Telltale Games really knows how to twist the knife.
The countless slings and arrows the developer has hurled at players throughout season two of "The Walking Dead" pale in comparison to what lies in store in episode four, "Amid the Ruins." This season's penultimate entry is a grim and desperate tale that lays bare the stark realities of self-preservation.
After scattering amid the chaos of the previous chapter's escape from a rival faction, Clementine's group must now battle starvation, freezing temperatures and, of course, the ever-present zombie threat. With her companions rapidly fraying under the agony of loss, rage and hopelessness, Clementine is torn between loyalty and the harsh truth that some friends can't be saved.
Other survivors pose a threat to Clementine’s group.
Other survivors pose a threat to Clementine's group. (TELLTALE GAMES)
With winter's chill just over the horizon and a baby on the way, it's clear from the outset that not everyone will make it through episode four alive.
One of the brilliant ways Telltale sells Clementine's story is by forcing players to make difficult choices with uncertain outcomes. Rather than simply being rewarded for doing the right thing, players learn time and again that even actions driven by good intentions can have fatal consequences.
It's one thing for Clementine to urge a friend onward with nothing at stake, but when softheartedness dulls her decision-making in a moment of truth, one false move will put everyone's lives at risk.
For the most part, Telltale avoids scavenging segments that break up the story by forcing Clementine to search for supplies. Doing so keeps the tension from ever truly breaking, as the focus is kept firmly on the rapidly splintering survivors.
The impending birth of Rebecca's child puts the entire group in grave danger. But even as the crucial moment is about to arrive, Clementine struggles to keep her friends from spiraling into emotional destruction.
The scars of loss manifest in many different ways -- through blinding anger and steadfast denial -- but every case could spell disaster. All the while, Clementine is reminded that there may come a moment when her survival hinges on abandoning her friends.
Episode four represents a crucial turning point in Clementine's development. We've seen her transform over the years from a helpless child to a savvy manipulator, able to talk her way through any situation.
For the first time, however, she is becoming wholly capable of fending for herself, both through strategy and combat. The question we have yet to answer is: How much has her horrific past eroded her sense of empathy? Will she become a hardened loner, determined to survive no matter what sacrifice is required? Will she remain loyal to the people who helped raise her, even as the tables turn and they become a burden in need of protection?
Find food, secure shelter, fight zombies. We've been here many times before throughout our journey in "The Walking Dead." But this time it's clear that Clementine is the group's unquestioned leader. Her decisions will dictate who lives or dies.
Another excellent mechanic of Telltale's storytelling is the ability to sell a false ending. Players see the story play out to what feels like a natural stopping point. But just as they begin to breathe a little easier, there's one final, unexpected moment of truth that irreparably shatters the uneasy peace.
Clementine spends the entirety of episode four running from one impending calamity to another, juggling too many balls and trying to hold off disaster for as long as she can. When it all finally comes crashing down, there isn't even time to think.
One split-second decision will change the group forever, leaving players desperate to see how the final chapter plays out.
Final score: 9 out of 10
Telltale is making a season 3 for The Walking Dead
While we wait for the last episode in season two of The Walking Dead adventure game, Telltale president Kevin Bruner and Walking Dead writer Robert Kirkman have gone ahead and confirmed at Comic-Con (and on Twitter) that there will be a third season.