Reviewed on PlayStation 4
It’s been a rough few weeks for Telltale Games.
Over the course of this September, the world saw the acclaimed game studio fall from grace rather quickly. Seemingly out of the blue, Telltale was hit with another bout of layoffs, and this time only 25 employees were left standing. Within a day or two, we found out that every Telltale series in the works was now cancelled, including The Walking Dead’s Final Season, and Telltale would be closing its doors for good. This came as a massive shock to the gaming world, as fans the world over watched one of the most creative and original game studios out there tumble into the abyss before our very eyes. I, for one, was blown away by these headlines, and within one week I felt my narrative-loving heart shatter into a million pieces. The sole light in this unfortunate darkness came in the form of Episode Two: Suffer the Children, which triumphantly rose from the ashes of this decrepit studio. Luckily, even through all the misery, this episode reclaimed The Walking Dead’s charm following a lacklustre season premiere, and once again, perhaps for the last time, reminded the world that Telltale is one of the greats.
Suffer the Children picks up immediately after Episode One’s gut-wrenching cliffhanger in which Clementine’s young companion AJ murdered Marlon, the leader of the young adult group held up in Ericson’s Boarding School. Clementine is now met with an extremely difficult lesson to teach AJ about killing. This episode focused heavily on AJ and Clementine’s dynamic, which brought that “Lee and Clementine” feeling back to the series. I can see this final season purposely being a reflection of the first, but it does so in a way that’s not too cliché. There’s a new spin on the action at hand, and while it may feel slightly unoriginal at times (e.g. the choice I was forced to make between saving a love interest or a good friend, as Lee once had to do), most of the story is fresh and exciting. Giving Clementine a chance to be a mother figure was one of the series best decisions, as it adds a layer of realism to a bleak post-apocalyptic world. She no longer fights for just herself; she looks out for AJ as if he were a son, all the while hoping to make Lee proud.
Having a spotlight on AJ and Clem made for some of the tensest decisions I’ve ever had to make in a Telltale game. Much like how choices in Guardians of the Galaxy affected the group as a whole and not just me, in The Walking Dead’s Final Season a majority of Clementine’s choices involve AJ’s best interests as opposed to her own. The player shapes not only Clementine’s views and values, but also her approach to parenting, as she can choose to be more laid back and easygoing, or direct and rather strict. The most fulfilling aspect of these decisions is getting to watch AJ grow into a bright young man, knowing right from wrong as well as how to fight for himself. While the overall story may seem fairly linear, as I’ll touch on in a moment, AJ’s personality feels extremely malleable; this makes for not only an entertaining narrative but an extremely nerve-racking one.
As for the central plot, the Final Season maintains its fairly bland momentum in Episode Two. In this instalment, Clementine finds herself reconvening with Lilly, a character from Season One who was literally left on the side of the road and forgotten for years to come. Now an apocalyptic professional with a gang of heavily-armed bandits, Lilly hopes Clem will lead her back to the boarding school in order to kidnap the children and use them to fight her ongoing turf war. I found this unhappy reunion to be a wasted surprise, as Lilly was mentioned twice in Episode One, making her reappearance blatantly imminent. While this sudden return adds a conflict to the rest of the season, I couldn’t find myself being very invested in the goings-on. The climactic battle, while frantic and full of some enjoyable Telltale combat segments, felt mostly forced and far too short to build tension. I found myself disappointed with one character’s unavoidable death which made my peace talks with Lily seem completely unnecessary, taking me out of the pressure at hand.
In Episode One, I was struggling to find any likeable characters amongst the cast of this new season. Being a bunch of angsty teens, they all have their own suckish personalities, and finding a “good one” is easier said than done. I don’t use the term “angsty” very lightly, either, as this episode is full of profanity coming out of these youngsters’ mouths. That being said, I took a liking to Louis almost instantly, as he treated AJ with the sincerity of a big brother, his jokey personality seemed to inspire morale in the group, and have you seen that jacket he’s got?! However, after Marlon’s death, his opinion of AJ and Clem instantly did a 180, and this was something I toiled with through Episode Two’s entirety. It’s understandable that tensions are high in the group, and one of his best friends was just murdered in seemingly cold blood, but the harshness of Louis’s actions in Suffer the Children is beyond unbelievable. He immediately turns on Clementine, shits on AJ and his behaviour, and calls on everyone to kick them out of the safe zone. Fast forward to the episode’s third act, and Louis is back to playing piano with Clementine and joking around like normal. This bipolar personality of my favorite character in the Final Season kept me scratching my head for two hours straight. It didn’t keep me from kissing him in the end, though, as I figured Clementine should have some kind of a happy ending, should this be the last we ever see of her. Perish the thought.
