(Spoilers for Walking Dead Season 2: Episode 1 ahead!)
After a perfectly adequate but uninspiring season premiere, it was reasonable to wonder if Telltale had lost the spark that put them firmly on the map, especially given the mixed offering of their other IP The Wolf Among Us. All That Remains seemed a little too rote, containing what felt like a rehash of characters from the previous season, hung over the barest bones of a story. Kudos to the studio, then, for following up with A House Divided, a chapter which sits amongst the best that Telltale have released to date across any of their catalogue.
Kicking off with the impact of the last decision you made in the previous episode - whether to save Nick or Pete - you’ll be holed up with one of them waiting for the morning before rejoining the rest of the group later on. You’ll be faced with harrowing scenes even before the title rolls, and from then on in things only get worse.
The good news is that Telltale appears to have fixed the majority of their engine problems (at least, on the 360 version we reviewed). The “previously on” played through fine, and there was very little stutter or hanging except at one non-critical scene transition later on in the game; whether this is by luck or hard graft, it’s reassuring to finally see progress in this department. We hope it continues throughout the season.
A House Divided is very much a journey, taking in a vast bridge and the potential perils of being penned in at either side, and onwards to a snowy ski resort and rustic hut. There is an epic feel which belies the two-hour running time, some of which will be spent gawking at the beautiful cel-shaded scenery, admiring the lighting effects of the flickering log fire, and shivering in sympathy with the chilly survivors as they traipse through the snow.
The story progression is even more assured. Clementine’s ragtag band finally start to take on some personality, and there’s an overarching suggestion of a Governor-esque season antagonist. More importantly, we start to see some branches of the previous season and the standalone episode 400 Days take root as some old faces appear. Clem is far more restrained here than in All That Remains, as she (and you) start to piece together an understanding of the various factions at play. Her personality, which took on more of an unpleasant nature in the first chapter, has been pared back. In fact, aside from a few key choices, her involvement is more of a passenger this time around, as others around her shore up their defences. Who should you side with, and is there really a right and wrong answer? It isn’t to the game’s detriment, and the cleverness of the narrative lies in the simple choices as much as the bigger ones. Even something as simple as picking which of your friends to sit next to at dinner can turn into an agonising game of “who to disappoint?”. Nick Breckon has done a stellar job on the script, perfectly ramping up the tension throughout the episode to almost unbearable levels during the denouement. You can almost see the decision paths that characters are making behind the scenes and every one of them feels plausible, but it still doesn’t stop you from yelling at the screen to try and prevent events unfolding.
In fact, the story is a near-perfect blend of character development and QTE mechanics. The latter adds just enough to the gameplay to feel worthwhile without being intrusive, and the former takes pleasure in the mundane, to a point where deciding what decoration to put on the top of a Christmas tree feels like an Important Moment. In truth it is important, at least to one character, and that in itself is worthy of praise. For most of the game it’s hard not to think of the characters as real people. This is a result of some superb dialogue and excellent voice acting coupled with a score incorporating everything from Tchaikovsky to country music, via a truly sinister instrumental in the final fifteen minutes which raises your hackles as the game pushes all of the right tension buttons. Quite simply, A House Divided is an almost complete package. Almost.
There are moments where the brutality causes fatigue. Like the TV show currently airing, it is relentlessly grim with precious little in the way of cheer. Every conversation turns into an existential search for meaning in a world where there is barely any hope to cling to. This is compounded by Clem’s choices forcing her to either reveal stark truths to people she has only just met, or to bite her tongue to stop her upsetting old friends. Niceness is usually rewarded with a bullet in the head, and the sacrifices you have to make will be as upsetting as anything that has gone before. You’ll not leave this episode happy, but the very nature of this series is to challenge and provoke. There’s nothing here that wouldn’t be considered ample fare for a HBO series, but the journey you’ve taken and your interactivity - however slight, in terms of actual “gameplay” - makes the medium that much more personal, the outcome that much more depressing. Is this a good thing? We think so. We may have passed the watershed for interactive storytelling of this nature some years back, but Telltale continue to refine and polish their craft to such an extent that even the misery of the narrative can’t hold us back from wanting more.