(Spoilers for Walking Dead: 400 Days and Walking Dead Season 2: Episode 1 & 2 ahead!)
If we’ve learned one thing from The Walking Dead, it’s that characters don’t tend to last too long. The mortality rate of this zombie adventure series makes George R R Martin’s wildly successful A Song of Ice and Fire look positively lenient - although we’ll be interested to see whether Telltale’s venture into Westeros ups the body count. Whilst the first season dealt with the relationship between Lee and Clem, it meant that we had a consistent character through each episode along with an associated goal (protecting Clem) and a handful of characters who stuck around for the majority of the five episodes. When the new season kicked off, we didn’t have the luxury of either an overarching purpose or a character with any significant screen-time for Clem to bond with. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the previous episode demonstrated that with the right direction, even the flimsiest of characterisation for the supporting cast couldn’t hamper a frankly brilliant instalment. It also presumably set up the big bad for the remainder of the story - William Carver.
Imprisoned by the tyrannical Carver, Clem and her surviving gang have been rounded up and shipped off to the new community, a self-contained Woodburyesque environment, complete with rooftop garden, armoury and holding cells. It’s a claustrophobic locale, working effectively to make you feel penned up and helpless. You’re not alone either - if you’ve played the minisodes of 400 Days then you’ll spot a few familiar faces here and there, dependent on your choices at the end of that game. It’s a nice touch which helps tie up some loose threads, albeit a little too neatly.
In a world of increasingly grey choices and morally ambiguous situations, Carver is one of the few non-divisive characters we’ve seen to date. A true monster with the blackest of hearts, his absolute control and castigation of the “good guys” (as well as his own followers) ensures he is a memorable villain in a season which has had very little personality shining through from Clem's companions. There doesn’t even appear to be any motivation for why Carver is the way he is, and In Harm’s Way doesn’t waste time trying to justify his actions; essentially, he is a broken man in a broken world, directing his twisted rage at all who oppose him. Of course, an eleven-year old girl is one of those people, and Clem becomes something of a hero during the course of the episode as she engages in some Ethan Hunt-style espionage under your watchful eye.
A decreasing level of player agency has been a persistent issue for this season, and here is no different - although the game cleverly tricks you into thinking the actions you have Clem perform are more than just the occasional “thumbstick to destination plus button press” combination. Whilst the tasks you take on feel meaty in terms of their importance to the narrative, there is little to challenge you here other than a couple of timed movements which are easily completed with simple observation. Instead, the narrative takes centre stage as a couple of new characters are introduced, and the group’s focus shifts solely to getting out of their new prison.
As the ragtag bunch concoct an escape plan by night and play along with their captors by day - a modern day Great Escape with the threat of zombies mixed in - the writing continues to impress. Whilst A House Divided focused on Clem’s efforts to unite warring factions, In Harm’s Way takes her down a darker path, eschewing diplomacy for survival and allowing the player to take an almost perversely voyeuristic decision towards the end which is as brutal as anything that Telltale have shown us before. The majority of choices you make in this ninety-minute journey may be relatively shallow in terms of their impact to the overall arc, but there are a couple which may have you wincing.
In terms of Telltale’s back catalogue this facade of resonance is nothing new, and even though at this stage you could be forgiven for thinking the illusion of choice may be starting to fade, it helps to put it into perspective - are you looking for an experience that relentlessly cascades your choices through to the endgame, or simply something that adds meaning to the episode you’re playing and possibly an episode or two beyond it? If the former, you’ll be disappointed but shouldn’t be surprised; there isn’t a game that has successfully managed this yet (we’re looking at you Mass Effect 3). If the latter, then Telltale have simply nailed it. Characters may live and die in chapters dependent on your choices without having much of an impact on what is clearly a scripted tale, but it doesn’t stop their impact on each individual instalment, so long as you are prepared not to peek too far behind the curtain.
And Telltale are masters of illusion, building suspense through a combination of superior tricks. Jared Emerson-Johnson’s taut, minimalist score captures the tense plight of the survivors in excellent fashion, whilst the cel-shaded inner environments drenched in blue work to coat the atmosphere with a heavy layer of oppression. Reducing the number of locations is a bold and successful move, making each taste of outside air - even whilst held prisoner - feel like a reward; Telltale acts very much like Carver himself, almost overpowering you with misery until you come to relish the moments where the relentless punishment eases and allows you to take a breather. It’s a powerful mechanism which plays with your mind so subtly that you may not realise its presence until the episode is over.
The biggest problem with the way this particular narrative has developed is, ironically, to do with Clem’s metamorphosis. Switching the storyline to her viewpoint and giving you control of a child rather than an adult - and their inherent advantages in terms of size, intelligence and experience - may have seemed like a natural continuation from the first season, but it has the knock-on effect of forcing both her and you down specific paths where no logical scenario would ever play out. As an example, you’re asked by the adults to infiltrate a room in the facility to steal a radio. This involves you being winched up to a vent - with the fear of falling to your death prominent in your mind - in order to sneak around and locate one without being caught. The problem is that the adults flit between treating Clem like a tool or a leader in a way that no normal group would. The effect on the overall storyline is that Clem feels almost overpowered in her abilities (at one point questioning under her breath why she always ends up doing the work), and results in a ridiculous amount of expectation resting on her shoulders. For its flaws, even The Walking Dead TV show didn’t have Carl directing the group and whereas the Lee/Clem protector/protectee relationship felt real, here the opposite is true. A bunch of adults being completely reliant on a pre-teen stretches credibility even in this world, and this is mainly due to the fact that you’re controlling her - otherwise it wouldn’t really be much of a game. If you set aside that narrative niggle the story works fine but it might be a stretch for some, especially in comparison to the last episode where her strength was in the manipulation of people as opposed to being an action hero.
However, if you can get past the narrative dissonance introduced for the sake of agency, In Harm’s Way is still a cracking entry in the season with a few super twists, a truly satisfying punch-the-air moment, and an ending which leaves you in no doubt that the momentum started in the previous chapter shows no sign of abating.