The Walking Dead is getting darker – yes, that is possible – while Clementine shows she can be tougher. She's just as intelligent, clever and strong-willed as she ever was, but now she's not fighting to prove her worth as a survivor. The group she's with depends on her, looks to her for guidance and respects her opinions. They ask her to perform dangerous tasks again and again, using the excuse that she's the smallest or the lightest or she knows someone better. But we know the truth: Clementine is stronger than all of them.
In episode three of season two, "In Harm's Way," Clementine is almost invincible. She's a superhero, running across rooftops, sneaking into dangerous places, and taking down zombies left and right. For the first time since beginning this game, the player feels in control.
But if The Walking Dead has taught us anything, it's that it's dangerous to put faith in feelings.
Gallery: The Walking Dead Season 2 Episode 3 | 5 Photos
In Harm's Way beautifully twists The Walking Dead's lore, placing Clementine and her new group of survivors in a barred-up, locked-down strip mall that acts like a prison, rather than the real one depicted in the comics. They're captives, and guns to their heads prevent them from leaving the hardware store and surrounding shops.
There, Clementine and her group have plenty of food, semi-comfortable places to sleep, high walls and a store of weapons. There's even a comic store. At first, it's tempting to look around and say, "Hell, it could be worse." But we know that the man running the camp is a megalomaniac with a penchant for murder, and he won't hesitate to kill anyone for any reason.
The tension at the heart of this episode is not between death and survival – it's between security and freedom. Do you want to live with food and shelter, but subservient to the whims of a madman, or do you want to take charge of your own life and risk it outside of his walls?
This is the episode where it all starts to come together – we reunite with characters from the 400 Days DLC, and three episodes in, Clementine is established as a fighter and important figure in the group. She has a ward of her own in Sarah, the fragile, young girl (who's actually older than Clem). Clementine knows that Sarah is sheltered and that emotionally, she can't handle pain, rejection or gore. These facts make it harder to take the same "hard truths" approach to Sarah as Lee took with Clementine. Sarah needs protection, and damn it, you'll probably give it to her.
And then there are the new characters – some are downright disgusting from the start, but others are more complicated. One new survivor is a silent, calculating woman who seems to be able to take care of herself, thank you very much. Another is a charming and funny man, but he's difficult to trust. Within 15 minutes, In Harm's Way creates deep, complex characters whose personalities require longer analysis than the dialogue mechanic allows. That, or The Walking Dead has given us all serious trust issues.
In Harm's Way makes a point to mention Lee, the protagonist of season one and Clementine's father figure. We've been waiting to see if developer Telltale will bring Lee back in any form – dead, undead, alive, anything – and the latest episode keeps that anticipation thrumming. We search for Lee everywhere, in each new camp, in the faces of every zombie, hoping for a miracle but expecting heartbreak.
This episode blends rapid-fire zombie-attack scenes and investigative stealth moments into the storyline, though the dialogue options this time around provide enough tension to sustain the game's high-pitched pace. Things are happening – they're happening right now, and they're happening only with the support of your advice and physical skills. The entire episode is plotting, running around to enact those plans and plotting some more. It makes for a heart-pounding rhythm.
It ends on a cliffhanger – as these episodes generally do – but the final moment offers players a stark choice that is sure to have direct consequences in the following episode. There are two episodes left now, and while it's clear that Clementine can handle whatever is thrown at her, it's harder to say if the rest of us can.
This review is based on a pre-release Steam download The Walking Dead: In Harm's Way, provided by Telltale Games. Images: Telltale.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.