Telltale released The Walking Dead: Season Two Episode 3 –In Harm’s Way was earlier this week, hot on the heels of Fables: A Wolf Among Us – A Crooked Mile. For those of you who played Episode 2 – A House Divided ( see our review here) you will pick up Clementine’s story right where you left off, on your way to the central location of Howes Department store.
Howes is the love child of Home Depot and Lowes, where every zombie geek argument ultimately ends up as the best place to hold down fort against the shambling dead. Howes comes equipped with rooftop greenhouses to grow plants, solar panels for electricity, and enough raw supplies to build any defensive structures you could want – it’s no surprise that this place is an appealing choice for so many wayward survivors.
Bill Carver, leader of the Howes group, has set up a “good” system for his people to survive these hard times. His methods may be militaristic and draconian, but they seem to work well, saving people’s lives. That is, of course, until he starts to kill off the “weaker links” to maintain the safety of the group. But here at Howes everyone has a job, and everyone works to keep the group safe and to keep the building up to date on its defenses.
While the introduction to the new community is short-lived before the plot is rushed in, there are little moments that let you know that the people of the Howes community are real people with real fears. Some may enjoy their positions of power a little too much, but they are a far cry from the marauding bandits and cannibals of Season One. They all have banded together with Carver not out of fear, but out of trust and respect that he has their best interests in mind.
This is where character motivations begin to break down, as backstory between the two groups is only vaguely hinted at without any concrete details laid out for you or Clementine. Everything is always “something happened between us” or “we have a history” rather than anyone saying what really happened, leaving you to speculate over past events. Much of the writing seems to want to show you how bad Carver is, but he’s really nothing more than Rick from the comics and Television series.
Both Rick and Carver blur the lines between “right” and “wrong” in the name of the greater good – the safety for those who look to them for protection and direction. Carver is a far cry from the famous Governor from the TV show and comics, but both he and Carver share several common character traits; both men believe that sacrifices must be made so the group can survive. However, while the Governor was psychotic – using his position of authority to create an illusion around his group that he was their only savior – Carver appears to only be a high-strung man, who thinks the only way to survive in this brutal world is to make hard decisions.
There is not enough that can be said about Michael Madsen’s performance as Carver; he is intimidating, and borderline frightening. His voice carries weight when he speaks and Madsen turns Carver into a memorable character. It’s no surprise that Madsen’s name was tossed around to have been potentially cast as the Governor for the TV show, but we think he landed the better character.
Another issue with the fast-paced nature of this new story is that it has only been a handful of days for Clementine since she joined her new group, and she still isn’t fully integrated with them. Clementine has several conversations with other characters where her dialogue distances herself from the rest of the cast, and refers to them as a separate entity – one that she is merely joined with for the moment.
Perhaps since the events of the first season, Clementine is reluctant to become attached to new people as they could betray here or die at a moment’s notice. This would be fine if it didn’t have the same effect on us; we really haven’t yet found a reason to care for much of the new cast of characters. We expressed this before in our review of the previous episode, A House Divided, and that same disappointment is true here.
It’s not the only issues we noted in our Episode Two: A House Divided review that has continued with In Harm’s Way. Other characters seem to be talking to Lee instead of Clementine. Kenny and Carver both have conversations with Clementine that would work perfectly with Lee, as Lee is a grown adult who also has a strong leadership voice within the group. Kenny turns back into the Kenny of Season One, where his boisterous attitude clashed with Lee and the group – always wanting to leap before thinking about the landing – and he turns to young Clementine for support.
Furthermore, Carver even goes into the old “we’re not so different, you and me” cliché of antagonists talking to darker protagonists, and this is never something Carver would see in a child. Unless Telltale is hinting at a larger picture, one where Clementine is losing her humanity and become a cold and detached person, it doesn’t quite make much sense.
There are several new characters that point out that placing too much pressure and responsibility on people is not wise, even more so when they are fully capable adults. However, older cast members will shrug it off and even become hostile to defend Clementine’s capabilities. But why is so much of the escape plan pinned on her shoulders? And why are all the adults less reliable than her? We’ve asked it before, but are these other characters simply inept, or complete idiots?
That being said, there are great strides made in the way Telltale presents the narrative in Season 2, with each new episode obscuring major decisions better than the last. Before, you would have a large prompt displayed on the screen; now, you’re presented with free-flowing dialogue trees that make major decisions over the course of several stages. That said, there are two major choices clearly laid out for you at the end of the game, that will require you to make two decisions that will have a lasting impact on the next episodes.
The entirety of In Harm’s Way is a gentle and slow build-up to its final twenty minutes, when plot lines come to a head to create some of the better scenes Telltale has ever written. They play right into the material and don’t hold back, creating possibly the most violent death in a video game we’ve ever seen. Both scenes are foreshadowed earlier in the episode, but that foreshadowing is only noticeable after the events play out.
However, it seems with each new episode the gameplay is moved away from interactive environments and more into the realm of interactive story. There are no puzzles to speak of here, and even less walking around and examining areas than ever before. This leads to no side-character interaction to speak of, as Clementine’s movement has largely been taken out of your control outside of a few brief moments. There’s a constant drive to move the story forward, but outside of a single Quick Time Event, you’re essentially making only dialogue decisions. It’s not all that bad, but we miss the old days where you could stop and enjoy the moment.
In Harm’s Way is contrasted by last week’s release of A Wolf Among Us: Episode 3 (review here), which featured a slower-paced film-noir detective story – pacing that is more akin to Season One of The Walking Dead where you are given more freedom to walk around and interact with the environment. However, The Walking Dead still feels more dangerous than other Telltale titles, with your decisions carrying more weight to them as you are getting people killed with your choices. This is fine; both games are good, and it goes to show how much range Telltale has when it comes to their writing.
Some critics have complained that Telltale is starting to rely too much on shock value and Walking Dead-isms that have become famous in both the TV show version and the games. Perhaps that’s true, as the brutality witnessed in the first season of The Walking Dead might have been lightning in a bottle for many gamers, who are now over the shock value of the material.
However, we still enjoy Telltale’s brand of gameplay and story, and we think if you’ve made it this far with the series, you’ll enjoy this episode as well. It’s the best episode of the new season, and we look forward to the future.