"The Walking Dead: Season Two" video game returns today (May 13) with the third of five episodes, entitled "In Harm's Way," released on Steam and PlayStation Network, where the entire five-part season is available for $24.99. Xbox Live will get the new episode tomorrow; iOS gets it Thursday.
The main character, 11-year-old Clementine, has had to grow up too fast in a brutal world consumed by a zombie infection. Whom can Clementine trust? Whom can she save? And what does life look like when you're surrounded by death?
As "In Harm's Way" begins, Clementine and her new group have been captured by brutal gang leader Bill Carver and are imprisoned inside his gang's heavily reinforced base. In Episode 3, Clementine must find a way to escape Carver's clutches — and confront the possibility that she may never escape the ruthless pragmatism he embodies.
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Carver is the sort of antagonist who could not have existed earlier in the "Walking Dead" story, when the zombie infection was still new and the characters were still holding out hope for a cure or a rescue. (Most of the characters in the "Walking Dead" video games are original creations not found in the comic book or AMC television adaptation.)
Now, almost two years in, Carver (like the Governor in the comics and TV show) represents a reactionary, feudalistic new order, in which the weak must be "pruned" in order for the strong to survive.
It's no coincidence that Clementine and her needy sort-of-friend Sarah are put to work clipping dead branches from the plants in the compound's greenhouse, or that the work compels Clementine to make a seemingly trivial decision — whether to help Sarah with her tasks, or instead mind her own business — that ends in horrible violence.
Carver's dictatorial absolutism sometimes threatens to upset the carefully complex morality of "The Walking Dead": He's a psychopath with almost no redeeming qualities, and players don't even get the option to side with him. But Carver is not really a character; he's a catalyst. It's the other characters' responses to his vicious worldview that creates the episode's most emotionally complex moments.
There are a lot of those moments. "In Harm's Way" has more nonzombie characters in it than any previous episode, especially if both Nick and Alvin survived Episode 2 (both are possible deaths). But from its crowded beginning, the story quickly focuses on two characters: volatile Kenny (inside the compound, but spoiling for a fight), and mysterious Luke (who escaped Carver at the end of Episode 2).
Clementine once again finds herself caught in the middle as Kenny and Luke devise separate escape plans, and deciding between the two of them only gets harder as the episode goes on.
Sarah also continues to be an object of both pity and frustration. While she's largely a bystander in "In Harm's Way," the tension around her painfully naive character quickly builds, leaving us with a bad feeling about her ultimate fate in the remaining two episodes.
The other important character in Episode 3 is Jane, a sullen member of Carver's compound who keeps her cards close to her chest until the would-be escapees make their move in the episode's gory final act. She's not quite as worrisome as Luke, or as uncomfortably endearing as Kenny, but Jane definitely will have a few more cards to play before "The Walking Dead: Season Two" comes to an end.
A lot happens by the end of "In Harm's Way," yet the episode left us with the ominous feeling that the worst is still to come for Clementine.
If you've made it to Episode 3 of "The Walking Dead: Season Two," you won't find too many surprises in terms of gameplay. As always, the crux of the game is negotiating conversations and making decisions, not fighting.
Clementine does quite a bit of sneaking around in this episode, which could have been turned into some tense stealth sequences, but a good chunk of these are prescripted. When you are in control, you do little more than steer Clementine in a single direction and then press a single button.
Episode 3 has even less fighting than the previous two episodes in Season Two. There's a zombie horde about to descend on the compound, but it doesn't show up until the last few minutes of the episode. Even then, despite the goriness, there isn't much in the way of combat, except for a few quick-time events, in which you have to aim for the indicated points on a zombie's body and then hit the correct button in time.
That's OK, though — "The Walking Dead" has never really been about fighting and sneaking, or even about zombies. It's about the choices that living people make in the face of death. Forget the zombies: this game makes choosing between dialogue options far more tense and suspenseful than other games make actually fighting zombies.
Still, it'd be fun to have a little more freedom when fighting as Clementine — her small size presents an excellent strategic challenge, especially since a zombie's only true weak point is its head, far beyond her reach. The moment in "Episode 2" when Clementine knocked a zombie's knees in, bringing its head to her level, and then split its skull was really satisfying from a gameplay perspective, and "Episode 3" doesn't have any comparable moments.
It's almost as if "The Walking Dead" doesn't want players to feel powerful or in control, which seems like it may be the entire point.
Graphics and art
Developer Telltale Games' signature art style returns with "Episode 3." Characters and scenery have a distinctly hand-drawn look, with black lines and gradient shading that evokes the series' origins as a comic book.
The cartoonish art style doesn't prevent the characters' faces from depicting a wide range of nuanced expressions. As much as we love Clementine's "throwing shade" looks of disdain for their own sake, these facial details, combined with strong writing and voice acting, are critical in a game about relationships and consequences.
Characters' body movements are a little less sophisticated. When the player controls Clementine, her motions are stiff. Depending on the scene's camera perspective, she can be difficult to steer when moving at an angle.
Music and sound
Enough good things can't be said about the voice acting in "The Walking Dead." Considering that the game mostly consists of listening to other people talk, one bad voice performance could have undermined everything, but the cast continues to excel at bringing a complicated and branching script to life.
The music in "The Walking Dead" is largely atmospheric, with strong, steady drumbeats and a recurring electric guitar melody that gives it a bluegrass feel. Strong and memorable without becoming overbearing, the music is often used to increase the suspense in stealth-based or emotionally tense moments.
As the middle episode in a five-part season, "Episode 3" has the task of carrying players from the beginning of Clementine's solo adventures to whatever end may come for her. As such, the episode sometimes struggles from middle-child syndrome: There are very few answers in "In Harm's Way," and the answers we do get only raise more questions.
But the episode isn't meant to stand alone. Rather, its main task is escalation — escalation of tension between Kenny and Luke, of frustration concerning Sarah's naïveté, the struggle to survive the zombie apocalypse and of how to stay human without losing your humanity.
Price: $24.99 for the entire season (5 episodes)