When we last left our ragtag group of survivors in Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, gravelly-voiced villain Bill Carver had caught up to them, committed a bit of light murder and then ordered everyone to be rounded up and taken back “home.” Players who were hoping that the third episode of season two, ‘In Harm’s Way,’ would use this to inject some momentum and direction into the rest of the season will be disappointed, however, as it instead it’s more of a standalone story that leaves the plot little more advanced by the end.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with standalone episodes. The excellent second episode of the first season, ‘Starved for Help,’ introduced its villains near the beginning and had done away with them (in one way or another) by the end, and ‘In Harm’s Way’ feels in many ways like an attempt to create season two’s own version of the St. John’s Dairy Farm. Clementine and friends are thrown into the prison yard of the shopping mall where Carver’s group have settled, and spend the episode trying to squirm out from under the thumb of this psychopathic oppressor.
Michael Madsen’s portrayal of Carver is suitably scary, but despite being easy to hate he’s also probably the least interesting antagonist of the series so far. He seems to be somewhat invested in building a strong community, but despite all his speeches he ultimately comes across simply as a bad guy who does bad things because he is bad. Carver’s second-in-command, Tavia, also feels woefully underdeveloped, as does his thuggish henchman Troy.
‘In Harm’s Way’ definitely feels more hands-off than any of the previous entries in the series. Much of the episode is spent sitting back and watching events unfold, and when the player is given the option to select Clementine’s dialogue, the choices feel more arbitrary than they ever have before. At times it feels like the game’s designers were struggling to find things for the player to do; one of the walker attacks in particular comes out of nowhere, has no lasting impacting and was apparently only included to meet a minimum quota of QTE combat.
There has always been a limit to how much Telltale can allow player decisions to affect the outcome of the plot. In the first season, for example, the same characters will eventually end up dying regardless of what choices the player makes, but the decisions themselves went a long way towards developing Lee’s character and shaping the player’s experience of the game. ‘In Harm’s Way’ is noticeably lacking in truly tough choices – save for picking the lesser of two evils right at the very end – and it makes the episode feel uncomfortably scripted.
Another disappointment was the reappearance of characters from the 400 Days DLC, who only show up in brief cameos where the cut-n-paste lines are practically visible. Aside from Bonnie, whose decision to join Carver’s group was default, it’s clear that Telltale didn’t have the manpower to allow each of these characters to develop and affect the plot in any meaningful way, since there were too many variations of 400 Days‘ ending. The Walking Dead succeeds best when it pulls off the illusion of the player creating their own story, and the shallow nature of these cameos spoil that illusion as badly as a heckler yelling that cards were up the magician’s sleeve all along.
It’s worth mentioning that ‘In Harm’s Way’ does have some highlights. Kenny and Luke both continue to be incredibly likable in very different ways, which only makes it all the more frightening when one or both of them seems to be in immediate danger of getting killed off. Carlos is forced into a heart-breaking decision of the sort that’s usually left in the hands of the player. The group’s ranks also get replenished somewhat, and of the new characters a tough survivalist called Jane stands out as one of the most promising new additions.
‘In Harm’s Way’ is probably the worst episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead so far, but in light of the game’s consistent high quality that doesn’t make it bad. Purely in terms of writing it remains head and shoulders above most other games currently being released. More than any other episode so far however, ‘In Harm’s Way’ felt like reading one of The Walking Dead comics or watching the TV show, and this sense of detachment from the narrative hits at the heart of the game’s strongest quality. Let’s hope that the next episode has a little more audience participation.
The Walking Dead season two, episode three, ‘In Harm’s Way’ is available now for PC, Mac, PS3 and Xbox 360, and will be available on iOS from May 15, 2014.