Publisher: Telltale Games Developer: In-house Format: 360, iOS, PC (version tested), PS3 Release: Out now
The cast of The Walking Dead’s TV incarnation may have spent most of the second season hunkered down on Hershel’s farm doing little more than falling in and out of favour with each other, but Telltale takes no time at all to reassure you that it has no intention of its story following suit. All That Remains, the first instalment of this episodic adventure’s long-awaited Season Two, is barely five minutes old before Telltale punches you in the gut. It’ll find room to do it another couple of times during this opener’s two-hour runtime, too. Nothing has changed.
And yet everything has changed, because (spoiler alert) Lee’s gone. The lens through which we played Season One, which cemented Telltale as one of modern gaming’s finest storytellers, succumbed to the zombie virus in the final episode, leaving his adopted charge on her own. Season Two opens with confirmation of the first run’s climactic tease: Clementine’s now under the care of Christa and Omid, the bit-part couple expecting their first child. Within minutes they’re pushed apart, and Clem finds herself back where she started: alone in a world devastated not just by a zombie apocalypse, but also by the effects of terror on everyday people. Yet while Lee’s absence is felt keenly – any game would suffer for the loss of such a finely crafted relationship – at least we’re still here. Now, instead of giving Clem guidance through Lee, we’re doing it directly.
Clem’s a little older now, but still sporting that baseball cap, still keeping that hair short. She’s still lugging that backpack, too, and an early rummage through its contents unearths a torn picture of her departed surrogate father, as well as a crude sketch of Kenny and family, both of which we’re given the option to burn in the hope of keeping a fire going. We refuse, naturally. Lee may be gone, but our desire to keep Clem safe from harm – physical and mental – endures.
Telltale’s gone to great lengths to ensure you feel like you’re in control of someone small. The camera is closer to the ground now, and zombie threats often emerge from the top of the screen.
Mechanically, little has changed: this is the same blend of point-and-click exploration, dialogue choices and fraught, QTE-packed set-pieces, although the button prompts have been redesigned in line with the new house style Telltale laid down in The Wolf Among Us. Yet this framework is given fresh context by the person you guide through it. Where Lee’s gait was cautious yet confident, the walk of a man afraid of what was round the corner but sure he could overcome it, the mere sight of Clem in motion sets the teeth on edge. She creeps gingerly through a forest, jumping out of her skin when a couple of crows fly out of a nearby bush. She tiptoes, terrified, around the outside of a house she knows holds much-needed medical supplies. And when she comes to a high ledge, it takes her a couple of tries before she can jump high enough to reach it. It’s a smart way of making you feel vulnerable, reinforced by subtle cinematic framing – a long shot of her alone in the forest; a close-up of her panic-stricken face.
The combat, however, presents a concern. Lee’s battles were clumsy and improvisational, and Clem was clearly paying attention. She knows that, in a pinch, she must look off to the side, because there’s normally a brick or a rake with which to keep an undead aggressor at bay. She’s learned, too, that you keep swinging a claw hammer until the groaning stops. Yet it’s hard not to think of Square Enix’s Tomb Raider reboot, where the scared, fragile character of the opening moments became an unstoppable killing machine by the game’s end – and, worse, a willing one. Maintaining Clem’s vulnerability over the course of the next five episodes might just be the toughest challenge Telltale faces.
The studio’s best chance of overcoming that obstacle is its choice system. Throughout All That Remains’ two-hour runtime, you’ll have ample opportunity to shape Clem’s character. Our Clem was by turns snarky, sincere and outright hostile to those she met, but if you want her to be relentlessly unpleasant, a girl embittered by heartbreak and loss, you can make her so.
While most of the first season was spent in Georgia, All That Remains is set out in the sticks. The sticky southern summer is a distant memory, though – your first task is to keep a fire alive.
Before they’re separated, Clem tells Christa they need to find a group, and you suspect that’s as much about the needs of Telltale’s writing staff as it is about safety in numbers. Clem discovers one soon enough, hunkered down in a house in the middle of the forest, and they’re naturally suspicious. Partially, of how a girl made it so far on her own – several of them speak of an antagonist named Carver as if he’s Lord Voldemort himself, suspecting Clem of working for him – but mostly of the bite on her arm, her claims that it wasn’t the work of a walker falling on deaf ears. They come round eventually. Most of them, anyway.
It’s early days for this group, of course, but we’ve already got our Kenny. You’ll think it’s Nick at first: with his mullet and baseball cap, he’s a dead ringer for Season One’s bête noire when viewed from behind, and his first appearance sees him loose off a shotgun blast inches from Clem’s midriff. Yet this is another Telltale red herring. The true villain of the piece is Rebecca, a sour-faced, heavily pregnant woman who’s hostile from the off. By the episode’s end, you’ll have some dirt on her, and it’s sure to come in handy.
All That Remains, like Season One opening salvo A New Day, does a fine job of setting the scene while providing enough action and story beats to ensure it feels like more than a teaser trailer to drive sales of the season pass. Yet at two hours, it’s short even by Telltale’s standards, and its climax is disappointingly abrupt, fading to black with a setpiece in full flow. Cliffhanger endings are fine when the next episode of a TV show is days away, but less so when the wait is likely to last a couple of months. Yet Telltale has already achieved something remarkable, proving – to both Clem and to you – that there’s life after Lee.