Reviewed on PlayStation 4
After what feels like many years of sadness and confusion regarding the future of Telltale’s Walking Dead series, Skybound has at last released the penultimate episode of Clementine’s story. Utilizing a majority of the original team to see this to completion, Skybound has picked up an ailing IP and provided the world with one of Telltale’s most intense and satisfying episodes to date. With the release of Episode Three: Broken Toys, I can’t help but imagine what Telltale’s future could look like under Skybound, should they acquire its team, assets, and partnerships. Fortunately, if a recent Twitter question is to be believed, that dream doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Even still, if Broken Toys is Skybound’s declaration of “step back, we got this,” then the world is definitely in good hands.
Before The Walking Dead‘s Final Season took a hiatus, Clem and the gang came face to face with an old ghost: Season One‘s Lily, who now runs a community on the brink of war with yet another community. This post-apocalypse is turning into something much larger than we’d imagined! In Episode Two‘s final act, Lily and her gang attacked Clem’s group, who have established their base in the abandoned husk of Ericson’s Boarding School, and in my playthrough they kidnapped Violet. I had chosen her because she’s quite obviously the group’s strongest member so she can handle herself, plus Clem had just kissed Louis and I was not gonna separate those lovebirds. So Lily stole Violet away from us but left behind her right-hand man, Abel, in the process. I vividly remember seeing the screen go dark on Abel way back in October, and wondered if I’d ever get to see how this plays out. Thankfully, Skybound answered my prayers and delivered a result that made me wish I hadn’t seen it.
As previously stated, Broken Toys is quite possibly the most intense episode of The Walking Dead, ever. In fact, this entire season holds an unfathomable amount of anxiety over the player’s head in the form of AJ. He watches Clementine’s every move, and his reactions can completely obliterate your soul. What’s worse is the existential crises he so frequently has, in which he asks Clementine questions like “Am I a murderer?” and “Are you going to die?”. AJ being an influential, omnipresent follower is vastly different than young Clementine was to Lee. Whereas she saw what he did, and learned how to be strong from him, the world simply wasn’t as difficult as it is now though ultimately, she learned lessons through his teachings, indirect or otherwise. But with older Clementine finding herself in tough, often chaotic situations alongside young AJ, she struggles to keep her cool and not be reckless, for fear of teaching him the wrong things.
This is the anxiety of The Final Season, and the interrogation scene in Episode Three did nothing at all to calm the situation. I won’t spoil this awesome opening chapter, but I will say that I have never been so concerned about AJ’s psyche, nor have I ever felt so guilt-tripped by Telltale. After making a crucial decision, an onscreen prompt had to hammer it home by letting me know “AJ looks to you for guidance in this world,” and repeating the atrocity back to me while zooming in on the poor child’s face. This horrifying action kicked off the episode, and while the next two hours endlessly fluctuated between enjoyable downtime and tense action, I never once found myself bored by the events onscreen. Whether I was scoping out the community – known as The Delta – to plan an epic raid, or sitting around hearing the stories of how each kid ended up at Ericson, I was thoroughly entertained and glued to my seat. Much of my enjoyment of this episode comes down to its impeccable pacing, an element that this season has struggled with in previous episodes.
Throughout season four, there seems to be an underlying shift in the narrative’s focus, and Broken Toys took the opportunity to bring that new focus to the forefront. The focal point in question is the spotlight shifting from Clementine to AJ, and how this season has become less of her story and more of his. Over time, with difficult decisions being made and specific events shaping his mindset, AJ has turned into an unavoidable badass. Whether or not he kills or attacks at all is up to the player, but there’s no way around the fact that he’s seen some dark stuff in his short little life. While I’ve tried to make AJ into the most efficient survivor he can be, I know I’ve made some mistakes. Hell, even Clementine knows she’s made mistakes, hence why she dreams of Lee and asks for advice. For better or worse, though, AJ is becoming…scary. This has helped the group against attackers – even in this episode – but it has also frightened those close to him (lest we forget Marlon’s death). I can’t help but wonder what all this is leading up to with AJ. While I’m enjoying watching him grow and learning from my own shortcomings with him, I was taken aback when I had a certain thought while playing this episode: what if Clementine gets bitten and the player doesn’t get to choose whether or not to shoot her, but rather…the AJ they’ve created makes his own choice?
Character development in episode three continues, which is surprising given the short amount of time left with these characters. As mentioned before, one scene finds the remaining Ericson survivors sitting around and talking about their pasts; how they all ended up together in this boarding school. Getting to know the survivors is nice, albeit a little late in the game, and there’s a fun little guessing game in there where Clementine can choose whom she thinks best matches a former teacher’s description of a certain survivor. This whole scene took me away from the never-ending horror onscreen, and strangely it felt closer to the “Walking Dead” feel than ever before. The Walking Dead is meant to be a story about how humanity endures even the hardest challenges – in this case, a zombie apocalypse. Telltale’s take has always focused on those challenges, and how survivors like Clem, Lee, and Javi make it through them. But in Broken Toys, in this one little “calm before the storm” party scene, we are given the most intimate showing of humanity-over-hardship that I have ever seen in this Telltale franchise. Kudos to this team for making me feel something I’ve never experience before.
