The Walking Dead: The Final Season is Telltale Games’ best entry yet

Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead signals the beginning of the end with Clementine staring in the rearview mirror. A symbolic gesture, it hearkens back to how we first met Lee in 2012. It also symbolizes the arduous, dark journey charted over the past six years. While endings are a tough, touchy subject, all signs point to the finale of this narrative being as appropriately evocative as fans would expect.

The Walking Dead is the series that made Telltale a household name. With a strong focus on writing and performance, the series has felt cinematic from the get-go. Telltale’s writers smartly moved far away from the ongoing television and comic book series to spin their own story in the gritty zombie apocalypse, and based solely on the first episode, season 4 feels to be the most compelling since the initial episodes.

We follow a late-teen Clementine this time around, in a much stronger role. The course of season 3 was sprawling and encompassed an entire community, but this final chapter focuses solely on Clem and her personal growth. There are many moments that draw on her (and players’) past trauma intelligently and organically, crafting yet another powerful adventure.

What has always defined Telltale’s style is the illusion of an interactive movie. Players are told upfront that their choices will change the course of the narrative. While this has held true, the overall structure tends to follow a set path. Key elements like a character’s presence or appearance can change, but plot elements all proceed with only one or two variables. Still, the feeling that the entire plot can fall apart if you choose the wrong dialogue option or miss a combat cue hangs heavily on nearly every moment.

After following Clementine from a wide-eyed child to a boldly powerful young adult, it’s hard not to feel invested from the opening. Declaring this as The Final Season was a great move on Telltale’s part, adding a narrative heft to scenes that might otherwise feel inconsequential. Knowing these are the last moments I might spend with Clem made me reconsider her actions and second-guess my own choices over the course of the episode.

At face value, “Done Running” is identical to the previous hours of Telltale’s marquee story. However, slight improvements in the background make it a tighter, more impressive overall experience. A long-overdue update to the visual style adds more evocative detail and dramatic lighting to every scene. Likewise, the camera moves in a more cinematic fashion, following over Clem’s shoulder and offering more advanced environmental storytelling. For a game that rides so much on how it looks and feels, The Final Season is instantly the most mature installment in Telltale’s repertoire.

Narratively, the first episode lays interesting ground to expand on over the course of the following episodes. While a lot of the proceedings are setup and character-building, the new cast introduced are a far cry from what we’ve seen in the past. Like a blend of Stranger Things and Lord of the Flies, this story centers on the loss of innocence.

While all The Walking Dead properties express that humans are the real monsters in the zombie outbreak, the themes of corrupted adolescence in Clem’s story are more riveting than they are outright oppressive.

Without spoiling the setup, it is made clear here that we will watch Clementine grow into the role of a leader. In making the player directly responsible for her actions, The Walking Dead is able to show more than it tells. You’re able to craft your own Clementine, and the game doesn’t often tease you about what could have been. The interactive, interchangeable elements at play only serve to deepen the narrative rather than distract from the overall story. I never felt like I was missing important moments if I chose to keep Clem quiet; rather, she was a stronger character because of that decision.

A Telltale game has never been easier to play, either. Clear objectives and a more direct camera cut down on the time wasted fumbling with controls. Almost all of the experience in this three-hour episode is driven by either combat or character interaction. Action prompts are clear, and objects that can be controlled are distinct enough to never lose track of. There’s a great blend of player freedom and subtle direction at work that carry the story with the weight it deserves.

While only one episode in, I feel fully invested in where The Walking Dead goes from here. Clementine’s story still holds a lot of intrigue, and her watching her grow makes it easy to overlook how much of this episode is simply setting up the pieces for what is sure to be a devastating sprint to the finish line.

4/5

This review was written based on a PS4 copy of the game provided by the publisher. The Walking Dead: The Final Season – ‘Done Running’ is available now for PC, PS4, and Xbox One.

AJ Moser

AJ Moser

AJ Moser is a Brooklyn-based reporter who focuses on video games, movies, and internet culture. His work has appeared in Paste Magazine, Game Informer, and Big Spaceship.