It’s become a trope, albeit an important one, of zombie fiction that the monsters aren’t the dangerous part of a zombie apocalypse…it’s the people you want to be wary of. Thus, it should come as no surprise to lovers of the undead lore that Telltale wasted no time following its eventful opening by hammering home the point that no matter what happens next, there’s really nobody you can trust any more. The world has gone to hell and if you feel like the only sane man left, perhaps that makes you the craziest of the bunch.
Of course, on top of that Telltale had a lot to live up to. Their claims from the beginning of this title were that your choices would have profound impact across the following episodes and although they are certainly carried onward (characters that died in A New Day are very much still dead) Starved For Help doesn’t necessarily up any stakes based on your previous actions. Perhaps it’s the sort of system that will have more of a profound impact when thrust at you towards the end of the story, with sudden events occurring based on decisions you’d forgotten you’d even made, but at the moment it’s difficult not to feel just a little cheated by such promises. Only time will tell on that front.
Meanwhile, on the story side of things, Starved For Help utterly excels. The plot picks up about three months after the end of A New Day with Lee and a new addition to the survivor group, Mark, trawling through a forest hunting for food. Apparently food gets pretty scarce during the end of the world, who knew? Suddenly they hear a cry for help and find some university students crowding around a man with his leg caught in a bear trap and just like that, Lee has another hard choice to make: does he use his axe to try and cut through the hard metal chains of the trap, or the soft fragile flesh of the trapped before approaching zombies drawn by the screams of the crippled consume them all? Decisions, decisions…
The path that Lee follows, regardless of the choices he makes, only get significantly darker from there and at times it’s almost as if Telltale is testing the guts of players. Not just visually, either, although lovers of horrific splattery gore need not fret, that is provided in abundance. The stomach-churning aspects are more frequently correlated to the twisted nature of characters, some of whom are new to Lee, some of whom may have been an important part of the previous episode. A key element that is starting to emerge is the twisting nature of allegiances and how a character who is loyal to Lee under one set of circumstances might be chomping at the bit to tear him down during the next. It’s a testament to the writing of story overseer Gary Whitta and company, that no matter how those loyalties might shift, it’s always evident from where their actions come from, even if you as a player don’t necessarily agree with their motivations.
Of course, as the story gets darker, Lee’s own choices are pushed further and further down the rabbit hole of inhumane activity. One of the most heart-wrenching aspects of the game has been Lee’s ever expanding relationship with the lost little girl Clementine and as Lee is driven away from the man he’d like to be, Clementine inevitably comes to see parts of that. In a way, introducing a doe eyes little bundle of cuteness into this plot was one of the smartest moves Telltale have made, because as Lee makes a violent decision that has no positive outcome, all that it takes is one horrified glance from Clem for the entire weight of the narrative to be shifted against the player. Most zombie games such as Dead Rising or Left 4 Dead shun emotional storytelling in favor of fervent action. The Walking Dead takes the opposite stance, not only factoring in emotion but highlighting the monstrous nature of every decision you make. Sometimes you don’t need these choices to pay off later if they cut deep right there and then.
Of course not every impacting story point needs to involve disgusting globs of brain flying in every direction. One of the more enlightening moments is when Lee is tasked with handing out a handful of food rations to a mere couple of people out of ten or so survivors. It’s a neat moment to reflect on the problems that characters have presented or worsened, as well as expanding the character of the Lee character himself, but as before, there’s not really a positive outcome. Telltale take steps to reinforce that you are a part of a group that is trying to live in a world that is out and out fucked.
Starved For Help unfortunately isn’t all head-smashing and fork stabbing, though. Throughout the three hour experience, I came across a number of bugs and glitches ranging from awkward audio looping, audio-visual de-synchronization and at least one game-crashing break in loading. It’s almost as if Telltale were really rushing Starved For Help out as soon as they could (despite the relatively lengthy two month gap between releases) and failed to catch a few problems. I certainly didn’t run into any game breaking issues, and the checkpointing is frequent enough that if you should have to reload at any point, it shouldn’t prove to be a major distraction, but it is the sort of problem that really removes you from the game.
The game itself handles pretty much identically to A New Day, but with more action, which isn’t a bad thing. The control scheme and handling of both episodes feels tight and reflexive enough to keep you just engaged enough in the game to continue, although it would certainly be nice to see some more features included in future episodes.
The Walking Dead: Episode 2 – Starved For Help is marred by technical problems and never really manages to live up to Telltale’s original feature hype, but an utterly captivating and engrossing, as well as disgusting, story is certainly well worth the price of admission. Were Starved For Help a less buggy experience, it might prove to have been the best example of episodic gaming to date. As it is, we’ll just have to accept it as the dramatic epic that the television show of the same origin doesn’t seem able to live up to.