The Walking Dead Season 2, Episode 1 review: Oh, damn it all

The Walking Dead isn't a roller coaster of emotions; it's a seesaw. On one end sits the golden halo of the human spirit, strengthened by trust, dignity and love. On the other end slumps the shadow of death, mutilation and irrational violence. The kind of emotions that make someone lock an injured, ailing little girl in a shed in the middle of a storm, offset by the compulsion to give her a decent meal and tuck her into bed. Perched in the middle of this seesaw is Clementine.

She is the balance, representing everything worth fighting for, worth decapitating for. Worth dying for. Clementine is the humanity in all of us – but in the premiere of season two of The Walking Dead, when we take direct control of Clementine, she's also humanity's inherent, grey-tinted truth. We're not all good. We may not even be mostly good.

The apex of a seesaw is a precarious place. One hard twitch on either lever could tip Clementine to salvation or destruction, compassion or killing, life or death. After playing episode one, All That Remains, I don't know whether Clementine is soaring up or falling down.

Lessons learned in The Walking Dead's first season carry over just as the save files do – trust no one and don't get attached to anyone or anything. Expect heartbreak at every click. The series is a twisted point-and-click adventure with a heavy emphasis on narrative and action sequences. Telltale uses this formula to pull on classic drama tropes, setting up scenes of hope and happiness only to subsequently murder every fluffy feeling it just cultivated.

The prologue of All That Remains exists for precisely this reason, and it shows Clementine much as we've come to know her, perhaps just weeks after the events of season one's finale. She's young and fragile, with a glint of hardness in her eyes. She carries a handgun like a pro and knows to search new areas for the skulking undead before getting comfortable. But once again, Telltale demonstrates that zombies may be the least of our worries in the desperation of the apocalypse.

The game kicks off 16 months later (roughly 400 Days), and Clementine has grown exponentially. She's still young, but she carries herself with more maturity and the weight of survival on her shoulders; her voice is slightly deeper. In the forest on a cold, rainy night, she fights off a group of adult attackers and ends up alone, scrounging for food in the most disgusting places and systematically killing the undead. Her transformation reflects a sudden, too-soon loss of innocence and the icy shield that forms in its wake. This is our Clementine, and even though we can control her movements, we can't stop her from growing.

Playing as Clementine is a heart-wrenching mash-up. I want to protect her, but I want her to be strong and fight for her own survival. Every time she pulls out a gun, I recall that I – as season one protagonist, Lee Everett – taught her how to use it, back when she still had hope that there was good news on the horizon.

Clementine eventually meets up with a brand new group of hardened survivors holed up in a rural house. They don't trust her, and I don't trust them. I choose her dialogue in much the same way I raised her as Lee – no bullshit. If I get bad vibes from someone, Clementine tells them to go to hell. I keep people close only to support Clementine's survival, not to become confidants or friends.

Except for one person. Damn it, there's always one.

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All That Remains forces me to make a promise I know I won't be able to keep, to another character I know I shouldn't get attached to. And isn't that human nature – the desire to bond with other people, to share sorrow and joy, even as we know it's futile? Even as I tell myself that if I have to, I will kill this person to ensure Clementine lives. Even as this person might be thinking the same thing.

In many situations where Clementine needs to persuade people in All That Remains, Telltale offers a choice of playing the "I'm just a sweet little girl" card. I use this one sparingly for a few reasons: Clementine's actions usually quickly dismiss the notion that she's a helpless child, and that's not how I taught her to act in season one. Sure, there are merits in manipulating the emotions of susceptible adults, but to say Clementine is helpless is a betrayal of everything I worked for in the first episodes. I won't play that card unless I truly need to.

The action sequences in the premiere episode are well-paced and fraught with tension. They're streamlined from the first season's experiments, offering a mix of timed clicks, button mashes and swipes, alongside a frantic search for the right weapon in the surrounding area. Telltale forces Clementine to act out every single act of violence – on the living or dead – with calculated, slow precision. Hit this zombie in the head. Hit it again. Hit it again. Hear its skull crack in two. That's the stuff. When it's not zombies Clementine is mutilating, these precise actions become torture on their own.

The saving grace of Clementine serving as the protagonist in season two is that we're pretty assured she won't die any time soon: A "Clementine the shambling, dumb zombie" game wouldn't be very fun. Even so, Telltale isn't afraid to harm her, to make her bleed or torment her mentally. Surviving may be the goal, but it's hard to say if that's really the best thing for her.

This review is based on a Steam download of The Walking Dead: All that Remains, provided by Telltale Games.

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