The absolute antithesis of Resident Evil 6’s Michael Bay schtick, the penultimate episode of Telltale Games' adventure-horror series quietly frightens and moves in equal measure, but the no-win moral dilemmas make it an easy game to respect, if not necessarily to enjoy.
These complex moral choices, of course, have been a staple of every variation of The Walking Dead to date and are essentially what drive the narrative. But in the books (The Walking Dead: The Road to Woodbury out now, folks!), comics and TV show you’re always safely passive. While you do react to the choices the characters make, it’s guilt-free. Not so in Telltale’s series. Here is an entire sequence of games built around the choices you make, and as the developers have cannily ensured the outcomes of these decisions are felt in subsequent episodes, there’s a real gut-wrenching quality – and a feeling of danger – when you’re forced to make them. In a choice between two children, for instance, whom do you save? The teenager, because he might be useful later on? Or the kid, simply because he has more life to live? It really does get as intricate – and as bleak – as that.
Episode 4 picks up immediately after the end of Episode 3, in which two new characters, Omid and Christa, joined the gang riding the train to Savannah. Now the seven of them are making their way through the eerily empty city when a nearby church bell begins to toll, bringing hordes of the dead right to them. Who rang the bell? And where are all of Savannah’s survivors? This kickstarts a dangerous adventure through the abandoned streets and sewers, as protagonist Lee must find out what has happened, and is forced to decide whether to help either young ward Clementine find her parents, or the unhinged Kenny find a working boat in which they all can escape.
As before, the gameplay is split between the standard point-and-click puzzling restricted to one area (back garden of a sealed house; sewer junction) and the Quick Time Events between these areas, that can take the form of either emotional choices (choosing whether to comfort or chastise Clementine for a brief disappearance), physical ones (shooting zombies in the head before they reach you) or a mixture of both (who will kill an infected member of the party before they turn?). Interestingly, both gameplay varieties are in perfect opposition to one another. Whereas the first allows you to pause and solve basic logic puzzles with a simplicity that is comforting and a pace that is leisurely, the latter requires you to make those tough moral choices in a matter of seconds. The time limit creates a tension lacking from the point-and-click bits, but the decisions themselves are often so unremittingly depressing that tension is often all they have going for them; there’s no satisfaction in feeling you've picked correctly, as you know from previous experience that things are bound to get even worse whatever you do. Here is a world where you can make Lee the best possible man he can be, and it still feels like losing.
It’s without doubt a successful game that actually gets you to care about its characters but The Walking Dead series is one of those incredibly rare beasts that adheres so faithfully to the source material, it feels slightly damaged by it. It can be exhausting to feel as if you’re constantly failing, and it occasionally seems as if the developers have tried to one-up themselves in each chapter to see which will contain the most heartbreaking series of events - a device that once or twice slips unknowingly into parody. Still, for grown-up gamers who are fans of the property or not, this is a very well-crafted and faithful series that deserves to be experienced. And after this month's release of the final episode, there’ll be a physical release of the complete season ready for Christmas for anyone who fancies making midwinter that little bit more bleak.