This final goodbye succeeds by closely examining the mother/son dynamic between Clementine and A.J.

As a whole, The Walking Dead: The Final Season makes its farewell to Clementine by debating the thought-provoking idea of knowing when to break a cycle. For years, Clementine has been compelled to protect her young companion A.J. at any cost, exactly as Lee did for her in the first season. The cycle of survival, of carrying on the lessons imparted to her, is wired into every fiber of her being. It’s what has kept them alive. In the final four episodes of the series started by the now-shuttered Telltale Games and finished by part of the same team (now at Skybound Games) we’re asked what happens when Clem and A.J. might no longer need to run and begin to have some semblance of a normal life, and after a bit too much exposition and padding it leaves them in a satisfying place.

The Final Season is the most focused arc in the series since its debut, with the adopted mother/son dynamic between Clem and A.J. creating some of the most harrowing choices I’ve made in a Telltale game. On a global level, it also offers new perspectives about the walkers, attempting and occasionally succeeding in showing us that there’s more to them than primal noises and a lust for human flesh. They were human once before the outbreak, so does Clem and A.J.’s reflexive response of killing every walker they see need to be changed, too? The Final Season points at the possibility of old habits breaking as new ways to live in this world arise and hope trickles in.

As a whole, the farewell to both the acclaimed series and the studio that started it hits its mark tonally, producing a satisfying, if slightly manipulative, conclusion that finds a proper balance between hope and looming despair. On an episode-by-episode level, The Final Season has a mix of truly riveting moments and dull, superfluous exposition. All but Take Us Back, the final episode, feature scenes that either plod along at a slow pace or feel like padding altogether.

The Final Season has a mix of truly riveting moments and dull, superfluous exposition, but the destination is worth the occasional speed bump.

Still, the destination is worth the occasional speed bump. Each episode has at least two or three pivotal moments that made me feel like reloading my save and making the other choice, only to realize that either way would leave me with mixed emotions. Breaking the cycle is hard for Clem and A.J., but it also turned out to be hard for me to bring myself to make those cycle-altering choices. Clem and A.J. have the chance to change their ways, but after knowing these characters for so long it’s difficult to want to see them act differently.

Looking back on the first few minutes of the first episode, Done Running, I’m struck at how well it foretells the major themes of the season. We see A.J. in the backseat of a car, spinning the cylinder of his revolver like it’s a toy. They haven’t eaten in a while and he’s hungry. When Clem holds up a silly toy called Disco Broccoli and talks in a funny voice, A.J. isn’t amused. Nor is he happy when Clem calls him “goofball.” He’s six and, unlike Clem, hasn’t had a day of a normal life as a little kid. So rather than laughing and being a goofball with Clem he sits there with a revolver, obviously comforted by the fact that it helps keep him safe. It’s a sad opening, but it paints a vivid picture of Clem and A.J.’s current dynamic and alludes to the struggles they’ve overcome on the road that have made A.J. perpetually on edge.

When they stop to enter a home in search of food, they find a married couple who tied themselves to chairs in front of the window before they turned, with a note asking for anyone who finds them to leave them be.  I wondered why they wanted to be left in that state, and why I looked at them differently than the walkers I had just killed on their property. For the first time in the series, I saw them as something more, and I almost felt bad for raiding their house, even though they no longer had any need for their goods.

When a group of survivors takes Clem and A.J. in, Done Running does a significant amount of the heavy lifting for setting up the biggest problem that Clem will need to confront: Teaching A.J. how to live in a “safe” world amongst others. Because of his upbringing he’s always on guard, which leads him to bite and hit other kids when they startle him. He’s never been close to anyone but Clem, and watching him navigate this new, more civilized existence is the most intriguing aspect of the episode, especially since your input as Clem often guides how he acts. He always listens to Clem, which adds significant weight to each of your conversations. Even simple things, like sleeping in a bed, are hard for him to understand, and you can decide whether to indulge his survival instincts or compel him into a small degree of normalcy.

The big mechanical change from previous seasons is that a portion of each episode plays out like an unscripted third-person adventure game, giving you full control of the camera during combat. Confrontations with walkers are more dynamic as a result. It’s a barebones system, however, as you’ll still see button prompts and quicktime events in action sequences, and there are noticeable framerate drops that occur in particularly hectic scenes with lots of walkers. Camera control makes certain quicktime events more interactive, but the playable area for each scene is confined and running into invisible walls is a frustratingly common occurrence.

