‘The Walking Dead Episode 2: Starved For Help’ Keeps The Good Bad Times Rolling [Review]
Starved For Help, the second episode of Telltale's The Walking Dead video game is finally here, despite a longer-than-expected six week wait in between episodes. I mentioned in my review of Episode 1 that I thought the game was already a stronger experience than the television show and, from the review code Telltale supplied us with to review Episode 2, it feels like the latest installment only serves to bolster that statement. After a short recap of the events in Episode 1, we join protagonist Lee in the woods hunting with new survivor, Mark. From their lack of success and banter, it becomes pretty clear early on that food has become a concern for Lee and his band of survivors. This quest for sustenance sets in motion a chain of events that supplies the meat of what happens the episode.
Those who found Episode 1 a bit slow the pacing department should be excited to hear that Episode 2 wastes no time in ratcheting up the drama. Within minutes after firing the episode up, players will find themselves having to make a life or death decision that could lead to one of the most grisly video game scenes I've ever been privy to. Without giving anything away, I found myself grimacing and turning from my monitor during that scene from pure gnarliness. I'm well aware that The Walking Dead is not a cutting edge game in the graphics and sound department, so it's a testament to TWD comic co-creator Robert Kirkman and Telltale's storytelling ability and art style that the game was able to engender such a visceral reaction out of me.
Where Episode 1 was more focused on setting up the characters and Clementine's relationship with Lee, Episode 2 is focused on social interactions within the main group of survivors and the strangers they encounter. I'm of the opinion that the main strength of The Walking Dead as a zombie tale is its focus on the humanity of its characters, rather than ceaseless zombie slaying and cheap scares. The Zombie Apocalypse is a truly f'd up situation and Telltale has players confronting some pretty dark questions in the game. Do you save someone crying for help in a bear trap, knowing that you'll have another mouth to feed with your already strained foodstores? How trusting can you be of kind-looking strangers offering to help you out with your needs? When do you make the decision to cut your losses on an downed group member, knowing that you could either be saving that person's life or damning you and your loved ones to die by their reanimated corpse at any moment? There's no easy answer to any of these questions, but they're all critical choices you'll have to make within the game, oftentimes without a lot of time to think it through.
Early on, you're tasked to divide up limited rations among the group of ten survivors. I found myself quickly making a mental priority list of each of the survivors. Did this person have an indispensable skill to the group? Should I prioritize the children? Which people were jackholes to me? Would I want Lee to potentially start a romance with a new woman down the road? I thought these kind of decisions were a very clever way of refreshing the cast of characters for the player by giving them the power to influence the survival of those characters. With immersive elements like this, I felt more drawn into this particular Walking Dead universe and cast of characters than I did at any point while watching AMC's TV series.
Telltale has been touting The Walking Dead's pan-episode tracking of gameplay choices with a promise of a unique gameplay experience for each player. Despite there being only one previous episode, I definitely saw some ramifications of the choices I made in Episode 1. Characters remember and reference events that happened previously in conversation. Without having the luxury of comparing multiple saves with different choices, I will say that a significant "wow" moment with this system has yet to appear to me. This could simply be a great implementation of gameplay choices by Telltale, such that I didn't notice a disjointed gameplay flow due to branching storylines, but all those notifications that a character "has noticed your actions" make me expect some sort of palpable payoff. Given that there are still four episodes to go, there's still a good chance that it will happen at some point, though I will probably forget enough of those choices to call the game out on whether or not it paid them off. Nevertheless, it is a nice touch that the "previously on..." and "next time on..." scene compilations before and after the episode seem to be tailored specifically towards your particular game.
Otherwise, gameplay in Episode 2 remains fairly unchanged from Episode 1. If anything, there's less futzing around with your inventory and obtainable items in the world. Essentially, if you do your due diligence in exploring every possible interactive element on screen, you'll make progress in the game. Traditional point-and-click adventure fans may dislike this streamlining of interactivity, but I welcomed it as I find story and dialog more of a priority for this particular game than inventory management and brain-tingling puzzles.
There are still a couple of technical issues with the game, especially closer to the end of the episode with abrupt cutscene changes and stutters that felt jarring -- like I was playing an unpolished product. I tested the game on a fairly powerful PC with a beefy video card and on a new SSD drive, so given that the game is no Crysis in the graphics department, one would expect the game to run like butter the entire time. These issues aren't so bad as to be unplayable, but I would have expected Telltale to have solved them given the extra gap of time between Episode 1 and Episode 2 in the series.
Episode 2 goes into some seriously dark territory as the game progresses, climaxing in a series of horrifying situations that had me quite impressed with Telltale's willingness to not pull any punches. While fans caught up with The Walking Dead comic may have already seen elements of those situations already, it doesn't take away from their emotional impact in game. Fans who haven't read all the comics are in for quite a ride, especially those who have only caught the television show. If you're wondering why The Walking Dead is such a popular franchise, Episode 2 hits many of those reasons right on the head.
I could nitpick some elements of Episode 2's story, such as some plot threads that didn't end up mattering (yet), or the almost comical melodrama that happens during the closing moments of the episode's climax, but the main story beats were so strong that I'm left with a significantly positive lasting impression. Even if Telltale's ambitious choice and consequences system doesn't end up completely paying off by the last episode, I'd be happy playing the remaining four episodes assuming they're of similar quality as this one. If you're not invested in The Walking Dead game by the end of Episode 2, you probably won't ever be. Speaking for myself, though, I'm all in for the rest of the ride.