Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PS4, XBOX One, Switch

The first episode of The Walking Dead - The Final Season feels like putting on a well-worn pair of boots. For fans of the series, you’re getting all the familiar fixings: wonderful voiceover, great facial animations, and well-written characters. You’re also going to get the usual Telltale wonkiness like dull combat and quicktime events.

Even with those caveats, it’s worth the $20 asking price, if only to see Clementine one last time.

Graphics

This game looks all around wonderful.

Not just “nice for a point and click adventure game” but genuinely beautiful. The environments and character designs look like they could’ve been lifted right out of an artists’ sketchbook. Sometimes I look at video game concept art and think, “Wow, it would’ve been great if it actually looked like that.” Well this time, it actually looks like that.

The Final Season deserves to be seen up close in 4K. These screen shots probably don’t do justice to these gorgeous environments. Weirdly, text is still a bit jagged looking, but it isn’t enough to damage the experience.

I’ve always argued that stylized character models are better at portraying human emotions, but I’ve never seen stylized environments that look this fantastic. Every ramshackle building, ivy-covered car, and muddy forest has a remarkable attention to detail.

Character models remain lovely and expressive, as always. Most of the characters this season are teenagers and kids, and every sad little smile and furrowed brow breaks your heart a little. Graphics like this reach the pinnacle of verisimilitude before the deep, dark plunge into the uncanny valley. Bravo to Telltale for managing to strike that difficult balance.

The game also takes advantage of its beautiful engine to render some gruesome violence. At one point, a character takes a horrific blow to the head, and the animators made sure to massively dilate one of their pupils - a sign of a ferocious, life-threatening concussion. At another point, you cave someone’s head in like a rotten watermelon.

The Walking Dead never skimped on bloodcurdling violence, and this installment is no exception. The squeamish should show up for the environments and voice acting, and brace themselves for the gut-wrenching injuries.

No other game studio has more effectively applied a deep knowledge of cinema. During cut scenes, the game’s camera is agile and immersive, and the composition is wonderful. Light is used as a storytelling tool, not just an opportunity to show off the graphics engine’s capabilities. Every moment of this episode could be framed and put up on your wall.

If I had to grade this game on looks alone, it’s a 9/10. But looks aren’t everything.

Gameplay

The Final Season’s new game engine allows the camera to hover behind Clementine’s shoulder. This is a boon during exploration sequences in the beautiful new environments. Have you ever wanted to go tiptoeing through a full-color Charlie Adlard / Tony Moore sketch? Well, now you can!

They tried to apply this new perspective to combat with mixed results. Rather than handling fights via QTE, you now can move freely through the environment. Zombies shamble towards you, and your goal is to break up the herds by stunning zombies and then killing them once the pack is spread out a bit.

In theory, this is neat, but the implementation is wonky. You need to be standing in a very particular radius around a zombie for the stun / kill button prompts to appear. If you move too close to the zombie or it moves too close to you, the prompts disappear and the zombie grabs you. Then you have to mash buttons to kill it before it kills you. If another zombie grabs you during this time, you’re dead.

I got the sense that the developers were trying to create tension by requiring fast reactions to slay zombies, but it feels less tense and more annoying due to poor design. The Walking Dead is not God of War, nor should it try to be.

On a related note, TWD always got by on the threat of death, not death itself. When your character dies due to a late button press, all the carefully built tension dissipates. Now you have to go back to the checkpoint and repeat an identical scene, and all the fear is gone. The devs’ goal should be to make you feel like you got out by the skin of your teeth every time, regardless of what mechanics go into it.

Story

The game opens with a promising new settlement of teenage characters at the Erickson boarding school for troubled youth. The teachers and administrators abandoned them years ago when the zombie epidemic first hit, and they’ve been on their own ever since. Clem and AJ join this group in the wake of a catastrophic accident, and she chooses whether to make fast friends or act like a stand-offish dick.

The dialogue is crisp, believable, and well-acted. The script takes teenagers seriously, while still letting them sound and feel like teenagers. They don’t speak like tiny adults and there’s no immersion breaking “teenspeak” that you see in other games. I loved Life Is Strange, but every time Max said, “Wowser!” I cringed.

Speaking of which, at first it seemed like we were going to get some kind of Life Is Strange / The Walking Dead mashup, and I would’ve been all about it. You spend most of the first half of the episode making friends, mending damaged relationships, getting to know your peers, and helping AJ adapt to living at the school.

I liked how this game handled identity and diversity as well. There were characters of different body types, races, genders, and sexualities, but this wasn’t their only defining characteristic. When Telltale writes, they write a whole person. They aren’t just checking a box. That’s important, and deserves recognition.

The game’s supporting cast are open and emotionally unguarded in a way that feels charming rather than naive. And they did charm me. I think Telltale realized that it couldn’t throw another batch of hardened survivors (A New Frontier) or emotional basket cases (Season 2) at us and expect us to care about them. They needed to do something new, and these kids are it. When the game inevitably banished the good times, I felt like I really lost something. That’s some effective storytelling and mood setting.

That being said, I was hoping that I would get more of a chance to learn about these kids outside of a crisis situation. The episode’s rush to the final act feels a bit premature. I get that every settlement has a dark history - but did this one have to come roaring to the surface so quickly? The characters are compelling enough that the plot could’ve had a much slower burn.

Also, the specific final act revelations feel just a little too familiar. I don’t want to spoil anything, but you’ve seen similar plot threads in previous seasons. The game veered hard into old territory just as it was establishing something original.

Even though the story isn’t as fresh as I had hoped, it’s no shambling corpse, and still provides enough sympathetic characters and plot threads that I’m looking forward to the next episode.

May the circle be unbroken

Longtime fans have witnessed Clementine’s transformation from frightened child, to hardened survivor, to young mother. Everything that Lee taught her, she is now teaching to AJ. The circle is closing.

But while Lee had to teach Clementine how to survive a dangerous new world, Clem has to teach AJ how to tame his ferocious survival instincts. He’s watching everything you do. The way you handle obstacles changes him. And he’s a sweet kid until he’s not. Done Running’s cliffhanger ensures that the following episodes will revolve around that fact, lending extra weight to your actions.

Addressing the past

Like in Telltale’s last release, the terrific Batman: The Enemy Within, you get a post-episode rundown of how your choices changed your relationships with the other people at Erickson, showing you which of your moves you should change in subsequent playthroughs in order to see everything this game has to offer. This is a nice touch, and I’m glad Telltale kept it up.

I hope Telltale fills in the gaps between A New Frontier and this current season. At the end of the last season, I left Javi and company on good terms, with an invitation to return to his settlement. So why do I start The Final Season driving on a lonely road with no real destination? It feels like a bit of a hedge to allow this season’s writers to largely disregard the events of A New Frontier. I’m hoping future episodes will give us some clarity on that.

New players should know that there’s a web-based story builder that lets you make relevant choices from past seasons and import them into your game. The game itself will also let you make these decisions right before starting Done Running. I was hoping that more choices from previous seasons would be relevant, but the story builder hits the key beats. New players or fans of the television show or comic would do well to play through previous seasons, though it isn’t strictly necessary.