Nothing ever changes about the undead. Walkers will continue to wander aimlessly in a neverending search for food. Humanity, on the other hand, will continue to grow and change. Even in the middle of the greatest disaster to befall the world, people will continue evolve. That's my main takeaway from The Walking Dead: Season 2. Even if Telltale wasn't quite able to hit that same emotional punch that rocketed the first season to the top of Shacknews' Game of the Year list in 2012, it still stands as an example of fine storytelling and narrative within the context of an adventure game.
If the first season of The Walking Dead was about paternal instincts kicking in during a time of apocalyptic crisis, the second season is about the loss of innocence and forsaking childhood for the sake of survival. This season put young Clementine in a starring role and focused on her lone path into the apocalypse.
Clementine as the main protagonist meant a distinct change in the narrative dynamic. The game was no longer about doing what's best for the group and keeping everyone happy. If anything, the party that Clementine stumbled onto was in a woefully bad situation and there was only so much she could do to help keep things together.
That leads into one of the main issues with this season of The Walking Dead. The supporting cast simply isn't all that compelling, especially the cast we're introduced to in the first two episodes. I've gone over the problems with the supporting cast previously, so I won't belabor this point. However, in comparison to the fleshed-out characters that we see evolve over the first season, this season's cast pales in comparison. There's no reason to care about many of them, often because they're total screw-ups that make their survival situation worse and because it rapidly becomes apparent that Clementine is the smartest and most mature member of the group.
That isn't just a blind observation, either. There are several instances in the game in which Clementine is either approached with an extremely dangerous task or is blamed for making a spur-of-the-moment choice. Somehow, the adults here always think it's the best idea to throw Clementine directly into the fire for tasks that they could just as easily handle themselves (such as talking to an extremely-volatile Kenny) or blame her for taking spur-of-the-moment action in a life-or-death situation. It makes these characters come off as unsympathetic, so when any of those supporting players meet their premature demise, it's hard to drum up the same kind of emotional response that drove so much of the first season.
However, while I can harp on where Telltale has come up short with its characters, they should also be credited for continuing to be masters of their storytelling formula. These games aren't simply about choices and the number of choices you can make. These choices have no teeth if there aren't consequences and this season sees some very real consequences, especially in the latter half. The Walking Dead is built on a foundation of choices, but it flourishes because of what results from them. Never is that more evident than in the final episode's closing minutes.
Without diving deep into spoiler territory, there was a reason that Telltale structured their episodes in the way that they did. It might have seemed curious that they blew off the Woodbury-style camp storyline in the third episode and that's because there was one other character worth investing in: Kenny. With Clementine's story signifying a child's forced journey into adulthood and maturity, it also meant she had a very harsh lesson to learn over the course of her journey. Just like herself, people grow and people change. So do relationships. The person you knew years ago is not necessarily the same person you know now and how one chooses to deal with that change is a very real dilemma in life. The manner in which The Walking Dead deals with Clementine and Kenny's relationship is the true highlight of this season, right down to the final episode's gut-wrenching climax. More than anything, as the story progresses and that relationship changes, it will have many players questioning the choices they made, harkening back to the idea of consequences.
It was pretty clear that Telltale was more interested in telling a story this time around, because the fail states this time around were a lot more forgiving. Whereas I found myself having to repeat a few portions of the first season, because of screwing up a few puzzles, there was no such danger of that happening this time. Yet Telltale didn't forsake any of the interactive elements, managing to keep the tense atmosphere going through all of its walker segments. They still feels organically placed, rather than as tacked-on segments for the sake of adding action.
It took a while for The Walking Dead: Season 2 and its story to find their footing, but Telltale still knows how to pack an emotional punch. Whether it was during the hostage situation at the end of the second episode, the escape attempt at the end of the third episode, or the twist at the very end of the season, there are still a number of heartbreaking moments that promise to touch feelings in ways that few other games can. The difference between this and last season is, there just aren't as many this time around. Perhaps because of that, this feels less like a GOTY contender and more like a game that's simply very good.
Overall, this is the essence of The Walking Dead. It's tragedy and despair, with only that one faint glimmer of hope that keeps humanity going.
Final Score: 8 out of 10.
This review is based on downloadable Xbox 360 codes, all provided by the publisher (with the exception of Episode 3, which was purchased by the reviewer). The Walking Dead: Season 2 is available now on PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Vita now and is coming later this week to iOS. The game is rated M.