Tension is the word of the episode for this latest installment of The Walking Dead. Episode 2 (A House Divided) operates like a devious conveyor belt, delivering Clementine and her new group into sequence after sequence of anxious stand-offs, cagey dialogue and situations where a hasty choice could end in bloodshed.
Before we get too deep into some wordy mess, here’s the obligatory SPOILER WARNING. I’ll be mentioning things that happened in Episode 1 and, if I slip up, might even call back to some stuff from the first season of The Walking Dead. If those sound like bad things to read, here’s your chance to back out.
Episode 1 didn’t waste much time in separating Clementine from familiar faces and throwing her in with a wonderful new group who enjoy locking children in sheds. It was a pretty rapid introduction to a smattering of original characters and, as a consequence, a few of them were still under-developed by the episode’s conclusion. This made the final choice, over whether to come to the aid of Peter or Nick, more pragmatic than emotional. You’d only met the guys about ten minutes ago, so any connection you had to either of them was likely based on surface impressions.
This second part, perhaps by virtue of the fact that it gives you another hour and a half with them, gives a bit more depth to the group and their various motivations. I know everybody’s names now and could actually tell you something about them beyond their appearance, which I’m not altogether confident would’ve been the case at the conclusion of Episode 1. More importantly, this means any choices relating to the wellbeing of those characters – and I’m not saying there are any (but there totally are) – carry greater weight.
It’s fascinating to see how the adults treat Clementine now that something resembling trust is forming between them. Some will happily use her as a sounding board for deep secrets, others will ask her to lie for them and a few treat her pretty much as an adult; even to the point of putting her in greater peril than is strictly wise. By this point of The Walking Dead saga Clementine has seen and done some awful things, so when other characters attempt to treat her like a naive child it (intentionally) feels quite jarring.
To emphasise that point, this episode draws further contrast between Clementine’s worldly experience and the sheltered life of Carlos’ daughter, Sarah. But the game also offers several reminders that Clem is still a young girl. Even when repeating sensible advice learned from Lee she’ll admit that she isn’t quite sure what it means. While there isn’t exactly a huge pool to draw from out there, The Walking Dead probably has the most interesting adult-child dynamics in gaming right now.
It also has the best child protagonist, and playing as Clementine continues to be reassuringly great. One of my main concerns prior to Season Two of The Walking Dead was that a child lead would either frustrate the player with the limitations inherent to guiding a younger character, or just turn Clementine into a pseudo-adult. Those concerns have so far been unfounded, and Telltale’s writing team have been careful to balance Clem’s capabilities with vulnerabilities. This episode gives her some withering one-liners and even more opportunities to show her resourcefulness.
I’d opted to help Nick at the end of the first episode (hey, just showing Pete the same prejudice about zombie bites he showed me,) which doubtless coloured the way the introduction to this episode played out for me. In previous Telltale episodes its often been fairly clear where the divergent moments of choice occur and quite easy to piece together what might have happened if you’d chosen differently, but that isn’t so much the case here. I’m not sure I could identify which parts of the story are ‘immune’ to player actions and that makes a refreshing change. It’s all still smoke and mirrors, but the smoke is pretty dense.
Carver, the antagonist foreshadowed throughout Episode 1, makes his appearance in this release with imposing effect. Somehow, I’d not heard the news that Michael Madsen was voicing him. Imagine my delight when Daud showed up at the doorstep and started pursuing us across the countryside.
Scenes involving Carver form the bulk of the episode’s outstanding moments, and even colour the sequences where he’s not present. When your group stumbles upon a place of relative sanctuary, the player has no chance to really enjoy it. Anybody who’s been paying attention to the season (and the series) up to that point will feel their gut churning with the knowledge that this warmth and safety cannot, will not, last.
It’s here that Clementine bumps into the old friend hinted at by Episode 1‘s “next time on” video. Most people managed to already deduce who it is, and the decision to bring them back is certainly open to accusations of fan-service. That Telltale have decided to bring the character back at all indicates a lack of confidence in the new group to resonate as strongly as the previous crew. Said character’s non-explanation for how they even came to be there is underwhelming, but probably the only answer that really works. While we’re on the subject of prior Walking Dead stuff, there are also signs of a longer term tie-in to the 400 Days DLC.
As ever, that’s a lot of front-loaded thoughts about character, dialogue, outcomes and the like. That’s because Telltale has all-but dispensed with including any sequences that could meaningfully be described as puzzles in this Season. The height of problem solving in A House Divided is pretty much putting a key in front of your face and providing an obvious lock to use it on. Any point and clicking now tends to serve as pacing. It’s a gateway to extra dialogue, or a chance to wander (in a limited way) around a location.
The company’s concurrent work on The Wolf Among Us seems to have put them in a more action-oriented mood. Dodging and fighting mechanics (timed button prompts, basically) return in the same fashion as Episode 1 but there aren’t any moments as harrowing as the extreme sewing section in that release.
Dialogue options and character interaction are the strengths of The Walking Dead and they’ve now unequivocally triumphed over what little remained of the traditional adventure mechanics. If you were holding out hope that they might return you should expect disappointment.
Episode 2 managed to remember and retrieve my save from Episode 1, which has been problem in the past with Telltale games on PC. Reading around though, this does still seem to have been an issue for some people. It’s disappointing that this still occurs, and suggests the developer is either unwilling or simply unable to find a universal fix.
Writing about these episodic releases is never easy, as you’re just getting a snippet of a much longer story and having to guess which parts may carry more (or less) relevance and weight when looked at in retrospect. The first season of The Walking Dead is beloved as a whole, but when it only existed as an episode or two that status was far from assured.
I’m still not sure where this second season story will end up, or whether it will ever coalesce around a central theme as strong as the Lee-Clementine relationship from the first. It has enough intriguing strands and power dynamics to do so, but the future is yet to be written. Moreso than the previous season, this one seems to have an over-arching plot with cliffhangers, rather than being structured around self-contained episodes with conclusions. As a tense and interesting portion in service to that wider plot, A House Divided succeeds.