In my mind, the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead remains the dev’s best work. Completely revolutionizing the conventions of the adventure game genre and proving that game narrative could go toe to toe with, and beat into a bloody pulp with a nearby socket wrench, films and TV (I’d take Clem and Lee over Daryl and T-Dog any day of the week).
While all their work since has been consistently of a high quality (Wolf Among Us even tops The Walking Dead in places), it’s evident that the studio has found it’s niche and no longer feels the need to experiment and is content to simply run through the motions.
To a certain extent this is the case with the opening episode of The Walking Dead: Michonne, but that doesn’t mean Telltale have lost their magic.
Michonne is easily one of the most complex and interesting characters in The Walking Dead, set within Kirkman’s comic universe (which is why Michonne is being played by Samira Wiley from Orange is the New Black to avoid confusion with the TV series), this new mini-series covers the period between issues #126 and #139 in which Michonne is absent after leaving Rick, Carl and the group. This allows Telltale to once again craft an original story within the universe without treading on anyone else’s toes, and once again they’ve created a new adventure that will no doubt add value to the main series.
Opening with a scene that can best be described as a cross between a flashback and a full on mental breakdown, Telltale waste no time in plumbing the depths of Michonne’s tortured psyche, retelling significant events that have molded Michonne into the stoic zombie killer we know and love. Although it doesn’t entirely give the game away, merely hinting at what happened. Even if your only experience with the Walking Dead is via the games, it’s a strong opening that draws Michonne in a sympathetic light that will have you instantly rooting for her.
In Too Deep keeps its pace brisk, moving from scene to scene as we’re swiftly introduced to all new characters in the series and their own struggles, though most swiftly fade into the background and feel insignificant next to the titular lead. Though I’m sure the script has a small part to play in this, Samira Wiley’s phenomenal performance plays a much bigger role. From her first lines, you can tell that she understands the character. She gives her performance an outward aura of strength that hides an air of uncertainty and vulnerability just beneath the surface. Telltale’s games are known for their brilliant performances, but Wiley simply knocks it out the park. It’s almost worth playing the game for her performance alone. Likewise, Michonne’s confidence dealing with the walkers, juxtaposed with her inability to handle humans, drives the plot forward in interesting ways and it’s clear that this is very much her story, and her prominent on-screen presence further cements this.
Michonne’s commanding presence aside, the rest of In too Deep plays it all too safe, feeling somewhat like a condensed and remixed version of season two of the main game series. We’ve got the troubled outsider, the new group, the other group that’s run by a borderline psycho… technically it’s new, but all the pieces that make up the narrative are all too familiar. Your choices seem less meaningful as a result, because in the back of your mind you know how it will likely play out. Since it’s only a three episode miniseries, the potential impact of dialogue choices will no doubt be insignificant. Likewise, the big choices are few and, though they’re as tricky and tense as they always are, I’m unconvinced that any of them will make much difference to the over arching narrative because if you’ve kept up to date with the comics, you already know where Michonne has to end up by the series’ conclusion.
The new cast also has very few stand out characters, and I didn’t really care for any of them. That may change by the end, however, as Pete in particular grew on me as the episode progressed and Norma has the potential to be a rather nuanced antagonist, though her brother Randal feels more like a poor man’s Carver. The main problem, though, is that none of these new characters really get a whole lot of screen time with the episode lasting only an hour and a half, jumping from set piece to set piece with little time for character development outside of Michonne. You’re left with a simple Us versus Them scenario with what appears at this stage to be very little room for nuance, though I have a feeling this may change over the course of the following two episodes.
Having said that, In Too Deep’s presentation and action-packed set pieces have benefited from the steady evolution of Telltale’s style since The Walking Dead wrapped up in 2012. The much smoother direction during its more action packed moments from Tales from the Borderlands are evident from the off with prompts being better integrated into the environment and feeling far slicker than their earlier work, while its more intimate moments recall the more character-focused work of Wolf Among Us.
The Telltale engine continues to creak along with the same quirks it always has, most notably occasional jerky animation during dialogue choices. It still serves the game well, however, with no major issues on either PS4 or PC.
Though Telltale’s formula hasn’t changed much at all since The Walking Dead debuted back in 2012, their compelling take on one of the franchise’s most beloved characters, combined with Samira Wiley’s strong, nuanced performance, makes In Too Deep another strong outing for Telltale’s flagship series.