Editor's Note: This review avoids major spoilers for the current episode, but past Walking Dead installments may be discussed.
Telltale Games knows how to close when it comes to season finales. They dangle prized characters in perilous positions before the smoke clears, only then allowing players a reprieve from ravenous undead or fairy tale villains. But myriad stumbles mar the buildup to these conclusions. Did irritable fan emails sap the team’s morale? Perhaps the writers had a rocky week. Maybe the devs sent an episode out too early, skimping on the extra polish. Whatever the unlucky tradition, the penultimate installments of The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us exist as the weakest of the series. “Amid The Ruins” continues that tragic trend.
How exactly? "In Harm's Way" ‒ one of the finer representations of Kirkman's comics ‒ closed on one doozy of an ultimatum. “Amid The Ruins” resumes seconds after, with Clementine and company fighting off the undead outside Carver’s prison camp. Sarita’s life is in your hands. Did you amputate her arm or lobotomize the zombie nibbling on her fingers? Nobody is too precious for the apocalypse. The pragmatic versus empathic debate ‒ to end her misery or prolong her anguish for final goodbyes ‒ determines Kenny’s response, which would usually affect the course of the next hour.
Except, Telltale deals with too many loose ends for a chapter that runs the length of an animated film. The fate of Sarita wears away Kenny’s sanity, Rebecca’s baby is moments from birth (you can bet her screams of agony will draw walkers), Jane’s background remains shrouded, and retrieving separated cast members leads to a hazardous game of hide and seek. Cauterizing these narrative threads one by one leaves the pacing disjointed, and now Clementine ‒ an 11-year-old girl ‒ must decide who lives and dies directly?
Someone took the empathic approach.
Telltale always gave fallen protagonists a send-off that meant something. Lee’s passing solidified Clem's maturation, Larry’s murder killed any hope of Kenny and Lilly letting bygones be bygones, and Carlie’s (or Doug’s) execution elicited unbridled rage. “Amid The Ruins” treats mortality with so much disrespect that ‒ had I not watched the credits ‒ I would doubt this was the primary Telltale team bringing us new episodes. More than ever, I felt their presence dragging me toward an outcome I had no say in. "In Harm's Way" put Carver in the driver’s seat, control be damned. He became a cipher, each forced death playing into his demented manner.
“Amid The Ruins” pulls fans forward on a leash, pointing and shouting, “Hey, did you see that? Shame we killed that person, right?" This culling feels senseless, as if the developers were taking out the trash. The deaths of two people especially ‒ one of which you may not even see according to previous choices ‒ come and go like the wind. Although they shape Clementine’s attitude in the moment, the whirlwind of repercussions is actually a slight rustle to the group’s mood. I left someone behind to assure our heroine’s safety, and no one mentions it again.
The ordeal harks back to the Ben in the bell tower scene from Season One (did you let him fall?), featuring different characters and less sincerity. I thought my selfishness would beget fresh conflict among Clementine’s party, but I guess it was just a side effect of the “we’re screwed” apocalypse mentality. Despite Clem acting unsympathetic because I chose unkindly, nothing fazes her anymore.
Swing for the fences, Clem.
She is still not immune to zombie threats at least. Players have little time to exhale between the action sequences, which the creators continue to top. How could a gift shop become a sight of panic? Sticking cannons on their flimsy elevated decks with only one way does down dooms possible escapes. But hunting dinner in an old Civil War museum gives Mike a chance to step up as the kindhearted, comic relief character, and Bonnie still shows remorse after serving Clem and her friends to Carver on a silver platter.
Luke and Kenny practically swap identities, however, Freaky Friday style. Luke ‒ formerly the peacemaker, leader, and model big brother ‒ becomes belligerent and endangers the party for a “happy ending.” Meanwhile, outsider Kenny provides the glue holding these downtrodden misfits together. This turnabout did not stem from Clementine’s decisions, either. The voice actors pour their hearts and souls into each performance (that nearly goes without saying), yet the writing is often careless.
I quite enjoyed Jane’s mentoring, though. She teaches Clem a foolproof method for finishing off infected efficiently, and cages the apathetic, lone wolf persona long enough to expose her agonizing past. Jane repeatedly questions Clementine’s faith in her friends for the better. Prior mistakes bred her bleak demeanor ‒ errors she doesn’t want Clementine making. Jane has seen groups such as Luke's cannibalize themselves, seen more harm done to the living by the living than any undead mongrel. The tears Jane holds back convinced me of the sympathy she deserves. She might have been an approachable friend in a less abrasive world.
This is no winter wonderland.
Kenny is the other laudable survivor ... for a while. The loss of his friends dredges up bad memories, namely of his family. Kenny lashes out at Clementine ‒ not physically, just in that disappointed parent, premeditated murder sort of way. And when asked whether he would recover, I did not give a surefire answer. I thought I knew Kenny. However, the fury festering inside him shocked me. Who would inadvertently set him off? Who would be the target of his raw, seething hatred? There is a madness about Kenny early in the episode, an exciting aura of terror that should have been less easily dispelled.
I half-expected Kenny to start shredding zombies barehanded, yet he buries his trauma within seconds, like flipping an off switch. It reminds players that no matter how many story options the gameplay grants, characters cannot function outside Tellate’s own limits. When deciding to raid or disregard a stranger’s bag of medicine, I almost left it untouched until Jane made an irresistible plea for my suffering companions. Kenny’s busted eye, the birth of Rebecca’s baby, and Luke’s bruised ribs were too critical to ignore. While a few pain pills mended the lot, The Walking Dead opts for a black and white solution. If you take the meds, Jane keeps them all rather than sharing. And as soon as she was growing on me...
“Amid The Ruins” did not wow me the same as other installments. The narrative promises replay value, yet the plot branches just to reconvene several minutes later. The loss of more allies should dictate Kenny’s temper, though he stuffs his feelings down so deep even the writers cannot find them. Every solemn occasion is also offset by Luke’s abject negativity or questionable conduct. I once said Season Two’s debut episode was a stepping stone for a greater story instead of a great story itself. “Amid The Ruins” is neither by the franchise’s lofty standards. It's average, boilerplate, mediocre. Maybe the finale will alleviate complaints, but it has a lot of explaining to do.
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: July 22, 2014
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Xbox 360, PlayStation, PS Vita, Mac, iOS