The last episode in Telltale’s undead drama was overtly transitional, and not just because it threw the remainder of its cast on a train. Long Road Ahead spent much of its length pruning back branches of the emergent narrative Telltale had promised the player. It wrapped up old character arcs (or abruptly curtailed them) and introduced a new, fresh-faced cast as yet uninfluenced by the player’s decisions. At the time, it was easy to feel overly funnelled in a game which promises an experience “tailored to how you play”, but this penultimate chapter suggests that Telltale might yet deliver on the promise of a truly emergent series.
Much of your freedom is superficial, of course, with the player frequently able to define the tone of conversation but not the course of events. And the puzzling is still so slight that it’s better thought of as a pacing device between the hard talks and difficult decisions than a key part of the game. But Around Every Corner works because it takes the history you’ve built up between your version of Lee, the game’s protagonist, and the rest of its cast and builds towards a set of key decisions over the episode’s final third. And crucially, if the info screen revealing the disparate state of affairs players have wound up at the end of the episode is anything to go by, they’re decisions with consequences, too. With only one episode to go, Telltale no longer has to sustain the consequences of player choice across the course of an entire series – as such, there’s finally scope for players’ experiences to diverge.
It helps that Around Every Corner is an assured piece of storytelling in its own right. The introduction of a new character whose combat skills are more slayer than survivor should diminish tension, but the undead threat is palpable as Lee picks his way around the ghost town of Savannah, and there’s an unexpected twist regarding the episode’s villains, a band of hardcore survivalists who’ve shut off a part the city. There’s still no action sequence to rival the tension of first episode’s careful, deliberate journey through the motel car park – the best example so far of the game combining its QTE combat and puzzling strands – though Around Every Corner’s climax at least makes up for that with its gory, violent excess. Or at least it does when the frame-rate holds up: this is still a technically disappointing game, the engine frequently stuttering during action and lagging during transitions to cutscenes.
The Walking Dead’s episodic nature has given a sense of event to each new chapter, but it’s counted against the game too. In allowing players to compare notes between instalments, the smoke and mirrors with which Telltale has hidden the linearity of the experience have been picked apart and exposed. If you’ve come this far on Lee’s journey, Around Every Corner’s ending will make the final chapter a near essential purchase: not just to see how this supposedly reactive, in part player-authored story ends, but to see if Telltale really can pull it off.