(Warning: MAJOR Spoilers for the episode ahead!)
With Carver out of the way, I honestly had no idea what to expect from the 4th episode of Telltale's 2nd season of The Walking Dead, which is titled "Amid The Ruins". I knew it would resolve the great cliffhanger from "In Harm's Way", but otherwise I had nothing - I actually dreaded that Carver might not be dead after all. I personally chose not to see Kenny do him in, but with so many choices in this season being "fake" in that the game would always produce the same outcome, I wondered if his death would ALWAYS be off-screen to allow for him to come back (I never went back to see if watching his demise was possible). But no, Carver is gone, and thus this episode lacks a human villain for the most part.
And that's fine by me, since I tend to get bored with this plot device that rears its ugly head in just about every zombie movie of note, and thus certainly don't need it in a game. Far as I'm concerned, the threat of the undead and a lack of supplies/shelter is scary enough without having to add generic villains into the mix, which is why I had to roll my eyes when the episode, which had relied on those other dangers throughout its runtime, introduced a group of Russian thugs at its very end. To be fair it allows for another terrific cliffhanger and doesn't seem to be something that will take central focus in the finale, but it still felt like a backwards step to me, as the episode was working just fine without this sort of junk.
So what it is about then? Well at first the main concern is getting the group back together after getting split up in the zombie horde (worsened by Carver's people firing assault rifles from the roof of their building), which kicks off with the results of Clementine's attempt to save Sarita after she was bitten by a walker. According to the game's Wiki page, an overwhelming amount of players (including myself) opted to chop off her arm before she could be infected (instead of killing the zombie), which just makes it more ironic when she's devoured a few seconds later anyway - if Clem let her stay bit (meaning, if we chose what seemed like certain death), she'd survive for a significant portion of the episode. Either way, Clem's action pisses off Kenny, and as a result she spends most of the time with Jane, the loner who we met last time that looks like a younger version of Carol from the TV show (which I had to laugh at, as this episode reunites the group after about a half hour when the show will spend an entire season doing that).
Obviously some of this stuff might differ depending on your choices, but I found Clementine/Jane to be a strong and interesting pairing, much more so than Clem's one on one time with Luke or Kenny this season. Jane is kind to Clementine, but doesn't treat her like a kid too much - she actually encourages the young girl to go off on her own (as being with a group always ends badly, in her experience) and doesn't try to keep her from killing zombies. As one of this season's major issues is the lack of a strong relationship at its center compared to the first season's between her and Lee (RIP), I quite liked their time together and the dynamic it offered. Jane even teaches Clem a new trick for fighting the undead (kick them in the knee first so that they fall down, making a stab to the brain much easier), and the two work together to solve the episode's only puzzle, involving creating a distraction to clear an area of walkers.
So it's a shame that she takes off near the end, something that doesn't seem to be the result of any of my actions. Maybe she'll come back for the finale, but as soon as she leaves the episode once again lacks any real center - it's just the group moving from A to B, AGAIN. The other main thrust of the episode is Rebecca's pregnancy, which is about to hit its natural conclusion, but Rebecca isn't a particularly interesting character. Furthermore, I'm not sure if it was my choices or just sloppy writing, but I wasn't satisfied by how she turned from hating on Clem at first to being overly motherly toward her now. She even brings it up at one point ("We've come a long way since we first met...") but the switch was rather abrupt, so I don't feel as close to her - it seems our relationship is dictated by the whims of the episode's writers more than anything I did as a decision maker. Still, her baby provides the episode with its most upsetting moment, as he seems to be stillborn at first... only to suddenly breathe, signaling that he's OK. I don't know if it was my new dad hormones kicking into overdrive or just the writing, but either way it's kind of telling that I was more concerned about this "character" who had only been introduced seconds before than I did about his mother.
In fact I still don't care much about a lot of these folks; I had to look up a couple of their names (Bonnie and Mike, though the latter gets the episode's best throwaway lines, particularly his concern over the nature of a coat Clementine finds), and when I had the option to let Sarah die I gladly did so, having long since grown tired of having to comfort her after every single incident. Kenny is increasingly hostile/unlikable, and Luke's prominence seems to decrease with each new installment, so there just isn't much to really get me worked up like in the first season - Jane and the baby are my only concerns right now, and the former isn't around for the time being. The game occasionally has you choose a side between Luke and Kenny (who are constantly arguing), and I actually just went back and forth every time (choosing Kenny's side now, then Luke's on the next fight) because I had no real loyalty left to either of them. Maybe the next (final) installment can give you a whole new way of looking at this season, not unlike how the end of Jedi has you rethinking how you look at New Hope and Empire, but it's a bummer that after 4 of 5 episodes I still have no real sense of what the point of this season is beyond "let's catch up with Clem and make about 50 comments about her haircut".
Oddly, they've gotten better at the action scenes, which are usually the least interesting parts of these games. The early bits where you escape the walker horde while covered in zombie guts are pretty suspenseful, and the trailer sequence is pretty terrifying as it just keeps escalating - every time you think you can catch your breath something else goes wrong. And while I occasionally die because I'm too slow to line up my reticle and press RT during a "fight", I believe this episode was the first time I ever died because I failed to make the right decision in time, which is the sort of thing I'd like to see more often. Not only do you get a fun little death scene you'd otherwise never have access to (as it relies on everything going wrong instead of "Clem doesn't fight off that zombie in time so she dies"), but it finds a way to marry the game's decision making with something that can actually kill Clementine instead of some random group member that would probably die anyway (i.e. Sarita - if Clem had chopped the zombie instead, Sarita would survive THEN, but die 20 minutes later off-screen).
It's also an unusually grim episode. I doubt many (any?) people like Sarah, but it still feels a bit mean-spirited on the part of the developers that none of the characters (even Clem!) seem to care about her death all that much. I actually wonder if the baby was meant to die at one point until cooler heads prevailed - it would have been fitting for this rather dark installment. Of course, after losing Lee it makes sense that Clem would be a bit desensitized to the deaths of those around her, but it doesn't make it any less harsh to see it in play. It's admirable really; despite putting a child at its center this season seems darker than the first, and while the story may be lapsing, at least Telltale hasn't softened this aspect - if anything they're embracing it.
Overall, I was more satisfied with "Amid The Ruins" than "In Harm's Way", but unfortunately I'm no longer hopeful that this season could top the first. At first there was a sense of people hiding things from Clem because she was a little girl, making it hard to trust anyone, but that aspect has been whittled down to nothing - if anything it's almost comical how they turn to her to make decisions for the group now. Likewise, what seemed like an expanded story only seems to contract - there's nothing to it beyond the usual "we have to survive" concept. The game keeps getting rid of anyone you might be attached to (I chose to let Sarah die but even if you tried to save her she'd still end up dead), leaving nothing at its center beyond just giving us another few hours with Clementine. I'm still excited for the finale, but at this point unless they introduce a new game mechanic or come up with a really meaty story (one that is clear from the first episode), I don't know if Season 3 - which was just announced - will be something I'm exactly dying to play. As is often the case with horror films, maybe it's best not to try to capture lightning in a bottle a second time with sequels.
(Played on Xbox 360. As before, no technical issues beyond long loading times. Available for most major platforms.)
(Warning: MAJOR Spoilers for the episode ahead!)