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‘The Walking Dead’ Video Game Season 2, Episode 4, ‘Amid The Ruins,’ Sensibly Lowers The Stakes [Review]

I can’t think of a more appropriate title for the fourth episode of Telltale GamesThe Walking Dead video game’s second season than “Amid the Ruins.”

After an unyieldingly intense end to the previous episode, there were few places this new episode could go in terms of upping the ante. So it doesn’t even try. Instead, the game’s writers and developers offer a chapter about people trying to dig out from the debris left behind by a major disaster, and forging ahead with their lives.

My review for this episode is extremely late, and I only have one real excuse for it: Comic-Con. “Amid the Ruins” came out the week of San Diego Comic-Con, and in the couple weeks after that show, I kind of lived my life in a haze. Things felt weird. They felt off.

Now, I’m not saying Comic-Con is the equivalent to a zombie apocalypse (though it did have one), but I am saying this particular episode of the game kind of spoke to me. There’s a real, emotional truth to it. Periods of very, very high stress lead people to irritability, confusion, and a state of protracted distraction. That’s where the characters are here, and they find themselves looking for different ways to bring themselves comfort, as short-lived as it may be.

One of the ways a few members of the group offer some solace is with some welcome humor, and for the first time this season, the brand of gallows humor that was present in the first season seems to be back. There’s a part where Clementine and a couple of the others in her group chase after a raccoon that hits just the right tone. A character who’s involved in that scene, Mike, gets some great lines, too. It’s a much better try at humor than the misfires of the previous episode.

That’s not to say that this episode is entirely without conflict. There’s a cliffhanger ending, as there always is with these episodes, but the action that leads to it is a very simple thing — a decision to take some medicine or not — and it;s considerably smaller than the big, big stakes of the previous three episodes, which were essentially about a madman conscripting slave labor.

As I noted, attempting to go bigger this episode would have been really difficult, and it makes perfect sense to opt to tone the story down a bit, focusing on one major event in one character’s life instead of a group struggling against a tyrant. That said, it does seem odd that the climax to this season seemingly came in the third episode. Episode four, while well made — it’s probably the most consistently good episode of the season — and full of great moments, feels like falling action.

The gameplay this time around is pretty smooth, but there’s not a lot of big action outside of a smash-bang opening sequence. I also get a bit of a sense that the decisions in this one don’t necessarily affect the outcome of the story quite as much as they have in other episodes, though that will obviously have to bear out in episode 5, as the major, major plot developments seem to be coming there.

“Amid the Ruins” is ultimately a smaller, quieter episode of The Walking Dead, but sometimes you need those, right? Certainly it could call into question the episodic release schedule of these games (you should feel like you get something big every episode so you get your money’s worth, right?) but I found it pretty satisfying, with the major character developments, the humor, and a few shocks here and there.

Sometimes, it’s OK to pull things back a little. I’m glad Telltale did here.

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