‘The Walking Dead’ Season 2, Episode 3, ‘In Harm’s Way,’ Plays With The Structure [Review]
The first couple hours of Telltale Games' newest episode of its video game version of The Walking Dead, "In Harm's Way," feel a little strange. Things move fairly slowly, and most of what the player does is fairly mundane. You do chores, basically. There's high drama, for sure, but a lot of it is happening around the lead character, Clementine, rather than to her.
Then the last act hits, and things go absolutely crazy. The story gets darker and more intense than it ever really has in the series, which is a high hurdle to clear. The shift, along with a few distracting creative decisions, make for what's probably the most uneven chapter in the series so far, but that seems to kind of be the point.
The idea of this episode, the third of the second season, seems to be lulling players into a false sense of security. Clementine and the group of survivors she's with find themselves in yet another "secure" location -- a big-box hardware store -- with yet another tyrannical, sadistic leader making things difficult for everyone (a concept that has been well explored in The Walking Dead in the various media in which it exists). The store is populated with characters that people who played the game that came between season one and season two -- 400 Days -- who mostly appear in brief cameos, but one of whom plays a fairly important role. Clementine is tasked with delivering nails and picking berries. Clem meets a friendly new character who just wants to help. The unstated theme of all this seems to be, "See? These people would be OK, if it wasn't crazy guy who leads them."
As a storytelling device, it's great. It forces players to focus on the internal rather than the external, and it makes the moments where the tension really ratchets up that much more effective. For gameplay, it's not so great, though. More often than not, the early scenes feel predetermined in a way that these games often don't. It feels like Clementine's actions have no real effect on outcomes.
The very first scene in the game is one where Clementine and her traveling buddies get into an argument, and it's rendered moot by a bump in the road. It's a microcosm of what's to come, at least until the last act of the game, where Clementine has a lot more control. Yes, sometimes people are absolutely victims of circumstance, but that sort of defeats the purpose of making a video game.
Speaking of which, there are some strange moments here where the game seems to be calling attention to the fact that it's a video game. It verges into being too self-aware. There's one moment in particular, where everyone looks at Clementine to do some player-character stuff because she's the player character (though there are genuine reasons why Clem would be the one to carry this task out), that doesn't quite ring true. It's funny, and the game certainly benefits from its sporadic moments of humor, but it draws attention to the unreality of the situation in a way that doesn't quite work.
That's also true of the voice acting this time out, at least in one case. The previous two episodes experimented a bit with bringing name actors in to play roles, in that Michael Madsen, who returns here, provided the voice for the mysterious villain Carver. He seemed to fit in fairly well. A new character here, Reggie, the friendly stranger I mentioned earlier, is voiced by comedian Kumail Nanjiani, and it doesn't quite work so well. Nanjiani certainly does his best to embody the character, but his line readings sound rushed, and above all, it's hard not to get distracted if you know who he is and what he sounds like. For me, it drained the drama out of any scene he was in. (That said, the rest of the voice acting in the game remains top-notch.)
The last hour or so of the episode, which, as I mentioned, really cranks up the intensity, does a lot to make up for any missteps, though. Multiple characters get great moments of heroism and sacrifice. There are the usual Walking Dead "Oh no! Not them!" moments, and they're pulled off really well. And there's a revenge scene that goes extremely dark, but certainly feels earned. (And squeamish players can opt out of seeing it.)
It's, quite frankly, a brave ending that advances the story ahead more than I thought this episode would. One particularly cool touch is that the episode just cuts to black in the middle of some action, to emphasize just how confusing the chaos going on really is. It's a great cliffhanger that leaves a lot of questions up in the air and definitely has me primed for the next installment.
Let's leave the chores out of that one, though, Telltale.