[This review contains spoilers for The Walking Dead season 2 finale.]
As the trailer for The Walking Dead's season 2 finale, 'No Going Back,' emphasized painfully, young protagonist Clementine has changed a lot since her days of hiding out in a treehouse with a walkie-talkie. She's traveled a lot of miles, seen a lot of terrible things and done some pretty terrible things as well. Also, her hair is shorter.
One of the challenges for this season is that it has not had a clear direction for the characters to head in, like the first season did with Savannah. There's been a great deal of wandering involved, and some of the episodes have felt like little more than filler. Perhaps even more so than the first season, the pervasive threats of this story arc have come from within the group as the stress of living in the post-zombie apocalypse pushes each of the characters - and Kenny in particular - to breaking point.
At times this has worked extremely well, forcing the player (as Clementine) to choose her loyalties while trying to appease everyone, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable conflict. There are times in 'No Turning Back' when this works well for creating high tension, but for long stretches of this extremely talk-heavy episode the entertainment value (in The Walking Dead, "entertainment value" translates to "extreme emotional stress") of navigating the group's endless squabbles makes the game feel more like Argument Simulator 2014 than a compelling drama.
The positive thing to come out of all the bickering is that it makes it very easy to identify with Clementine: a pre-teen girl who somehow manages to be more useful and even-headed than any of the adults in the group. There have been several moments in this playthrough where Clementine's frustration at having her good nature taken for granted shine through, but that solidarity isn't quite enough to counterbalance just how grating the other characters' in-fighting and idiotic decisions are.
Pacing holds 'No Going Back' from competing with the high points of The Walking Dead. There are long, bloated scenes of quiet character-building that go on for far too long, but the emotional highs and shocks are given very little room to breathe. Jane, who said her dramatic goodbye at the end of the last episode, reappears almost immediately at the start of this one. Clementine is shot in the shoulder, but after a short dream sequence in which Lee makes a reappearance (this is the episode's biggest tearjerker, even if the dialogue is a little weak) she wakes up in the back of a truck and is absolutely fine, shrugging off the injury like a Hollywood action hero.
Depending on which character the player has become most attached to over the course of their playthrough, the most gut-wrenching moment of 'No Going Back' may come either at the very end or about halfway through this final season 2 episode. Easily one of the saddest events of this entire season is the loss of Luke, who is dragged to an underwater death by a walker after falling through the ice on a frozen lake. Watching him slowly disappear into the depths and being unable to do anything about it was profoundly depressing.
The frozen lake sequence is however, one of the very few action-packed moments in a season finale that is dominated by scenes of characters sitting around and talking and/or yelling, and this has the unfortunate side-effect of making 'No Going Back' a rather lackluster conclusion to the game's second season. In what feels like an attempt to recreate the tragedy of the first season's finale, the episode ends with Clementine inevitably having to say goodbye to at least one character, but this happens as the result of a rather contrived showdown between Jane and Kenny, who never have much conflict at all up until about half an hour of gameplay time before the fight actually takes place.
It's a problem that might have been alleviated a little simply by having Jane fall through the ice instead, and having the final showdown be between Luke and Kenny, who have been locking horns since the first moment they met. That, at least, would have felt more like a natural direction for the story to head in, but instead the fight to the death feels like it came out of left field.
Despite its flaws, which have held season 2 of The Walking Dead from reaching the same heights as the first season, Telltale's morose saga of life in post-civilization America nonetheless still stands head and shoulders above the majority of narrative-driven video games. Between its diverse and fully fleshed-out cast of characters, occasional moments of lightness and the profound effectiveness of its dark moments, the strengths of The Walking Dead more than make up for its weaknesses.
The Walking Dead season 2, episode 5, ‘No Going Back’ is available now for PC, PS3 and PS Vita, and will release for Xbox 360 on August 27th and for iOS on August 28th.