It was not clear what would happen to the last season of Telltale's The Walking Dead after the company's sudden and shocking closure in September. The production was downloaded by Skybound Games using some of the original Telltale teams. The latest episode continues one of the best seasons in the series.
The first two episodes of Walking Dead: The Final Season were some of the best since the original season of 2012. They follow Clementine as she tries to protect AJ, a child she has guarded since the end of Season two. Clem and AJ stumbled across the Ericson Academy for Troubled Youth, a small community of children, and were engaged in a war with neighboring movers. The series has presented renewed combat, budding romances and some intimate characters. At the end of the last episode, raiders led by Season One survivor Lilly kidnapped a handful of Ericson students during a fight. Entering episode three, the stakes are as high as they have ever felt in a [Walking Dead] series.
This latest episode, "Broken Toys," has a lot of reasons to cover and the result is inconsistent. The problem is pacing. This episode wants to hit a number of character moments and even ask some questions about the setting as a whole, which means moving from one scene to another rather abruptly. These scenes are great when taken in isolation, but as a coherent whole they stumble. The section jumps from a query sequence to crooked mission planning, and then it goes to character beats and introspection at a pace that gives these moments very little time to breathe.
There is a conflicting sense of finality here, a race against endgame, and it is difficult to determine whether the story has only written itself or a camper with tumultuous development.
It is difficult to play "Broken Toys" without imagining that the chaotic pacing is the result of internal chaos on Telltale. In September, CEO Pete Hawley told staff that the studio would shut down. Over 200 employees were left without jobs and only a handful of days worth of healthcare. A complaint was filed for the violation of California's labor law, while the Skybound Games division of Walking Dead comic creator Robert Kirman's Skybound Entertainment train control of the project. Some Telltale veterans were preserved.
Seen through this lens, "Broken Toys" is an episode scattered thin and it shows.
This does not say that the individual parts are bad. This episode contains one of the most frightening and most insulating sets in the series. Trying to be friends with an ally James, Clementine needs to make a mask of rotting meat and get into a barn full of zombies. James wants to help her understand his belief that the undead still have a spark from their earlier self deep inside. The scene, which takes place in the first person, feels like you're always a mistake away from death. After years of stabbing and shooting zombies, it's hard to be close to them and be asked to leave them alone. It's frightening and meditative, asking questions about the nature of death in the franchise.
We also get the chance to see Clementine and Season One protagonist Lee Everett back together during an extended dream sequence. It's all in Clem's head, of course, but the resulting conversation is a heartbreaking doubt. Clem is still young, learning to protect a child and inducing leadership. Her imagined conversation with Lee reminds players of how small she still is, even after playing through battles and sending countless hikers.
Clem and Lee's relationship remains one of the best-realized cases of adult-child dynamics in play. Their reunion moved me to tears even though it was not "right". Moments like this bring much of the episode, but they are offset by less convincing struggle and action.
Clem and her friends have to attack a riverboat to pick up their friends and the result is a cluster fuck, both narrative and at a gameplay level. There is a lopsided sequence that kept literally descending, a confrontation with a former Ericson student raider raider, and a turnabout leading to a prison flight. It's a lot and it's moving fast, giving us monologues and contrivances that feel out of place for the season. Lilly is a good villain, a real counterpart to Clementine. They respect and deceive each other, but their face to face here becomes short. The speed towards the conclusion – where a bomb detonates and leaves fate to all signs uncertain – leaves little time for things to feel natural.
"Broken Toys" is the least consistent episode this season so far, and has never found a balance between the more emotionally resonant moments and the necessary action sequences. It feels strange to play, both because of the circumstances behind the creation and the inconsistent pacing. This is not at all a bad episode, but there is a feeling that the series has been thrown off-center. The last episode will be released in March. Bang or nap, Clementine's story is coming to an end, and I hope the season can find its core again in time for the conclusion.