Reviewed on PlayStation 4 using code provided by the publisher.
Heart-wrenching to the bitter end.
They say all good things must come to an end.
This episode was a long time coming, and this review is quite the burden on my psyche, in that I don’t know what I’ll do without these episodic games in my life. Writing this – what will probably be the hardest review I’ve ever written – means that it’s all over, and these narrative-focused, choice-driven tales will no longer be told. Sure, there are other games like Life is Strange that blend decision-making with point-and-click exploration, but personally, it doesn’t scratch the itch like a Telltale game always has. I’m dedicated to making this review more about the game and less about my sadness due to Telltale’s closing. However, if you’d like to hear my thoughts on the company’s demise and how they’ve impacted my life through the years, please give my latest piece, An Open Letter to Telltale Games, a read.
As for The Walking Dead‘s final episode, Take Us Back, breaking such a magnificent two hours into about 2000 words is going to be an adventure. I don’t want to spoil anything, as this episode had something for everyone, and letting any secrets slip through the cracks would be a disservice to you. At the same time, however, I want to shout from the rooftops how every little Easter egg and satisfying conclusion made my heart and mind breathe a collective sigh of joy and relief, while my eyes continued to shed tears of gratitude and loss. Ultimately, if there’s a spoiler warning at the top of this review, please heed it with the utmost care. For much like Clementine’s journey through the apocalypse, reading this review may be quite the risk.
Episode three of The Walking Dead, Broken Toys, ended on one of the most divisive cliffhangers I have ever seen in a video game. As soon as I made my decision to spare Lilly – forcing AJ to witness James’ untimely assassination – I could feel the massive repercussions in an instant. That feeling of “What have I done?” exuded from the episode’s final two minutes, and that ability to initiate shockwaves from a single decision within seconds is a testament to the writing team’s careful handling of such a deep, twisted plot. This tender loving care bleeds through the entirety of Take Us Back, continuing right from where we left off, and not stopping the roller coaster until the very end. As Clementine and AJ make their escape from the raiders’ exploding boat, they’re faced with remaining foes – including some familiar faces – and these under-pressure decisions do an excellent job setting the scene while tying up loose ends in the process.
At one point, I came face to face with Lilly once again. In one of the tensest moments I’ve ever experience in a Telltale game – seriously, my heart was racing – I was met with a burst of nostalgia when I came to the realization that both of these characters have come so far. Meeting in the first season, Clementine and Lilly have outlived their loved ones and seen unspeakable horrors in this new world. They both realize this as well, and they “share a moment” in this time-sensitive scene. I won’t spoil their dialogue, as it was both touching and terrifying to watch their interchange in the process.
But I will say it’s moments like these that prove Skybound is a worthy successor to this franchise. While Telltale did a great job with delivering impromptu intensity and anxiety-inducing dialogue, Skybound kicks things up a notch, portraying such moments with a certain flair that has yet to be explored in this franchise. The final season is not afraid to get dark with its dialogue, causing the player to think harder when finding the right words to say. Clementine’s ultimate encounter with Lilly began an episode full of such dismal moments, cementing this finale as one of the greatest episodes in Telltale history – even if it was only achieve with Skybound’s help.
Take Us Back quite literally starts with a bang, and the boat escape consists of some of the most action-driven and quick-time pressure I’ve ever seen Telltale/Skybound do. Precariously teetering on the edge of an exploding ship as it sinks into the river, Clementine is tasked with jumping from platform to platform – not to mention the existing raiders still putting up a fight – with walkers roaming freely below her all the while.
It’s an epic action sequence, to say the least, complete with lots of screaming and lots of blood. It’s rare in The Walking Dead universe to see a human get eaten alive by a horde of carnivorous monsters; but when it happens, it sure is satisfying. Take Us Back can honestly satisfy any fan of zombie culture, with nearly every question being given a satisfying answer. All topics are touched upon, from how bites work, to how limb removal can stop the infection, to that lovely existential question: “Is there life after death?” Zombies are in abundance in this episode, and it really felt as though this was Skybound’s love letter to The Walking Dead as a medium. It’s beautifully done, and it’s beautiful to see it all play out. Nothing says “Thank you, Robert Kirkman” like watching a woman get torn to shreds by three walkers at once.