In Broken Toys, Clementine finds herself struggling with some massive decisions, and it feels like nobody can give her the advice she needs. Nobody, that is, except Lee Everett. Lee returns in this episode as a figment of her imagination in a dream sequence. I won’t get into everything that goes on, because it honestly made me shed a little tear and for fans of the series this is just what we needed before saying goodbye. But I will say that Lee looks phenomenal with this graphical upgrade, and Dave Fennoy’s voice has never been so reassuring to hear. Knowing Clementine goes to Lee in her dreams makes everything seem a little better in the Walking Dead world. Her mentor – and basically her adopted father in this apocalypse – Lee helps give her structure by teaching Clem to believe in herself. This is good, because I noticed a lot of strange mood swings in Clementine this episode, with her attitude shifting from angry to concerned on the fly more than once. While at first it felt like a disconnect in the narrative, I quickly began to assume that her character was written in this way. She’s perfectly imperfect, and becoming a mother to AJ as Lee did to her brings out her flaws in a way she doesn’t know how to deal with. So what does she do? She turns to her inner mind, to her inner Lee. This whole scene was as unexpected as it was satisfying. A little Easter egg in the midst of one crazy episode, this scene grabbed a hold of my heartstrings and didn’t let go until Lee vanished into the darkness of Clem’s mind. I’d love to see him come around one more time, but if not, I’m glad we got to see him once again and give him his rightful sendoff – forever.
Skybound did more than just improve on the season’s narrative, however, as animations have been greatly improved as well. If you’ve read my past reviews you’ll know that I have had a problem with The Final Season‘s dialogue choice engine. For some reason the game seems to stutter before any choice is made, which not only pulls me out of the game by basically saying “hey, there’s a choice coming up!” but also it’s downright annoying. Thankfully, I noticed this hiccup had almost completely disappeared in this latest episode. Until I told a friend about it – an interesting coincidence – I hadn’t experienced any stutters at all, and even then only the last half hour or so of the game included a few. For the most part, animations are so much smoother, not to mention colors seem brighter and backgrounds don’t seem as dull and lifeless. While I’m sure Skybound continued to use the same Telltale engine as the first two episodes, it was a delightful change to see things looking even better this time around. Something was definitely touched up, and that attention to detail did not go unnoticed.
Gameplay has also been changed up in some minor ways. Most notably, the addition of controller vibration in tense situations. If this has happened the whole time, then let me know but personally, I’ve never experienced vibrations like this and it truly made me jump. Opening a door, creeping past guards; any kind of edge-of-your-seat moment, the controller shakes in your hands, adding another layer of nervousness to the goings-on. Speaking of creeping around, there were more open exploration sections in this episode than any Walking Dead episode before it. I was so free, it felt like Guardians of the Galaxy again. Especially in the Delta base, Clementine climbs ladders, encounters compound bow shootouts, and even swims. This combination of quick time events and free-roaming made it feel even closer to a third-person action adventure game than the interactive movie it’s so often perceived as. Couple this with the returning walker combat sequences, and there’s no excuse why there can’t be a really good third-person Walking Dead game in the future. Unfortunately, in Broken Toys, the combat levels are still very unsure of themselves. Their biggest downfall is that they seem to be much more open than they actually are, and invisible barriers make it difficult to plan attacks in a timely fashion. I did enjoy the new look of the walkers in this episode, though, and the ability to stun or kill (thanks to returning character, James), makes for differing fighting styles among players. I just wish Skybound could work on making walker fights less annoying.
Regardless of some minor nuisances, The Walking Dead‘s penultimate episode went rather swimmingly. Glitches were few and far between, with the aforementioned stutters kept at a minimum. I did notice some dialogue looping in the final scene, but it hardly caused alarm considering the beauty of that scene alone. Truly, Broken Toys left us with the most divisive and gripping cliffhanger I have ever seen. Ever. There’s just a big gaping pit in my stomach, not knowing what’s going to happen. The consequences of Clementine’s actions are bound to be damning, and I can’t even express how excited I am for the final episode. But then again, how bittersweet, for it’s just that: the final episode.
The last we may ever see of Clementine, and AJ, and all that Lee Everett left behind. In my mind I’m ready, but in my heart, I may never be. There’s a lot riding on this episode to be one for the history books. Not only the final Walking Dead episode but the final episode of anything that Telltale will give to the world. It’s tentatively scheduled for March 26, and upon its release, I’ll be back to finish up what we started so long ago. I’ll also have a little eulogy to Telltale that I’ve been working on, to send them off to greater pastures. So while Broken Toys has made me smile, cry, and scream at my television, I’m even more excited for this epic final act. Take Us Back. One last time.