooting QTEs have grown stale and repetitive (save for a gruesome suturing sequence in episode one, “All That Remains”). There are a few danger-free moments of calm living (one in which you innocently decorate a Christmas tree, another in which you attempt to capture a raccoon), but for the most part, every inch of the game is spent leaping from one agonizing ethical decision to another.
This leaves little room for character development, and perhaps due to the branching narratives, it’s not unusual for someone like pregnant Rebecca to go from demanding that you be turned away from their group to running her every decision past you. If you sense betrayal coming from certain so-called friends, it’s not because they ever let it slip, but because the game constantly insists that you trust nobody (and then demonstrates why this is the case). Worse, central characters like Jane and Luke are used as dramatic crutches by the writers: No matter what you say to them, you can’t get them to back down, as the game is fueled by their tense arguments. Much of season one’s success came from the rapport gradually developed between Clementine and Lee (something you can see replicated in The Last of Us); season two takes narrative shortcuts to swiftly befriend characters like Nick and Mike, and subsequently, should they die, it’s no great loss. Worse, it brings back season one’s Kenny, and while this act succeeds in showing us how much Clementine has matured over the last 18 months, it’s at the cost of Kenny’s growth, for he’s forced to spend most of the time basically reenacting a greatest hits of his reckless anger.
That said, The Walking Dead can’t exactly be faulted for serving more of the same, especially as that’s what audiences seem to want. The writing remains generally strong, especially when it comes to giving players the illusion of control in their big dramatic dialogue choices. It also gets major points for changing the player’s perspective from that of an ex-con who was able to use force as a negotiating tool to that of an 11-year-old girl who, despite a tough-as-nails attitude, is frequently flung around by bad guys (or zombies) like a sack of potatoes. It’s also worth noting that, in episodic form (a feature-length installment once every few months), the game’s lack of purpose isn’t nearly as apparent, and the abrupt cliffhangers are more effective. (They’re still really cheap and exploitive, however—and it makes you wonder if R. L. Stein, of Goosebumps fame, is an uncredited writer.)
But playing through all of The Walking Dead at once makes it clear that, perhaps for the sake of the various properties in this franchise, there’s no real beginning or end to this saga; it’s just one infinitely echoing middle.