Telltale’s The Walking Dead has been something of an unsung hero in diversity. Playing as a black man at the outset of a zombie apocalypse back in the debut season was a nice surprise, and Lee was brought to life with a charismatic performance by Dave Fennoy. Against AMC’s The Walking Dead series, where the already few and far between black characters haven't been met with the best fates, it was endearing to have Telltale place a complex, emotionally deep black character at the forefront of its flagship series.
And then came Clementine. Another minority character. We’ve seen Clementine grow from a lost, isolated child thrust into the care of Lee, to a young adult by the events of this fourth and final season. Everyone typically remembers Telltale’s The Walking Dead for horrific choices and gory deaths—there are many—but I’ve always remembered the series for the touching relationship forged between Lee and Clementine in the early hours of the first season.
In a zombie apocalypse however, disaster and grief are never far off. We lost Lee at the conclusion of The Walking Dead Season 1, and the series was never quite the same for it. Clementine struggled on as a growing child in Season 2, fighting hard to keep an embittered group of survivors together. The Walking Dead: A New Frontier saw Clementine take a step back entirely, reduced to a supporting role while Jeff Schine’s Javier Garcia took the reigns in an uneven season.
In Lee’s shoes we had someone to turn to and rely upon in Clementine, but also someone to protect above all others when the going got tough (and boy, it got tough). That’s one hell of a driving force in a survival game, and it’s this bond of protection and reliance that Season 4 of The Walking Dead has managed to recapture through Clementine and Alvin Jr, the latter being the offspring of two long-deceased cast members of Season 1 and 2 of The Walking Dead.
This opening episode of Season 4 of The Walking Dead opens with Clementine and A.J. on the road. At this point, killing Alvin’s zombified mother all the way back in Season 2 feels like a distant memory, but it's impressive and impactful that we’ve been on a journey spanning years with these characters. The bond between Clementine and A.J. is a tight one, but occasionally fraught, as the pair attempt to stave off hunger pains before narrowly escaping death by zombie hoard in the opening moments of this season.
Rejoining Telltale's The Walking Dead with a duo of black characters who share a common connection brings some warmth in the middle of the apocalypse, and this feeling only increases once we meet the rest of the cast for this upcoming final season. When Clementine and A.J. are rescued from the horde by a group of new characters, we quickly discover that the group is comprised entirely of children, hiding out in a fortified school, abandoned by their guardians at the end of the world.
Not only this, but scanning around the faces of the children puts a smile on mine. I’m met with black and brown faces looking back at my pair of lead characters—a welcome, if rare sight for a video game. Equally welcome is the fact that none of these characters outright resent Clementine or A.J. upon arrival at the school. If there’s one zombie apocalypse trope that I’m sick of by now, it’s a character in the main group always smack talking the protagonist, questioning their choices, and looking for any opportunity to stick a knife in their back. Telltale’s The Walking Dead has definitely been guilty of this in past seasons.
There are some tender moments between Clementine and A.J. in the beginning of this debut episode, as the latter character struggles to embrace and befriend new faces around him. You have to help introduce A.J. to the new cast of characters, which represents the perfect opportunity to get to know who we’ll be spending this coming season with.
Telltale appears to have given this final season of The Walking Dead a new lick of paint, so to speak. There’s a decidedly smooth transition between dialogue and exploration, and quick time events now feel a lot easier to handle. Seemingly gone are the rough loading times between talking and action sequences, and it helps make this episode feel a lot smoother as a result.
Unfortunately, the combat in The Walking Dead is still a bit of a mess. In this debut episode of the final season, there are plenty of scenarios in which Clementine has to deal with multiple walkers at once, out in the open. You have two options when approaching a zombie: stun them, or kill them. Stunning a zombie delivers a quick kick to take out their legs for a brief moment, temporarily immobilizing them. Going for the kill takes a good few seconds, and leaves you open to being attacked by another zombie, giving you an instant ‘game over’ screen.
The two choices and open layout of the combat in Season 4 of The Walking Dead brings a nice new twist on the old, established formula of executing a zombie purely through a quick time event. You’ve now got to be constantly aware of your surroundings as Clementine, keeping an eye out for any walkers creeping up on you, which boosts the tension while exploring in a big way. Sadly, combat through quick time events is a mark of what should be a bygone era for Telltale Games. The final product still feels stunted and uneven in its combat, and it’s another occasion in recent memory where I find myself wishing Telltale had switched to a new engine sooner, rather than later.
I mentioned earlier how Telltale’s The Walking Dead has surpassed AMC’s The Walking Dead, in terms of giving characters with a minority background a clear voice and power. But the two both suffer from the same core issue: a predictable cycle of violence. No zombie apocalypse tale is complete without survivors fortifying and defending a location, only to have it eventually overrun. This has happened countless times now, in both Telltale’s series, and the TV show.
Every time we settle into a groove, with a bunch of characters in a single location, it's as if a countdown timer kicks off, ticking down until destruction wrecks havoc on everything we’ve built up. That’s not to say that the destruction of the fortified school and its community occurs within this opening episode, but there’s that constant anxiety of destruction playing out in the back of my mind, as this is all we’ve known throughout the series to date.
This debut episode of the final season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead is impressive, if a little formulaic. Having Clementine taking the reins for this season feels good, and we’re given a solid amount of time to get to know the equally colorful cast of characters in this opening episode. The combat is still a problem, as it always has been for this series, and there’s definitely a depressing pattern of destruction evident in The Walking Dead as a whole. This is largely a return to form for Telltale’s The Walking Dead and the opening act sets up plenty of potential conflicts for the rest of the season.
If this is a return to form for Telltale’s The Walking Dead, it’s ironically come at the beginning of the end. Combat is still a drag in this game, even with the improved freedom of movement. We’ve got precious little time left with both Clementine and A.J., but this opening episode of the final season of The Walking Dead neatly gives our characters hope, motivation, and some true friends, all in merely a few hours.