"Stomach lurches during anxiety-provoking scenes, throat tightens during undead encounters, and knuckles whiten with each infuriating blunder."
Those who've followed my episodic reviews of The Walking Dead know how consistently the game has flowed thus far. Episodes 1 through 3 tell a uniform tale, and they truly feel like "chapters," rather than two- to three-hour games in themselves. While the game's substance and themes maintain that same consistency in Episode 4, the quality has changed drastically. With the final episode on the crimson horizon, has Lee led us into a foray that is equally heart-pounding and rending? Or are we left shuffling in listless malaise?
An ominous, sinister voice remarks over the presumably dead radio, "C'mere, Clementine, and get yourself and all of your friends killed!" Okay, not really, but we were all thinking that by the end of Episode 3. The train rolls on down the line, and we reach a strangely empty, boarded up city. Lee's company – Kenny, in particular – fervently march toward the mythical boat that they have sacrificed so much for. Friends and family have been injured and lost throughout the course of this recent venture, and the group's morale is waning.
However, the way in which the story is told, the direction the plot takes, and the powerful voice acting make this the best installment yet. Here, the strong characterization is more apparent than ever. Of course, with time, people naturally grow closer to or more resentful of characters. Either way, the depth of the emotion is what's indicative of good writing, and we experience tremendous payoff here. Time alone won't draw us closer to the world Telltale has presented to us – these comic book-style etchings moving around in front of a "camera" need to draw us into their 2D world. Stomach lurches during anxiety-provoking scenes, throat tightens during undead encounters, and knuckles whiten with each infuriating blunder.
Telltale continues to dish out surprises in this three-hour episode. Fans left wanting after each installment frantically discuss concerns, jeers, and predictions, and with so many possibilities explored, what could the genius writers behind this five-part series do to still shock us? Perhaps the unforeseen comes more in the timing and the way in which our predictions unfold, and less in the content. Nevertheless, even the most jaded consumer will emote during this full adventure.
That isn't to say that Episode 4 is flawless, however. Some scenes clearly demand a reaction, but fall short in their delivery. I say this not because I've hardened, but because despite the constant emotional responses provoked throughout the series, I found myself strangely stoic during extraordinary moments of tragedy. Telltale may have faltered in their attempts here, but with expert writing throughout, complaining about these instances seems like nitpicking. We are reminded about that rooted writing adage: less is more.
In terms of gameplay, Episode 4 shares moments of exploration, resting, and excitement equally. Previously, I balked at the staple adventure game mechanics of clicking nodes until the plot reanimates and staggers forward. However, these moments double as game design decisions and storytelling in that we feel the group is truly planning or resting. One might argue the same for previous episodes, but there were times in those episodes when the story called for urgency, only to allow – or even demand – the player to pace around haphazardly clicking on objects or people. Some may still find these moments understandably tiresome, but they work just a little better here. However, complainers may rescind their comments when they realize that Telltale has listened to criticisms regarding intense encounters. Former entries contained frustrating immersion-killers in the form of unforgiving deaths, a lack of instruction, and relatively poor checkpoints. Not the issue here – Telltale has definitely improved upon gameplay throughout the series, and should be lauded for the changes.
The game maintains its premium presentation. Tasteful use of sound effects evoke a sense of atmosphere while simultaneously allowing the player to focus on the story and task at hand. This may not be realistic, but it sure makes for good game design. Whether I should praise the script writing or the voice acting I cannot say, but the power behind some lines screams tension. Similarly, the expressions on characters' faces sometimes say more than words ever could. Disappointment on Clementine's face pierces the heart, while the blatant disregard for human life on others' faces can seem justified or disgusting depending on how you, the player, feel.
And that's what makes Episode 4 such a fantastic installment. Any detachment we may have felt as we slowly immersed ourselves into this hellish world should be lost here. Those who've hungered for each coming episode may experience some tunnel vision as they dive into their monitors and become a part of the group's lives. Decisions matter – these people matter. Am I excited for Episode 5? Well, let me just say that I'm not excited to see this tale end.