With the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead having been free for Xbox Live Gold members back in late 2015, and the second season currently gratis for subscribers until 15 May, there's arguably never been a more accommodating time for players on the platform to jump into the latest season.
You’ll encounter the game’s first interactive adventure elements when the group stops to gather supplies, and you already know what to expect here if you’ve played a Telltale game before. Somewhat clunky animations, finicky cursor control, overly-simple puzzles, even lengthy stretches that are largely uneventful - it’s all present and accounted for. The returning QTE combat fares slightly better, but while engagingly violent, it lacks the stylish verve seen in the Michonne mini-series. While passable, as a means to an end, we’ve said it before and will say it again: Telltale need to update their engine and tweak (that’s all it’d take, no need for a complete overhaul) their formula.
We’ve said it before and will say it again: Telltale need to update their engine and tweak their formula.
While searching for fuel and food, bashing zombies along the way, Javi and co. find more than they bargained for when they cross paths with another group of survivors that don’t take kindly to their intrusion. In typical Walking Dead fashion, people tend to pose the greatest threat, so things quickly go bad. With Javi finding himself separated from his family and in dire straights, a stranger extends a helping hand.
This shotgun-toting badass in none other than Clementine. While it’s great to see the girl you helped bring up again, the reunion is tinged with sadness, as she's well and truly lost her innocence. A tepid mood between Clem and Javi begins to lift as you inevitably endeavour to have them bond, though Clem’s occasional instability is cause for concern, leading us to wonder whether – despite our best intentions – we might have been creating a monster all these years.
A pitstop at the town of Prescott introduces some peripheral characters to the mix, who join Javi and Clem as they endeavour to return for Kate and her stepchildren. Conflict ensues when they arrive back at the scavenging site, and it’s here that the episode ends on a cliffhanger, though, mercifully, thanks to it being a double-whammy the suspense didn’t last long.
Ties That Bind: Part One makes a strong case for the new, expertly-voiced cast whilst welcoming you back to the brutal, grim and grounded world of The Walking Dead. It relies on some character archetypes and narrative beats that are already well-trodden within the series however, making it less impactful than it otherwise would be. Familiarity isn’t all bad, like the soundtrack reusing motifs to tug at your heartstrings, but the continued Telltale jank – antiquated gameplay and missing voice over in this instance – isn’t something we're as happy to see make a return.
Ties That Bind: Part Two
The second part starts with a look back at life before the constant horror of the apocalypse, instead focusing on the madness of regular family life, much like the first episode. Javi and Kate’s complex relationship is fleshed out here, and it feels right (despite being morally wrong), before we again rejoin the cast in the present day. It’s slightly disappointing to find the aforementioned cliffhanger moment skipped over as you begin amidst the aftermath, though the decision does serve to better set a sombre tone for the scenes that follow.
Unfortunately, another issue not uncommon in Telltale’s body of work (though, to be fair, others are just as guilty) creeps in during these opening segments. Responses sometimes don’t match the tone you assumed when making your choice of dialogue, which irritatingly lead us to reload and retry one section three times before being satisfied.
While the group don’t escape the previous episode’s explosive ending unscathed, they gain a moment's earned respite by returning to Prescott, though having made an enemy of the titular New Frontier – a no-nonsense group branded to show their allegiance – that, naturally, doesn’t last.
With pressure and tragedy mounting, Javi’s nephew, Gabe, looks all but set to slip into the unreliable role of this season’s Ben. Now, speaking personally (and perhaps controversially), I hated Ben and took no issue in dropping him to his death over and over and over again. Luckily, Gabe hasn’t quite graduated to that category yet, though his younger age and situation do make it much easier to empathise with him.
After being displaced once again, the expanding central group decide to head for the nearby settlement of Richmond, not realising they’re jumping from the frying pan into the fire until it’s too late. Along the way, they meet and befriend a character familiar to fans of the comics and/or TV show. It's a nice bit of fanservice that makes sense, while avoiding alienating those not in the know.
Another of Clementine’s flashbacks follows shortly thereafter, continuing the fanservice by fleshing out the illusive period between seasons two and three. From here the plot just keeps thickening as Telltale introduce a number of their signature twists and turns, producing a relentless final act that leads to a conclusion even more tantalising than the last. Both a saving grace and a spanner in the works, it continues TWD’s penchant for shades of grey and ensures you’ll be back for more. That said, a sneak peek at what’s to come would’ve made it all the more exciting - we hope this isn’t a feature Telltale are ditching.
Telltale introduce a number of their signature twists and turns, producing a relentless final act that leads to a tantalising conclusion.
Despite more technical issues rearing their ugly head in frame drops and stutters, a narrative that, thus far, hasn’t really made strides into any uncharted territory, and few truly testing decisions – most of the time we come to snap conclusions, rather than mulling things over for minutes as we have in the past – more of a good thing is still a good thing. If you’re in any way invested in Telltale’s The Walking Dead series, it’s a no brainer, but for those that have been frustrated by bugs and limited gameplay in previous episodics, you’ll find no improvements here.
If you’d like a spoiler-y look at the episodes in full, check out Gabriella’s playthroughs below.