Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Walking Dead: Episode 5 - No Time Left

* Read this review as it originally appeared in the November issue of Adventure Lantern.

No Time Left marks the fifth and final installment of the first season to Telltale's The Walking Dead series. Throughout the entire series, the goal for Lee Everett and company has been to protect Clementine and their loved ones from the horrors of the zombie apocalypse, and to reach the coast in hopes of finding a seaworthy boat to escape the droning hordes of undead. With Clementine kidnapped by an unknown voice on the walkie-talkie and Lee bitten by a walker at the end of the previous episode, No Time Left commands an unprecedented sense of urgency going into the finale. Everything is at stake, no one is safe, and time is of the essence.

As another episode in the series, No Time Left is a fine experience, but as a series finale it leaves a little something to be desired. The final moments are easily some of the most emotional I've ever seen in a video game, but most of the other major things the series had been building towards were kind of anticlimactic, and the post-credits cutscene basically only serves as a teaser for season two without offering any conclusive resolution to this particular story arc. If you've been keeping up with the series, you pretty much have to play Episode Five, but I find it difficult not to feel conflicted over Telltale's handling of the final episode.

Compared to other episodes in the series, Episode Five has perhaps the simplest story progression, since your only objective is a relatively straightforward matter of catching up to Clementine at the Marsh House, the hotel where her parents were staying in Savannah. As such, the bulk of the episode consists of wandering through streets and rooftops as you sort of wait for the next accident or catastrophe to happen. There's one sequence where you hole up in the house from Episode Four, attempting to defend it from walkers (almost reminiscent of the cabin sequence from Resident Evil 4, except in a more adventure-gameplay format) before being forced to take refuge in the attic.

Perhaps the biggest decision you have to make comes in the first few minutes of the game; after passing out from the effects of the bite on the wrist, you're faced with the decision of amputating your arm. Those who have read the comics or watched the television show will know that removing the source of the bite quickly enough can stop the spread of the infection, meaning Lee might have a chance to survive (if he doesn't die of blood loss), but he'll be manually impaired in the coming efforts of rescuing Clementine. Leaving the arm intact means dealing with occasional blackouts as the effects of zombification grow stronger.

Like virtually all other decisions in the series, this one doesn't have a major impact on anything since you still wind up in the same situations with the same solutions, but there are a few nice differences in certain scenes and you are, in fact, treated to a few completely different (albeit small) scenes depending on this choice. Despite that, it's still kind of amusing that, even if you leave his arm intact, Lee still only uses one hand for a number of actions, and tends to walk around with his left arm hanging lifelessly by his side, or simply doesn't use it to gesture during certain conversations, slightly belittling the impact of the decision.

The best thing about Episode Five is that it brings many of your decisions full circle, forcing you to reflect on many of the choices you'd made and demonstrating that there was a lasting impact on what may have seemed like a trivial decision early in the series. Even though, in the grand scheme of things, your decisions didn't have an effect on the direction of the story, this episode emphasizes that each decision was supposed to be a personal judgment of morality, an intrinsic conflict you had to resolve for yourself, living with the consequences in regret or contentment.

But even still, with this being the final episode, you'd think the necessity for streamlining decisions would no longer apply, that the game could actually branch out towards the end without having to tie everything together at the end of the episode. At the end of Episode Four, it seemed like things were actually branching out in terms of who was going to go with you on your mission to rescue Clementine, but things revert back to the usual status quo 10 or 15 minutes into Episode Five.

Likewise, since Telltale announced they'd be making a follow-up second season to this series, everything has to converge to one canonical ending so that they have a canonical start to season two; there is one, single ending that everyone gets, no matter what seemingly critical, branching decisions you make towards the end in regards to Clementine's future, and that's a bitter pill to swallow for a game that supposedly adapts to the choices you make, especially after investing so much time playing the game and waiting weeks or months between episodes.

Either way, the whole point of Episode Five is to see the ending and everything the series has been building towards, and in many regards it's somewhat anticlimactic. Disappointment and anticlimaxes are to be expected in a zombie apocalypse, but the fact remains that this is a video game and building effective drama should be an important consideration in the story writing -- you can still have a tragically disappointing resolution without sacrificing the dramatic impact. The final moments before the credits are very effective in both regards, sincerely tugging at my heartstrings and causing me to shed a tear, but the other inevitable resolutions we'd been expecting (learning the fate of Clementine's parents and meeting with the stranger on the walkie-talkie) were, to varying degrees, a letdown.

The real disappointment comes after the credits when you're treated to a brief cutscene meant to add some closure after the abrupt cut to credits. The problem with this cutscene, however, is that it doesn't provide any closure -- it's a deliberate cliffhanger that feels more like a teaser for season two than an actual resolution for season one. Cliffhangers between seasons are common enough that I can't really complain about that, but season finales are supposed to resolve one story arc while setting up another, and the cliffhanger ending to this first season leaves so many things unresolved as to be almost completely unsatisfying.

Episode Five also feels noticeably shorter than other recent episodes. Before going into Episode Five, I decided to replay Episode Four to refresh my memory and (hopefully) see some different outcomes; that took me 3.1 hours to accomplish, knowing exactly what to do at every step of the way. Episode Five took 2.1 hours to complete. I was utterly shocked at one point when an entire chapter (1/8th of the game's narrative) lasted literally no more than two minutes.

Still, I have to tip my hat to Telltale for not copping out on the ending by trying to tie things together with a consequence-free, happy ribbon. From the very beginning, I kind of knew it had to end one of two ways, and I was very pleased that they chose to the take the darker route, because that's the essence of the comics. I feel like Telltale definitely could've handled this finale much better (it feels a little rushed in some regards), but the final moments were truly touching, even despite a handful of anticlimactic disappointments and missed opportunities.

1 comment:

  1. I loved Walking Dead, and it was my favorite game of 2012.

    My biggest fear for Season Two is that they try too hard to one-up the emotional moments from Season One. "You thought killing a child was tragic? Now you need to kill an airport full of children!"
    The Walking Dead Season Finale No Time Left from DownloadGame24