While Louis’s character was ridiculously hot and cold throughout Suffer the Children, underdevelopment of other characters put a damper on the overall plot. Characters like Violet and Tennessee, who seemed fairly captivating in Episode One with their backstories of love and loss, were virtually nonexistent in this instalment. Instead, the spotlight shifted to characters like Ruby and Mitch, and while they both share similarly engaging origin stories, it was just disappointing to feel my emotional investment get severed and attached to two completely different people. While I may look back on this – should the series continue – and say I’m glad every character got their chance to shine, so far it feels like the season is unfocused and haphazardly handling its new cast. That being said, each character is shaping up to have a pretty unique backstory, and they grow more likeable by the episode. Even the series’ newest character, James, has a mysterious tale to tell about his upbringing, which involves wearing zombie skin to blend in and control hordes. He sees humanity in the reanimated corpses, and teaches Clementine to distract them rather than killing them, which parallels her struggle to teach AJ right from wrong. While we don’t see much of James in Suffer the Children, I’d love to see more of him in the future, as the Whisperers plotline is one of the most fascinating arcs in the Walking Dead comics.
As mentioned before, combat sequences return in Episode Two, though it is quite brief in comparison to other episodes. The old standby quick time events continue to take a back seat to the more open, side-stepping, “stun or kill” method of zombie removal. Just like in Episode One, I find this new combat system to be quite difficult, having to decide whether to attack a walker directly or stun one to take out another in order to keep from being overrun. Suffer the Children introduces a combat bow, which uses standard shooting controls (it’s all in the triggers) to take down walkers with precise headshots. One scenario stood out in particular due to a fire hazard causing the zombies to ignite and chase after Clementine from all sides. Aiming for the head under pressure is much harder than it seems, and I found myself on the edge of my seat during this thrilling segment. The new fighting mechanics brought some much-needed flair to the episode’s climactic battle, and now that I’m finally getting the hang of it all, I’m thoroughly enjoying every scuffle I come across.
Exploration is another big aspect in Episode Two, with a few collectables to find scattered around the world. I complained in my Episode One review about having the ability to collect items to decorate your bedroom. But now, as I see I may never return to that room, I cherish those collectibles, and I made sure I got every one of them this time around. If only what I’d predicted were true, and I could stay at Ericson forever. There were even a few moments in this episode that made it seem like Telltale was speaking through their work. Words like “Clem, thank you for everything” and Tenn’s sombre realization that everything eventually comes to an end made for some emotional moments where I had to put the controller down and accept that this may very well be the last Telltale game I ever play. On top of these powerful incidents with stressful dialogue options, optional gameplay decisions make a return as well in Suffer the Children. There weren’t many of them in this episode – not enough to make a big difference, anyway – but I found spitting on Marlon’s grave to be a bit too much. Maybe that’s just me, though.
Quite possibly, the saddest thing about Telltale’s closure is the loss of their new graphics engine. For 10 years, the Telltale Tool has been used to create every game the studio has churned out. But with The Walking Dead: The Final Season, the Tool was to be retired to make way for a brand new engine with The Wolf Among Us: Season Two. Sadly, the company will now fade away alongside the Telltale Tool, and while this Final Season has upscaled the graphics immensely, Suffer the Children’s animations make the episode feel rushed and unpolished. Characters bend and move like they’re animatronics, all clunky and robotic, and there continues to be a noticeable stutter before dialogue options pop up onscreen. I have to take into consideration the fact that Telltale did rush this episode out before their impending studio closure, and some animation issues can’t be helped in such a time crunch. Overall, however, the graphics are beautiful compared to previous seasons, with the attention to detail of hair blowing in the wind, for example, leaving me constantly impressed at how far Telltale have come.
As for Episode Two: Suffer the Children, Telltale put up an excellent fight in the face of adversity. While this episode may have not been the best installment in the Walking Dead franchise, it certainly brought the initial allure back to an ailing season. I originally referred to this Final Season as a “sinking ship” and Suffer the Children certainly serves as a reasonably-sized roll of duct tape. Combat is harder but also more gratifying, characters are slowly but surely making a name for themselves, and the conflict of being a parent is beginning to take its toll on Clementine. Should Telltale come across some angel investors that can supply us with the final two episodes of Clem’s story, I think we’re in for a real treat. But if this happens to be the final episodic entry Telltale ever brings into being? Well then, it definitely went out with a bang… right to the head.