Reviewed on PlayStation 4
It’s no secret that The Walking Dead, as a property, has dwindled in popularity over the years. The television series has seen a decrease of about half its viewers over the last three seasons. The comic book, while still fairly popular, has gone in some odd directions in the absence of Robert Kirkman, who is working on new stories. Now with Season Four, the Walking Dead Telltale series finds itself dwindling in quality, while its popularity remains about the same. This is unfortunate, as I have loved every season of the game thus far but sadly, Clementine’s journey has taken a downward dive with Done Running, and the series’ reputation as a whole is on the line.
Done Running picks up a few years after The Walking Dead: A New Frontier ended. After leaving the compound at the end of the last season, Clementine and her “adopted” baby AJ – who has grown considerably into a full-fledged kid – have taken to driving around, raiding buildings, and scavenging food for survival. It’s within the first fifteen minutes or so that we see some of the new gameplay elements added to this final season. In gearing up for a brand new game engine, it seems as though Telltale has decided to test out some new features, and seeing them in action has made me excited for the future of Telltale games.
I must say I’m quite pleased with the whole exploration system this time around. Telltale seems to have done away with all the interaction options like “press square to talk” and “press triangle to look at.” This antiquated system used to clutter the screen and made Telltale games drag on much longer than necessary (all that staring longingly at objects instead of touching them). In Season Four of The Walking Dead, however, the system has been cleaned up significantly; while searching an area for clues, Clementine may come across objects that have a circle around the “x to interact” prompt, while most other situations will prompt a simplified “talk,” “look at,” and “interact” all in one button press.
One of the most fascinating new aspects of exploration is the consequence system, which makes this Walking Dead season feel like the most personal experience thus far. Many times throughout the episode, I was prompted to make a decision which could alter the events in my journey but rather than these choices being dialogue-based – as is typical with Telltale games – this new season presents choices in new ways. Nerve-racking decisions can vary from breaking a window instead of using a door, or choosing to make a loud noise that could attract nearby walkers. These hard choices made an impact by finally allowing Telltale’s gameplay to be much less linear, making each playthrough truly different than the last.
While exploration has changed significantly, altering the gameplay experience overall, combat has also been improved and damn-near completely overhauled. On the topic of less linearity, fight sequences in The Walking Dead have become a lot more spaced out. It seems as though the days of on-rails quick time events are gone, opting instead for wider battle arena-like combat scenarios. Traps are also introduced in Done Running, with manmade Ewok-style machines like swinging logs and falling rocks being used to stop the walkers in their tracks. On top of this, the ability to now stun or kill walkers makes for a unique gameplay experience, taking the fight into your hands instead of following Telltale’s programming. These new fighting mechanics make Season Four feel like a whole new game, and I’m interested to see how this system will evolve in other Telltale series. My only complaint is that it’s a lot easier to die with this more open combat system, but with this larger room for error comes some cool ways to strategize, so maybe it’s not so bad after all.
The Walking Dead Season Four’s downfall is the very thing that has built its reputation over the past six years: its story. Simply put, Done Running’s plot is one of the dullest Telltale stories I have ever experienced. Clementine and AJ find themselves brought to a new camp, completely devoid of adults. Instead, this group consists of kids that are Clementine’s age and younger. Over the course of the episode, Clem and AJ bond with some of the others, but overall there’s never a real connection to this group, which is extremely unlike a Walking Dead season. I remember immediately taking to Kenny, Luke, and of course Clementine in the first season. These characters made for an awesome, memorable story that I’ve kept with me for years. But something about this final season is making me feel as though I’ll forget it quickly. There was really no conflict until the final act besides minor disputes between characters, but since I couldn’t care less about these characters, I felt no emotional attachment to their issues or trying to help solve them. Hopefully, the story will improve over the next three episodes, because it would be a real shame for Telltale not to give Clementine the satisfying sendoff she deserves.
