Warning: This review contains spoilers for earlier episodes of The Walking Dead: Season Two.
It's been a tough few months for Telltale, with their last few releases (episode three of The Walking Dead: Season Two, and episodes four and five of The Wolf Among Us) being rather lacklustre. I'm pleased to report, however, that they seem to be back on form, with the latest episode of The Walking Dead, Amid the Ruins, being one of the better ones of Season Two.
The chapter picks up immediately where the previous one left, with the very first scene showing the consequences of the last major choice of the previous episode. This is perhaps not as impactful as it could be, given a lack of groundwork earlier in the season to build a connection between the character in question and the player, and the wait since the last episode means that even with a recap at the beginning, it’s hard to remember details being referred back to.
From that point on, though, Telltale returns to their strength - a character-centric story with a complicated, interesting cast, and believable, situational conflicts instead of archetypal villains.
Three characters are the real centre of this: Clementine, of course; Season One returnee Kenny; and newcomer Jane, who was introduced at the end of the Episode 3. The complexity on display with Clementine and Kenny is to be expected, given they’ve had a season and a half to develop, but Jane is the true standout. Her appearance at the end of the last chapter was brief, so this is the first chance we really have to get to know her, and the writers have done a fantastic job. She begins as something of a lone wolf cliche, but before long she’s shown to be much more than that: a layered, likeable, and relatable character. Jane is easily the most convincing of this season’s new faces.
With Clementine, we see more of what we’ve been seeing all season: her strength and determination in the face of the most dire of situations. However, that’s interspersed brilliantly with some welcome reminders of the fact that underneath it all, she’s still a kid, and that just maybe, her childlike innocence and what some would label as naivete is a part of her strength. In spite of everything that’s happened, she has a hope in the future that a more jaded adult - like the companions she’s travelling with - would struggle to summon.
Kenny, on the hand, shows the opposite. So far this season, we’ve seen a balanced, responsible Kenny, a man who’s quick to action and, though perhaps harsh with his words at times, ultimately has the interests of the group - and Clem in particular - at heart. But over the game’s two seasons, he’s been through more than his fair share of hardships, and the burden of those really comes to play in Amid the Ruins. We’ve seen him in this position during the first season, but it’s still a welcome reminder that even an oak like Kenny can be cut down.
The other characters aren’t as well fleshed out. Luke, one of the nicer characters of this season, is constantly in conflict with Kenny in a way that seems forced and out of character. Mike and Bonnie have little involvement in the plot aside from a short scene focused exclusively on them that’s the weak link in an episode that’s otherwise excellently paced and thought out.
With an emergency at hand, the group breaks up into groups to find supplies and shelter, with Bonnie and Mike going to a “nearby” (12 miles, according to an in-game road sign) museum. Once they find nothing of value, rather than hurrying back - time is of the essence here - they decide to hang around at the museum until they can uncover something useful. Even when Clem makes the journey out to tell them that shelter has been found and they need to hurry back, Bonnie and Mike decide to stick around a bit longer to try and find something (they hadn’t even made it inside the building at this point.) When they’re finally ready to back, Bonnie suddenly exclaims that they should hurry, because of the emergency.
This whole bit just feels like something that was thrown in at the last minute to pad out the running time. It adds an extra element of choice, as you can choose which group you go with first, but that choice is moot because you’ll end up visiting each group in turn. It adds little to the story, doesn’t make a great deal of sense, and stands out from an otherwise strong episode.
And speaking of choices, Telltale is back in their element in this regard, too (the previous example aside.) Fans of the studio will be familiar with the way each episode will have five important, plot-changing decisions to make, which are shown to you at the end along with a breakdown of the choices other players made. In Season One, these were difficult, morally ambiguous dilemmas with no right or easy answers, but so far Season Two hasn’t carried the same kind of weight. Most of the choices have had an obvious “right” answer, or have felt fairly unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
Not so with Amid the Ruins. For the first time this season, I was torn, struggling to make a decision between equally horrible outcomes and then instantly feeling like I made I picked wrong as soon as I pressed the button. It’s this kind of involvement, this kind of emotional interactivity that got me so hooked on Season One, so to say its return in this episode is welcome would be an understatement.
This is definitely one of the better episodes of The Walking Dead: Season Two, and the best chapter of a Telltale game in a good few months. Sure, there’s one scene in particular that doesn’t fit, and some of the characterisation is lacking, but everything else - the great writing for those characters in the episode’s spotlight, and the welcome return of heavy, meaningful, emotional choices more than make up for that.
Telltale’s back, and I can’t wait to see what the season finale has in store.
See our reviews for the previous episodes: