The lights are on
The first episode of the second season of the critically-acclaimed game based on Kirkman's graphic novel The Walking Dead faced many hurdles, such as an entirely new protagonist in the young girl Clementine, and high expectations set through the tough choices that players made from the first season. These choices, due to players being able to transfer their saves, were expected to have their own consequences in a rapidly evolving narrative. Instead of faltering due to sequel fatigue, Telltale's risky move paid off: we got a dark narrative, a believable new hero in Clementine, and a promising new cast. Even despite the threat of the chaos presented by the zombie apocalypse, humans, as "Clem" continued to learn, still remained the greatest threat.
The first episode improved upon Telltale's classic model with gameplay that was more involved, and showed that they weren't afraid to subject Clem to the same dangers her adult peers faced. Players had not seen the results of our previous choices ripple through though, and the new cast was still largely shallow, with a few seeming like direct analogs to previous ones. However, the tensions showed new promises, and one mysterious villain kept us interested. I have to say that the second episode of The Walking Dead's second season raises the stakes and adds new wrinkles to a proven formula to prevent the series from becoming stale. Our previous choices even begin to surface as questions are finally beginning to be answered while simultaneously leaving us guessing.
Players are placed in the thick of danger as soon as the second episode starts, with players caught in the same zombie chase the first ended with, alongside the person you chose to save. I was pleasantly surprised by the desperation this event conveyed, throwing us into the action instead of easing us into it as the game's eerie themes played in the background. Unfortunately, there aren't many action scenes in this episode, which instead devotes its time to unveiling more about the group's past through how they interact with each other. This restrained method sounds like a step backward on paper, but in execution, - thanks in no small part to excellent voice acting - we're introduced to the characters in a way that no long conversation or exposition can replicate. One of the highlights comes with Clem's unexpected introduction to this season's villain, in a scene worthy of Hitchcock himself. The suspense is unbearable, and the writing has the chops to justify it.
Carver's arrival isn't the only noteworthy event in this episode; several other new dilemmas and surprises present themselves, with a couple familiar faces resurfacing - for more than a cameo, might I add - as we gradually learn more about the new group of survivors Clementine has found. How they hold up to the mounting pressure and inner conflict adds to the game's intrigue. There is finally a sense of history that begins to differentiate this new group from the cast of the first season, a minor complaint I had with the first episode, and seeing how an old friend's changed provides the narrative with a true sense of time and development. Watching Clem interact with them however, especially seeing how even she is now a mentor despite her age, perfectly executed in a scene that's a direct callback to the first season. Another of A House Divided's greatest improvements comes through gameplay.
We all know the formula: explore a few locations; complete light puzzles; interact with characters through a branching dialogue system; survive context sensitive action sequences; make an important decision. Telltale's approach to gameplay had improved somewhat, but at its core it remained essentially the same, and as a result was becoming stale. A House Divided revives - pun not intended - this approach by presenting the player, and by extension, Clementine, with several serious dilemmas that have to be resolved, often in the heat of conflict, rather than one singular choice. None of them have the moral heavy-handedness of typical choice-centered games as usual, and each of them comes with unexpected and possibly fatal consequences. Even the smallest decisions may leave players curious to see what unfolds, as each seems to foreshadow something more important. During these moments, Telltale's second episode is in rare form, filling the player with angst and nailbiting anticipation, which culminates in a spectacular climax that takes this season along a very dark path. I was already excited about the new direction the story had taken long before I watched the previews hint at the events of the next episode.
In terms of value, A House of Divided is a must-buy. Loyalties are tested; new choices bring a multitude of new questions, and nothing is certain, although the dangers are very concrete. Clem's forced to silently choose allies in an increasingly dysfunctional family as old skeletons come out of the closet. The potential seems to have more weight than a risky lead like Clem can handle. Yet Telltale continues to make Clementine into a believable and talented heroine with whom we can empathize for more than nostalgic reasons. A House Divided ups the ante for our heroine and promises a great emotional payoff as long as they keep the momentum going, but can they? That's a question I'm dying to see answered.