Overall, the third-person action sequences work fine, but they rarely add much of interest. More often, the free-roaming sequences have a negative effect, such as when you’re asked to walk around and examine multiple objects or engage in small talk with the other kids to advance the story. These tasks just get in the way, as the world around you is more static than it looks and the amount of things you can actually touch is minimal. There’s no exploration or discovery here; it’s merely an extension of the on-rails nature of the series under the guise of freedom.

Done Running subverts your expectations in its climax. Up until now, AJ took Clem’s word as the gospel. He’s essentially a shadow – a mini version of Clem, much like Clem was a mini version of Lee. Betrayal and deceit leads to a shocking confrontation in front of the school they’ve settled in, one that could have seemingly been defused without further violence. Clem, being older and more mature, can see this. The scene brutally demonstrates that A.J. has a black and white view of the world, one that Clem herself taught him. Now that they’ve entered quasi-civilized society, it’s clear that her teachings, the lessons that Lee taught her, aren’t always compatible with this new way of life. It’s a profound realization for Clem, and one that genuinely changed how I approached the dynamic between them going forward. After this moment, I thought more carefully about everything I said to A.J.

Suffer the Children’s best moments effectively get you to think differently about the walkers.

The consequences of A.J.’s actions come to a head in the next episode, Suffer the Children. Serving as a setup for the external conflict with a group of raiders, Suffer the Children’s best moments effectively get you to think differently about the walkers. Two characters in particular, James and Tenn, contribute to this alternate worldview. James used to be a killer but now preaches non-violence and goes to grotesque extremes to avoid it. Like the opening scene with the walker couple, I felt compelled to leave walkers be, to see them as something a little more than what meets the eye.

Meanwhile, Tenn – who is A.J.’s first friend at the school – has other intriguing ideas about walkers. He believes that like other ages in history, the “Walker Age” will come to an end. He also has the capacity for forgiveness and draws a picture of himself, his sisters, and the walkers who he thinks killed them as people again. There’s a stark contrast between Clem and A.J.’s worldview and that of their new friends, and the voices and philosophies of James and Tenn began knocking around in the back of my head when making choices for A.J.

Besides those insightful interactions, Suffer the Children meanders along with a series of uninteresting free-roaming sequences and conversations. Part of the problem here is that so much of the episode relies on the relationships between the kids at the school. While the supporting cast is filled with diverse, interesting characters, there simply isn’t enough time to turn each of them into people you actually care about. Again, the climax delivers, setting up a scenario where the children have to leave the school for a high-stakes mission. That mission eventually unfolds in a grand fashion in episode three, Broken Toys. Getting there requires working through chunks of disappointing gameplay similar to that of Suffer the Children. The payoff, however, is worth the hiccups.

In the best use of the free-roaming gameplay, you use walkers as body shields while boarding a boat. The minimalistic but engaging stealth gameplay continues on the boat all the way up to a wondrous, distressing conclusion that holds a mirror up to the themes of Done Running. Unlike Done Running, though, here you truly get to decide what A.J. does and are asked to consider the cycle and whether it’s time to break it. Crucially, either way you decide the story comments on the paths that A.J. can go down, but both are unique. No one said breaking the cycle would be easy, and the final moments of Broken Toys indeed left me broken and conflicted.

As the bookend to a series that has had its fair share of ups and downs, Take Us Back brings the cycle to a close on as strong of a note as I could’ve imagined. The most gut-wrenching scene in the series is beautifully juxtaposed with a moving flashback scene. Take Us Back carefully treads the line of emotional manipulation, but it fittingly embodies the cyclical themes of The Final Season and the series as a whole.

The Verdict

The Walking Dead: The Final Season hones in on the dynamic and relationship between Clementine and A.J. to produce some startling situations, choices, and ripple effects that thread throughout all four episodes. At times, the story is bogged down and stalled by the new free-roaming gameplay and myriad side characters that are never fully developed, but each episode has a satisfying conclusion that effectively sets up the stakes for a thrilling finale. It’s a moving but bittersweet ending, especially considering this was the last game Telltale worked on before shutting down.

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