In the video game The Walking Dead Season Two, twelve-year-old Clementine has survived for more than a year in the zombie apocalypse. At first, she had a protector. Now Clementine is part of a group of survivors hiking through West Virginia, but she can't rely on the others to keep her safe.
As Clementine, players of The Walking Dead: Season Two will face their most difficult challenges yet in "No Going Back," the fifth and final part of this episodic game set in the same world as the Walking Dead comics by Robert Kirkman. "No Going Back" may be a low point in Clementine's life, but it's the high point of the entire Walking Dead video game series thus far.
All five episodes of The Walking Dead: Season Two are available for PC and Mac on the Steam gaming platform for $24.99 altogether, and versions for other platforms will follow. You can read our reviews of Episode 1, Episode 3 and Episode 4 on Tom's Guide.
We've done our best to keep spoilers to a bare minimum, but this review does contain a few. Consider yourself warned!
Picking up where Episode 4 left off, "No Going Back" starts in the middle of a firefight between Clementine's group and another party — a group that, depending on the player's past decisions, may have had a pretty good reason to attack you.
As Clementine, you'll have to shoot only a reanimated zombie, but others in your party find themselves up against live human survivors."It doesn't feel right," says one of Clementine's allies about killing other survivors after the fight.
Before the episode ends, the members of Clementine's group will once again be killing survivors — this time, each other.
Until then, Clementine can only try to keep the strained band together. It's not all in vain: In one scene, Clementine brings the group together around a warm fire, if players can convince the other characters to put aside their differences for a few moments.
Clementine is the one character everyone else likes, even dotes on — until a crisis happens. Then, they expect her to step up, and if she can't prevent disaster, the other characters blame her for failing or for weighing them down.
Despite that, Clementine is the last person others turn to when making critical decisions. This is seriously frustrating for the player, but it's also intentional. Playing as a 12-year-old girl in an unforgiving world is part of the unique challenge posed by The Walking Dead: Season Two.
In "No Going Back," nothing Clementine does or says can prevent the final fight from happening. But because each plot point is grounded in the characters' personalities and desires, the inexorable march to disaster never feels forced or clichéd.
The Walking Dead video games have never been about fighting zombies.
If there were ever any doubt about that fact, "No Going Back" makes it clear that in The Walking Dead: Season Two, the zombies are not the real enemy. The episode features only one or two full-on zombie fights, and these are as easy as clicking on the zombies' heads on your screen.
The real dramatic tension comes from what the other human survivors do as you hold off the zombies.
Even Clementine's new kick-the-knee attack, which I praised in Episode 4, can only be used once, and not on a zombie — on a fellow survivor. It's details like this that show the care and attention that went into creating The Walking Dead Season Two.
The survivors are much more difficult to deal with than the undead. Players must navigate increasingly tense conversations with other survivors, choosing from as many as four preset dialogue options.
For most of the episode, it feels like no one listens to Clementine and that the best she can do is calm the others down for a few moments. All that changes in the game's brutal finale, when Clementine's fate, and that of her few remaining companions, suddenly rests in the player's hands.
I counted seven different endings, all significantly different in terms of where Clementine ends up, with whom she ends up, and how she approaches life in the zombie apocalypse. While I don't regret the ending I initially chose, playing through the other options still brought me to tears.
The art in The Walking Dead: Season Two, Episode 5 is consistent with the rest of the series: a semi-realistic style reminiscent of the original Walking Dead comic books by artist Tony Moore. Though rendered in 3D, characters retain a hand-drawn look in the color shading and the rough, black outlines.
I found these lines jarring and distracting, especially when they occurred on characters' otherwise very detailed faces. Even so, their faces and bodies are capable of extremely powerful nuance and expression.
The only other issue is that, occasionally, a character's hand will partially pass through an object it's touching, and characters' arms and shoulders will look distorted. This happens even in pre-rendered cutscenes.
But overall, the graphics in The Walking Dead: Season Two have been consistent and distinctive, and help communicate the series' rich, character-driven story.
The voice acting in The Walking Dead is one of the series' strengths. Every actor brings both range and consistency to her or his character, even across the many different endings.
The Walking Dead: Season Two also has a rich soundscape, from the crunch of snow beneath shoes to the crack of a gun to the empty howl of winter wind through bare branches. Coupled with the art, these effects made me feel like I was right alongside Clementine and the rest.
Finally, the music in The Walking Dead: Season Two continues to be both strong and understated. It always enhances a scene, but never dominates it, subtly influencing players' emotions and enhancing other characters' pathos.
Telltale Games set the bar high with The Walking Dead: Season Two, and the final episode sticks the landing. The game uses branching conversations, brief but brutal fights and painful choices to tell a poignant, gut-wrenching story about death, desperation and how far people will go to stay alive.
Developer Telltale Games confirmed at San Diego Comic-Con this July that a third season of the Walking Dead video games is on its way. Details are scarce, but the many possible endings to Season Two made me feel like the decisions I made as my Clementine will have a serious impact on the way Season Three begins — and on the characters who will or won't be present to see it.
Jill Scharr is a staff writer for Tom's Guide, where she regularly covers security, 3D printing and video games. You can follow Jill on Twitter @JillScharr and on Google+. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.