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Walking Dead: Final Season Episode 1 Review - MojoPlays

VO: Andrew Labelle
The final season of Telltale's The Walking Dead is here, and we're really excited to be playing and talking about the first chapter in the saga. Does it live up to it's reputation, or is this another zombie pun goes here I'll think of one later?

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And so the end begins here. Three seasons in, Telltale Games have become quite comfortable with the “Walking Dead” brand, making their own mark on Robert Kirkman’s zombie universe while still remaining true to the spirit of the wider franchise. Telltale’s writing has been stellar and packed with drama, the vocal performances emotive and nuanced, the visual style an admirable effort at capturing the stark look of the source material.

Yet a kind of hesitation has hovered discussion around “The Final Season”. Concerns about diminishing returns, the stalled developments of other “Walking Dead” media and Telltale’s own behind-the-scenes restructuring have raised questions about what will become of Clementine’s last outing. Thus, this first episode – titled “Done Running” - has quite the responsibility to bear. So how, then, does it fare? Welcome to MojoPlays and this is our review of Telltale's "The Walking Dead: The Final Season".

Picking up an indeterminate amount of time after the third season, “The Final Season” has us once more follow and guide the journey of the young survivor Clementine, now acting as the mentor-slash-guardian of her even younger companion AJ. The duo, having been fending for themselves and scavenging what they can amid the zombie… er, walker apocalypse, are straining for supplies when they happen upon an abandoned train station that seems promising. Because this is “The Walking Dead” things escalate in typical fashion and the pair are placed in mortal danger, only to be rescued, this time by a motley crew of kids.

“Done Running” takes its time to flesh out a handful of promising character dynamics and pose some unsettling quandaries as befits this particular series. We’re introduced to an eclectic group of survivors, some of whom slot into familiar roles – the put-upon leader, the withdrawn yet sensitive hunter – while others aren’t quite so clearly defined. There’s moments of comradery and quiet introspection, like a dinner scene in which AJ’s manners are called into question and an initially cheerful card game that turns quite somber. And, of course, there is the requisite slaying of walkers.

If there’s an explicit problem with the narrative beyond a creeping feeling of familiarity, it’s one of structure – specifically pacing. The first two acts meander through forest exploration sequences and lengthy dialogue exchanges that, while compelling enough on their own, do begin to feel a tad perfunctory in succession. The episode as a whole feels a bit too rooted to the enduring traditions and expectations of a “Walking Dead” story, right down to the seemingly altruistic group with a dark secret.

Fortunately, the payoff and the way in which player-controlled decisions are integrated make the difference here. Without giving the episode away, we can tell you all is not well and the cruelties of human nature haven’t quite been left behind. Making choices about what Clementine says and how she goes about unraveling morally complicated encounters, particularly once the appropriately grim third act rolls around, remains as tense and enticing as ever.

Moment-to-moment gameplay, much like the broad strokes of the story, mostly sticks to Telltale tradition here. You’ll be spending most of the episode’s runtime selecting between dialogue options and making story-branching choices, interspersed with very light environmental puzzles and brief explorative segments. New to the experience is an over-the-shoulder camera view, deviating from the usual fixed perspective of seasons past. It’s accompanied by a handful of freeform combat encounters wherein Clementine has some choice in how to dispatch walkers. They’re serviceable as action scenes, though they mostly boil down to whether or not Clem manages to stun a walker before taking them down.

More compelling as new additions are concerned is the visual presentation, thanks to Telltale’s implementation of what they call a “graphic black” style. Outlines on character models are now bolder, the layering of objects and staging of scenes more closely resembles those of a comic panel, and there’s more detail to every surface. While some scenes do end up feeling a little cluttered and visually distracting, overall it feels like a worthwhile enhancement that doesn’t sacrifice fidelity to the series’ distinctive look.

The central setting this time around, a long-abandoned boarding school surrounded by dense wilderness, proves useful for illustrating the new style’s strengths. Vines and overgrowth have sprouted from countless surfaces, giving the sense that nature has begun to reclaim what humanity has left behind. Whether shrouded in the darkness of night or faintly lit with rays of sunlight, the school’s weathered halls manage to impress.

We’d be remiss not to bring up the efforts of the voice actors, whose performances remain a key strength in conjunction with generally strong scripting. Melissa Hutchison as Clementine never ceases to be the MVP, finding compassion and charisma in her role even while asked to show Clem’s more bitter and pragmatic aspects. She’s matched nicely by a solid cast, with Ray Chase managing an unexpectedly difficult performance as Marlon and AJ’s actor Taylor Parks exuding boundless charm. Hearing them all crack jokes and play off one another never ceases to entertain, lending further weight and even tragedy to the episode’s darker proceedings.

Those seeking incredibly bold and fresh directions for Telltale and “The Walking Dead” might come away from this first episode feeling slightly underwhelmed. It’s not so much a drastic shakeup as a solid setup for intriguing prospects to come. Yet it’s hard to deny, even when they’re arguably sticking to formula, that Telltale really is talented at telling a moving and heartrending tale. “Done Running” presents well and delivers its fair share of thrills, and sometimes that’s enough. If this we ranked the Top 10 Telltale games, "The Final Season" would definitely land on the high end of that list.

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