Developer: Telltale Games / Publisher: Telltale Games / Played on: PS3 / Price: $4.99 / ESRB: Mature [Strong Language, Blood and Gore, Intense Violence]
When we last left the maligned heroes of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, they were holed up inside a motel in zombie-infested Georgia. I for one couldn’t wait for more of the game’s intense drama, gripping storytelling, and faithful exploration of the comic series’ themes. So finally we have Starved For Help, episode two of the planned five. Does it keep on truckin’ or is it a sophomore slump?
I’m not going to spoil anything, as that would do a major injustice to the experience of playing episode two, but I will say this: Starved For Help goes to some extremely dark places. Darker than I thought Telltale’s writers would have the balls for. But I was pleasantly (and disturbingly) surprised at the bold direction they’ve taken the characters and story. Tempers are high as the game opens, with Lee Everett and company trying desperately to survive a food shortage in their fortified digs at the motel. The situation looks increasingly grim, when finally the group makes contact with a pair of farmers from the St. John Dairy Farm down the road. In a bid to get a hand on some much-needed supplies, the group decides to barter some of their excess fuel for food. From there, the story will take you to some uncomfortable scenarios, featuring decisions that will really and truly ask you to explore the moral shades of grey that exist in a world overrun with amoral zombies.
It’s a testament to the writing that the agony you’ll turn over in your heart and head when making these decisions is real. There are no easy answers, no paragon or renegade paths in The Walking Dead. Often your choices will consist of the Bad option versus the Really Bad option. Sunshine and butterflies this is not.
What it all amounts to is a stunningly tense conclusion to a bleak and unsettling three hour experience. I wish I could speak in more detail as to what transpires in Starved For Help, but just trust me that you really need to play it. It’s gripping stuff.
My only gripe here involves a half-realized subplot that serves as a nice red herring to the episode’s eventual focus, but it’s full of holes that are never truly explained, only further mystified by a curious ending sequence to the story. I’m hoping this was less bad storytelling and more of a setup for future installments, as it doesn’t really serve a purpose in the main narrative that is the focus of Starved For Help.
This episode also sports some really nifty visuals at certain points. I made a big deal of the art style in the review of episode one, about how it captures the aesthetics of the comics. Episode two will give you a healthy dose of that, but it also features some really gorgeous lighting effects in the episode’s final act. As a rainstorm moves over the dairy farm, you’ll get some palpable atmosphere and mood through the lightning strikes and pastoral dairy farm architecture.
What I did find unfortunate was the continuing technical hiccupping present in the game, a recurring problem also found in the first episode. Oftentimes the audio wouldn’t match up during cutscenes when the camera would switch to a new perspective. The sound would go, but the visuals would chug to catch up as it tried to load the scripting for the events on screen. Ultimately this never impacted gameplay, but it did continually take me out of an engaging experience quite often.
Really, there’s no reason you don’t pick up episode two if you played episode one (and especially if you enjoyed it). The stellar writing and character development continues at a superior level, and the decisions the game asks you to make are gut-wrenching. Because you care about these people that you share this world with. Every sequence is rife with tension and fear, and very possibly could be Lee’s (and by proxy your) last. This virtual cast really shines on a human level, resonating with the depth of their quirks and behavior. This continues to be one of the best stories being told this year in video games.