In its second season, the Walking Dead’s slowly creeped its way towards its gruesome, untimely end. Worldweary but undefeated, Clementine’s lived a lifetime of trials from the girl we left on a hill a season ago. Her hair’s shorter, her friends are fewer, and her skill with an axe is unmatched. She’s survived against all odds, even if that’s been against the people she called “family.” Clementine’s story is about growing up, and if the Walking Dead’s grown along with her, it’s with the same regret that comes with what its left undone.
On the same note, No Going Back takes no time in throwing itself straight into the explosive cliffhanger that left Clementine in the middle of a heated gun battle on the edges of a snowy forest. Springing in the violent daze, she immediately has to choose between saving her friends or a newborn baby in swaddling clothes. This intro has it all–fast thinking, moral dilemmas, a surprise character’s return (if not a convenient one), and easily one of the ugliest deaths we’ve seen so far.
If No Going Back rockets off of the starting line, it quickly winds down to a stroll in the park. Before long, Clementine finds herself and the group around making camp and swapping small talk, one at a time and all together, as if the game’s choosing to sing Cumbaya before its Charge of the Light Brigade. It’s all a bit stale, if not well intended: Kenny rehashes his grief over his dead family; Jane tells a funny story about her wayward youth and dead sister; and Clementine misses Lee, the father she never had. We should be rather grateful if Telltale gave us breathing room. If only there was more worth saying.
All thats a reminder of how much we still do miss Lee, even how things seemed fresh so many episodes ago. As a result, everyones fate can’t help but seem telegraphed rather than inspired, leaving Clementine where she is all too often: alone to figure things out for herself. It’s utterly silly to even attempt to generate sympathy by the finale’s end and it’s a surprising flub from Telltale’s masterful arcs. These relationships that I once built only feel like caricatures rewound over and over, until the product’s nothing more than a poor man’s Season 1.
What No Going Back does do well is its impressive sense of atmosphere. The Walking Dead can owe its chilling action to a measured pace with a finesse it’s honed over ten episodes. It’s Clementine that’s left to tend to Kenny’s grisly wounds and it’s her that (if you choose so) dives to the death-defying bottom of a frozen lakeside swim to save a party member. Actions like these consist of slow, hold-and-click and dragging motions, rather than a harsher simple click option.
In these moments, players approach Kenny with jokes about how much the cleaning is going to hurt, or they can try to downplay the pain and, for a moment, enjoy some flowing conversation. This is what Telltale excels at, and No Going Back crackles when it lets these seeds flourish. Otherwise they’re buried deep beneath the banality of the encompassing dejá vu. Cluttered amidst so many plot threads are the growing number of missing persons that’s been on everyone’s mind for the season. Clarissa’s forever lost, Lily’s still M.I.A., and Lee still can’t help but leave a hole in our hearts. At this point, it’d be simply nostalgic to face Lee again, we’d even take him as a zombie by this point, even if just for the morbid curiosity of it all.
Against this frustrating backdrop, Telltale does try to provide the closure we crave, though nevertheless amidst the inevitable. The bulk of No Going Back’s emotion, aren’t about Clementine, however. They’re about Jane’s guilt and Kenny’s rage and the other survivors’ woe stories, while Clementine is largely (and rudely) sidestepped. Clementine’s the star of Season 2, but the first part of the game focuses on other people–people we’ve learned not to care for because they’ll probably die soon, or people we already hate, enjoy, or merely tolerate. We should already know Kenny’s a dick and Jane’s a pragmatist. We know we love Clementine though, and that’s quite a more unique feeling to exploit.
After all’s said and done, all roads meet at the showdown we’ve seen coming since episode 3. The final minutes of No Going Back nevertheless have the hallmark Telltale charm; the scenes are fast and intense, even when it’s just conversation, and they convey the sense of hopelessness, loneliness, and depravity at how far these people–and you–will go to survive. Your decisions matter, the choices you make are earth-shaking, and you control the chaos, whether with words or a gun. Trust no one and keep that hair short, Lee told us once, and according to No Going Back, both were wise words. By its end, the brutal finale brings with it the carnage of at least three different endings thanks to your actions in only the last minute. I can’t say I’m pleased, but merely satisfied with my Clementine’s ending, as if it was the only acceptable choice against the insanity around her.
Clementine’s grown up, but I can’t see what for in a world gone this mad. A season after we left a little girl with a cap and a gun, she’s seemingly left to her own devices in a playground too dull for the big kids any longer. There’s action and split-second decisions, and it’s all meant for good, but it can’t fill this last episode’s heartless void. Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it. I’m worried The Walking Dead’s left little to be learned again.