It's been three months since our hero Lee Everett and Clementine the strong-willed little girl he's been protecting in the midst of the zombie outbreak have taken up with a group of fellow survivors in a fortified motel. And while they've survived, food's starting to run low, tensions are on the rise, and a battle for leadership of the group has broken out between strong-willed Lilly who controls the rations and hot-headed Kenny who's ready to hop in his RV and bolt with his family.
In this hot mess of conflicts, an opportunity comes along that might bring food and safety to this band of survivors. But given the type of story being told here and their circumstances, it's really only a matter of time before it all goes horribly wrong in this second, briskly-paced, more gore-focused episode of The Walking Dead from Telltale.
[Please note this review is for the PC version of The Walking Dead, which is also available on the Mac, PS3, and Xbox 360]
Whereas the first episode, the generally excellent and affecting "A New Day" was like a drama that would tilt full over into horror (my review), as circumstances become more desperate for Lee and his group, Telltale has dialed up the action. The hungry, frustrated group has been surviving up until this point thanks to the commissary rations provided by Mark, a refugee from an overrun air force base, but those are nearly gone. When a couple of seemingly kindly farmers show up, offering food in exchange for gas, it offers the group opportunity an opportunity at survival and maybe even safety behind the farm's electrified fence. Plus, the presence of crossbow-wielding bandits out in the woods makes the motor inn seem like an increasingly unsafe place to be.
This episode is all about narrowing Lee's choices. It's harder now to be a peacemaker between Lilly and Kenny who are at loggerheads about how best to protect the group, and seemingly any decision you make is going to be accompanied by some terrible human cost. Characters will, despite your best intentions, die and die horribly this episode, and depending on how you play things, you may get Lee's hands bloody as well.
If it feels a bit shorter than the first episode (and I clocked this one in at around the same 2 hours and some change to play through), it's because you're not confined to the one or two locations of "A New Day" and there's simply a bit more panicked action in this one. I'm being very specific with the use of the word "panicked" here: many of the scenes in the back half will require pretty quick decisions among the choices of action and dialog.
That progress bar underneath the dialog/action choices almost becomes an enemy after a while, more frightening than the zombies you'll encounter in a couple of the game's QTE's. "If I make this choice, who's going to die this time," you start to ask yourself.
The tension also has the benefit of obscuring how, well, silly some of this episode is. The motives of the farmers is telegraphed pretty early on and after the relative safety of Hershel's farm in the first episode, you can't imagine they would return to the same well here. I would love to take the time to do a second play through to see if there were more choices with regard to how and why my Lee went to the farm—it's simply hard to justify the decision in the context of how smart most of his decisions have been up to this point. Additionally, the farmers themselves (I believe their names were Dan and Andy) strike such a sinister presence, I kept expecting some kind of fake out that never came.
The entire thing escalates into this moment of just perfect big gore freakout in the final act, a bloody, panicked torso shambling towards you and it's still not as ominous as a dinner table full of happy people.
While "Starved for Help" isn't quite the home run that the first episode was, the horror and sheer freak-out has been escalated to such a successful degree that you might be able to forgive some its shortcomings.
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