The first episode in ‘The Final Season’ mixes tension, action in excellent fashion
Collectibles? Achievements that aren’t tied to story progression? Children wielding guns? Wait, that last one isn’t anything new to Telltale Games” “The Walking Dead” series. But by deciding — finally — to add a bit more depth to its gameplay mechanics and setting the story of “The Walking Dead: The Final Season” in a school of hard knocks where children teach children the lessons of life in a dying world, Telltale manages to reclaim some of its former luster.
“Episode 1: Done Running,” the first of four episodes to be released through the end of the year, never lets you forget where are you. The episode opens up with a desolate road, two children in a car and an empty gun — and empty stomachs. It’s been some years since the events of the lackluster “The Walking Dead: A New Frontier,” and both series lead Clementine (voiced again by Melissa Hutchison) and her young ward, AJ, have aged appropriately. The two are alone, surviving as best they can. But to continue to survive, the two must venture from the safety of their car to get food — and that almost never ends well, what with all the undead (“walkers” in this universe) shambling about, just looking to take a chunk out of your face.
Much like in the first season of “The Walking Dead,” much of “Done Running” is focused on the relationship between not-quite-parent (Lee in Season One, Clementine here) and not-quite-child (Clem in Season One, AJ here). It took a second season to understand that the series wasn’t so much about Lee’s journey as much as what he imparted to Clem and what she did with that knowledge. “The Final Season” pays great tribute to its roots, re-creating that dynamic between Clem and AJ, even changing its long-running pop-up notice that “X character will remember this” to “AJ is always listening.” Whether that means Clem will suffer the same fate as her mentor is still unknown, but players should be warned against expecting a happy ending here.
Least of all because AJ is terrifying in the way only children can be: without meaning to be. At the end of “A New Frontier,” Clem, who thought AJ had died between the end of Season Two and the start of “ANF,” learned the child she’s been tending to is in fact still alive. So she set off to reclaim AJ from “The Farm,” a location mentioned once in “Done Running,” uncomfortably close to the word “blood.” (This episode doesn’t address what transpired during the years between “ANF” and now.) Now it’s just the two of them, and it’s clear the lack of true authority — Clem serves more as a glorified big sister than any type of mother figure — and socialization with anyone other than Clem has taken an alarming toll on AJ, who’d rather bite you than say hello. There’s no better proof than the episode’s shocking conclusion, which takes place amid the most “normal” people — again, all children, no adults — we’ve probably met in years.
Early on in “Done Running,” I’d say about 10 minutes in, I made a comment to the effect of, “Why bother exploring? There’s nothing ever to find.” That was in regards to there being nothing of interest worth finding non-story-related in any Telltale game I’ve played. “Done Running,” however, adds a few flourishes that will reward your curiosity (and up the game’s replayability factor). It’s not much — just some collectibles you can find or miss, and some trophies you can earn only by completing certain tasks — but those additions give the game a little something extra, especially if you’re the type who likes to check every corridor.
Visually and technically, the game looks and runs much its predecessors. The comic-book look still shines here, and I had no actual tech issues, which I shouldn’t appreciate (I shouldn’t have to worry about when — not if — a game will crash), but it should be stability improvements to the Telltale’s game engine. (A recent report from Variety says this will be the last Telltale game to use the engine, and future games will use the ubiquitous Unity engine instead, a change following major upheavals at the company.)
In the end, “Done Running,” the first episode in “The Walking Dead: The Final Season,” is a return to form for Telltale’s “The Walking Dead” series. It’s not afraid to take its time to set up a scene, and it doesn’t shy away from tough topic or uncomfortable situations. I’m curious to learn what happened in the years between “A New Frontier” and the present, and I’m truly in the dark about what will happen next with Clem, AJ, the new “friends” they’ve made and the always looming threat of outsiders alive and dead. The two-hour episode packs a lot in, and the availability of collectibles and context-specific trophies will give players a reason to try different scenarios. If “Done Running” is just the tip of the zombie-laden iceberg, I’m excited to see what lies beneath.
Four “And this is why children shouldn’t have guns” stars out of five.