In terms of emotional impact, this series finale opens with a gripping monologue declaimed by AJ that tugs on the heartstrings and left my mind reeling until the final moments. I listened as this little boy that my Clementine has shaped over the course of three seasons recited back every rule I’ve taught him. I came face to face with my past decisions, and it was in this moment that I realized what a strong, independent monster I had turned AJ into. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of him, and one scene, in particular, left me in tears due to the powerful effects of him being his own person like I trained him to be.
But the anxiety caused by AJ’s reckless behavior made for some of the most intense scenes this season. I was beside myself by some of the needless deaths, and some of the things AJ said to people, including Clementine. It’s quite the conundrum to think of The Walking Dead doubling as a parenting simulator, but I feel like Clementine and I have both grown as people over the years, and AJ’s ability to hold his own, think for himself, and trudge his own path in this post-apocalyptic world is a testament to our hard work and decision-making. Though, whether or not we were simply “winging it” remains to be seen.
While Take Us Back looks utterly gorgeous in everything from textures to lighting to facial animations (I’m still blown away whenever eyebrows shift to show deeper emotion), some visual and story elements pulled me out of the experience. One such disappointing feature was the shadow effect due to a torch in one scene. The way the characters’ shadows danced on the wall was simply humorous, with no rhyme or reason to their shape or their direction. It looked like the shadow animation was phoned in tremendously, and having to watch its ridiculous wiggle on the wall while trying to make important decisions detracted from the serious tone.
Another feature that completely missed the mark was the inclusion of consequential actions in this final season. I recall being extremely interested in these – way back in Episode One – where we learned that these choices would show themselves at various times during exploration sequences, and allow for multiple options when approaching a difficult situation (e.g. breaking into a house or finding a way to open the door). Fast forward to Take Us Back, where consequential actions reappear after being all but forgotten about the entire season, and now they’re mainly used to confirm you’re done exploring. For example, the door to leave a room says on it “leave?” with a red circle around it, asking you to confirm if you really want to move on from exploring the room. It was a fascinating concept that could have added more depth to decision-making while exploring, but it failed miserably, save for a couple of times when it was used correctly. Especially in an apocalypse, actions have consequences, and this was a smart gameplay feature that was shamefully tossed to the side.
Hopefully, this review hasn’t spoiled too much thus far, but there is one scene I want to touch upon that may dip a little into spoiler territory. You have been warned. When walking through the forest with AJ, Tenn, and Louis, Clementine is asked by her newfound beau to build a house in her mind that she would like to live in after all this is over. The conversation feels neither short-lived nor drawn-out, and it hit me in the feels as I sat and listened to everyone’s reactions as I built this hypothetical dream house. We decided to add 914 floors, paint it white, and of course, we’ll have a treehouse, just as Clementine did when she met Lee.
This brief moment of nostalgia and clarity in a depressing world of death and despair shone a light through Take Us Back, and in turn, Telltale’s past and future, and everything came together for me as tears started to well in my eyes. This was the first of three times when I was met with an overabundance of emotion. It seemed that every time I came to the realization that this is it, the final episode…I melted like a stick of microwaved butter.
In reality, though, what does the future hold? For Skybound, for Clementine, for anyone without these episodic narratives to enrich their lives? Personally, I hope Clementine shows up in other Walking Dead media in some shape or form. It would also be nice to get more Walking Dead action from Skybound. They’ve proven they can take something so big with a team so small and make a visually stunning third-person action game, bursting with enough emotion to make grown men the world over burst into tears. Take Us Back felt like the culmination of years and years of effort, wrapped up with a pretty bow.
This series finale successfully blended stressful quick time events with fluid combat segments (which, by the way, felt more fleshed out this time around than they have this entire season), smooth animations coupled with insanely gorgeous colors and textures, and a compelling story riddled with brutal last-minute decision-making. Take Us Back is a finale for fans and newcomers alike; a dream come true for those who have been there from the very beginning, and a shiny beacon of hope at the end of the four-season tunnel, should anyone choose to dive in in 2019. To all those involved, once again, I say thank you for sharing your craft with the world.
Thank you to Skybound for giving new life to these brilliant developers and allowing them to finish their product, nay, their baby in a respectful and satisfying way. There may be more episodic games in the future, but there will never be another Telltale. Similarly, there may be more strong female characters in video games, but there will never be another like Clementine.
Furthermore, thank you for reading my Telltale reviews over the years. It’s been an honor and a pleasure to play each episode and share my thoughts with the world. It’s thanks to fans like you that I’ve kept up with it, and I hope I’ve been of some assistance to you all. Again, thank you for reading, and always remember: Never go alone, and keep that hair short.