While the story itself was fairly unengaging, it didn’t help that this episode was so incredibly long. Telltale seems to have shaken up its story progression system, choosing to switch from six or seven smaller chapters to three super long “acts,” which seem to serve as 24-hour days in the narrative. This episode in its entirety lasted over the usual two hours, and some scenes had me sitting there thinking “how much longer can this last?” That’s not to say I wasn’t entertained by some parts, the fishing scene, in particular, is a standout moment. However, I found myself bored whenever the game turned to heavy dialogue, which was so disappointing, as Telltale has always captivated me with their ability to write a gripping story. On top of this, I noticed a graphical stutter every time I was prompted to choose a dialogue option, a glitch that consistently removed me from the narrative. I could barely care about these characters, let alone their story, and now having to wait a couple of seconds before saying anything made for a very sluggish pace. Getting trophies for completing these acts doesn’t even make it all feel worth it, as Telltale changed up their trophy system this time around, too. Gone are the days of playing a Telltale game for an easy platinum. Now these three acts are coupled with hidden trophies for specific actions, as well as finding, you guessed it, collectibles!
It all started with a really cool deer skull Clementine found while scoping out an abandoned building. I took it home with me. It looked cool. Fast forward to meeting these children at their camp, and all of a sudden Clem’s covering her walls in AJ’s drawings and placing animal skulls all over the shelves like some fucked up apocalyptic Animal Crossing. Not to play armchair developer but, please, Telltale, hear me out: we do not want collectibles in our narrative-driven games. Why? Because we don’t want a reason to replay narrative-driven games, which we invest a lot of emotion into, just so we can find some silly things scattered around the world. I’m trying to survive the end of the world. I don’t want to feel like Ezio searching for feathers in a zombie outbreak. Furthermore, there’s something really wrong with giving Clementine a house to decorate during the aforementioned apocalypse, especially in the first episode! While this was most likely meant to give the player a false sense of security, and every collectible will end up getting stolen or destroyed by the season finale, all it did for me as a player was make me feel like “Oh, so this is it? No more danger? I’m…home?” It took me out of the experience completely. I don’t want to have time to decorate and make the place feel homey. Clementine is a fighter. She’s constantly on the move. She would never “settle down” and decorate a shelter because she knows the way this world works. So with this Minecraftian bedroom tycoon simulator of home improvement in the Telltale Walking Dead world, my spirits were torn asunder before the episode even reached its climax. Lee would be rolling over in his grave if he had one.
In spite of these major missteps, the best part of Done Running is the incredible graphics upscale; the final use of the Telltale Tool engine before Unity steps in to take its place. I was blown away by these graphics within the first five minutes; Clementine’s hair blowing in the breeze made my jaw drop. From there, every little thing from the shininess of characters’ eyes, to the copious amounts of blood pouring from walkers’ heads kept me totally glued to the screen. Even the sounds this time around are more crisp and thrilling. Car engines rumble through the empty streets, while gunshots pierce through the silent air. The scenery itself is much drearier than usual, with Telltale choosing to only fill in the foreground with detail, leaving the background to look bleak, uncolored and sketchy, almost as if it was pulled from the pages of a comic book. Sometimes this aesthetic seemed lazy and sucked me out of the world, but overall I felt it was a strangely unique art style that helped me see the worn out Walking Dead environment in a new light.
I don’t mind Telltale taking this season to test new mechanics. Exploration feels refreshing, and for the first time, I don’t mind searching every nook and cranny for clues and consequential actions. Combat feels totally revamped, and the lack of overbearing quick time events keeps the gameplay feeling fluid and frantic. The graphical changes were a welcome addition to the series without altering too much of the visuals we know and love. Even little things like natural eyebrow movement made for a more lifelike experience. It’s just such a massive shame that the story in Done Running got off to such a horrendous start. When dealing with a Telltale game, every other aspect of gameplay can be brought down by a lackluster story. Sadly with Episode One, there’s simply not enough combat, exploration, or overwhelming scenic differences to help the plot tread any water. The Walking Dead’s final season is akin to a cruise ship leaving port with a hole in its hull; the guests on board are having a great time and there’s certainly a bit of entertainment, but the system in place to keep the fun going has already been compromised. Season Four may just be a sinking ship, and its voyage has only just begun.