A lot has changed since we first were introduced to Telltale’s take on The Walking Dead. With the introduction of Lee and Clementine’s story in 2012, so too were we introduced to a story that would not only come to define an entire style of narrative-driven player experiences, but would also define the style of an entire studio for the years to come.
Coming off the success that was the first season of The Walking Dead, there have certainly been a fair share of highs and lows from Telltale Games in the years after. Some series have more successfully built off the so-called “Telltale Formula” of story-driven experiences guided by player decisions and quicktime events more than others. But with each subsequent release in the past few years, Telltale has quietly been iterating on its signature style of gameplay, for better and worse.
However, with the end now in sight for the studio’s breakout success with The Walking Dead: The Final Season, the story they’ve been telling over over six plus years is not only starting off with an excellent debut, but also showing some encouraging signs of the studio’s future ahead.
Compared to the smaller increments of new gameplay features and changes that we saw in titles from the studio like Minecraft: Story Mode and Batman: The Telltale Series, the first episode of The Walking Dead: The Final Season is arguably one of the studio’s strongest installments ever and has me eager to see the rest of its season play out, even if this time around it means saying goodbye to characters I’ve come to know and love over multiple seasons like Clementine.
Picking up some time after the events of The Walking Dead: A New Frontier, the first episode of The Final Season shows Clementine and AJ–the young boy she has been protecting and caring for since Season Two–in dire circumstances. Traveling out on the road in an old beat-up car and with little in the way of supplies, Clementine and AJ eventually find their way into a community of kids and young adults seeking refuge in the wilderness at a dilapidated school. With no adults or other authority figures to guide them, the group has managed to make it on their own for some time and eventually take in Clementine and AJ to provide them with protection.
Comprised of younger survivors such as Marlon, the group’s leader with a mullet and a mean temper, Louis, a wisecracking teen making sure everyone has a good time, and more, the new characters introduced in The Final Season already feel like a compelling group to follow alongside the circumstances that Clementine and AJ are facing.
While it can be expected at this point with anything Walking Dead-related that things don’t quite end up being what they seem, the unique dynamics of this group and Clementine and AJ’s entrance into it makes for some unique storytelling angles that we haven’t seen from the series yet, and I’m looking forward to exploring some of these relationships further in upcoming episodes.
Combined with that is the fact that even more than I can remember from experiencing the first season, The Walking Dead: The Final Season brings with it a true air of maturity to the storytelling of the series. Though The Walking Dead has always revolved around the themes of survival and having to make hard decisions for the benefit of those you are protecting, those themes are now coming full circle with the fact that Clementine is now a burgeoning young adult. Since we first saw her as a young girl afraid and terrified of the new world she was coming into, The Final Season shows a stark contrast in Clementine as a hardened survivor willing to make any sacrifices necessary to live and, most importantly, to protect AJ.
The first episode, titled “Done Running,” makes that clear right from the very start, as the opening moments highlight not just how far Clementine has come since escaping Atlanta with Lee, but also in putting her survival skills to the test now that her responsibility is greater than ever before.
It’s not hard at all to see how The Final Season is drawing parallels between the first season (with the first episode already making bigger and smaller references to past seasons), as Clementine must now fill the protector role that Lee served as for her. While it may come off a bit expected, Telltale weaves this theme into the first episode smartly, as Clementine learns time and again that she still has quite a bit more to learn, even with all that she’s experienced in her journey so far.
Aside from the strong narrative pull playing as a much older Clementine, Telltale has also integrated what might be the most robust gameplay mechanics of one of the studio’s titles yet. While the structure of the episode largely revolves around watching the story unfold before you and having to make quick-paced decisions (as expected), this time around The Walking Dead has more interactivity at play and controls that are much more refined than before.
Certain sections of the episode allow you to control Clementine and explore the environment, but instead of the more traditional adventure game style that Telltale has used with a fixed camera, Telltale has employed a new over-the-shoulder perspective that might immediately call to mind something like The Last of Us. While the shift in perspective might be jarring at first to those that played Telltale titles in the past, it is still an incredibly welcome change and adds to the level of detail and immersion that you can find in this opening chapter.
Combat also plays a much more integral role to the experience this time around as Clementine will regularly have to engage with incoming walkers to defend herself. While the combat is fairly basic by the standards of more traditional action games (and should be feel familiar if you played the Minecraft: Story Mode series), the added sense of interactivity and control in The Final Season beyond simple button presses feels like a needed (and engaging) change for The Walking Dead.
In addition to the narrative and gameplay changes that Telltale has employed with The Walking Dead: The Final Season, the series’ visuals have also gotten a notable bump in quality compared to even last year’s conclusion of A New Frontier. While the series is still in line with its comic roots (and an accompanying comic-like look), The Final Season shows that Telltale has improved much in the way of character animations and more convincing performances through them. While the first episode had a few moments of some long load times and some slight stutters in action (most likely to load in my determined choices), the more detailed and gritty-looking art in The Final Season feels appropriate to the season’s darker, mature tone.
Coming in at around 2.5 hours to finish, the first episode of The Walking Dead: The Final Season certainly has a lot to unpack compared to the typical length of past episodes. While the season overall is coming in at four episodes–as opposed to the typical five episodes for most Telltale series–it may be the case that each episode will be a little lengthier than normal to make up for it. Though if the first episode is any indication, hopefully that means The Final Season will keep up an engaging, consistent pace throughout the season, and hopefully trim some of the more extraneous scenes that have sometimes bogged down Telltale’s narrative flow.
With a brilliant sense of maturity and some of the series’ darkest moments yet, The Walking Dead: The Final Season is already on the right track to delivering a fitting and emotional conclusion to Telltale’s beloved series. Across the board, episode 1 of The Final Season feels like the natural evolution of what the series has been building up to, while adding in some surprising (and very much welcome) gameplay tweaks and refinements from past Telltale games.
Combined with genuinely shocking moments that I would have the heart to spoil here, The Walking Dead: The Final Season is already off to an incredibly promising start, even when I know that its ending will surely be hard to swallow. The Clementine that I know and loved from The Walking Dead‘s first season is very different now, and I can’t wait to see how her story ends.