REVIEW: Telltale Raises the Bar With "The Walking Dead: A House Divided"

"A house divided against itself cannot stand."

Abraham Lincoln's famous quote is the basis of the second chapter of Telltale's "The Walking Dead: Season 2" -- and it's certainly an apt saying, given the game's subject matter. Politics, relationships and warring factions take center stage in "A House Divided," and even longtime fans of the franchise will find quite a few surprises in the interactions contained within. As always, Telltale brings its impeccable attention to detail and wonderful script, which -- along with the breakneck pace at which emotions rise and fall -- is what makes this episode shine.

Much like previous installments of "The Walking Dead," what players get out of it will depend greatly on what they put in during prior chapters. Choices in this episode carry over back from season one as well as the interim DLC episode "The Walking Dead: 400 Days." Those who have been with the series from the very beginning will have an intense emotional response to this episode -- I'm not ashamed to admit I teared up a bit -- and therein lies the true genius of this particular installment of the critically acclaimed series.

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Whether you're a player that's experienced the story from the first minutes of season one or coming to season two fresh with little to no knowledge of prior events, loyalty is the key aspect of "The Walking Dead Season 2: A House Divided." There's a natural predisposition to side with characters one knows best -- a concept that's demonstrated particularly well in this particular episode. Without giving any plot details away, rest assured that Telltale keeps the emotional gut punches coming, and "A House Divided" is an impressively paced and balanced roller coaster of emotions whether you've been with the series from day one, or just started up a few months ago. Clementine's loyalty is continually tested in this episode, and a player's experience with the game and its characters will be a major factor in how they approach decisions. This episode owes a huge debt of gratitude to writer Nick Breckon, who really gives the player some hard choices, while capturing the feel of uncertainty in the source material and adding quite a bit to the series' mythology as a whole.

Much like previous episodes, your story will vary greatly depending on your choices from the first episode -- in fact, it's entirely possible to miss full gameplay sequences and dialogue trees based on the choices made. More than any other episode of Telltale's to date, "A House Divided" reflects the consequences of your choices, and that's an impressive feat for a studio that has set the bar so very high when it comes to choice.

At the end of the day, that's what matters most for an individual's experience with "A House Divided." What kind of survivor will you, as a player, steer Clementine into becoming? The hard-as-nails killer? The sympathetic, helpful child? The cold, calculating survivalist? While the world will move on around Clementine, how she (or, rather, the player) chooses to react to external stimuli will greatly change the experience and the character. Bravo as always to Melissa Hutchinson, who delivers varied and intense performances for whichever Clementine the player chooses to be. Hutchinson's Clementine is both believable as the skeptical survivalist, who doesn't trust anybody; and as the kinder moralist, who believes that good, honest people still exist in a world gone mad. It's a praiseworthy performance in every way, and shows that Hutchinson isn't afraid of letting her character evolve slowly and in different directions.

Director Eric Parsons, Art Director Derek Sakai and Voice Director Julian Kwasneski also deserve their fair share of praise for an impressive and tight episode. The entire production team crammed a lot of detail and care into "A House Divided," and it shows. Whether it's the establishing shots of each beautifully-rendered scene in a 3D recreation of Charlie Adlard's style or how the characters respond to each and every word of dialogue, there's something valuable in every aspect of this episode -- no easy feat given the series' pedigree thus far.

In fact, it's very difficult to say anything remotely negative about "A House Divided," except that it will require multiple playthroughs with many different Clementines to see the full picture and get the best ideas of how each character reacts to your choices. It's not even really a problem, per se -- in many ways, it provides hours upon hours of replay value for those willing to put in the time -- but players that have difficulty making decisions and living with them may want to stay away. Living with the consequences of your choices is one of the hardest things to do in real life, and when a video game replicates that sense of regret so well, it might be slightly off-putting to some. That said, at least with "The Walking Dead," it's possible to go back and actually see what might have been.

The major highlight of the episode for me was the music -- something that the source material can never replicate properly. Jared Emerson-Johnson has done an incredible job of injecting the right blend of horror and suspense in all the right places. Even his selection of music for instances when one should feel safe still have that lingering feeling of unease. The background music in "The Walking Dead" video game is an aspect unique to this particular format, and it's a huge advantage for "A House Divided," which is largely conversational, and relies somewhat on the music to help direct the overall tone.

Also, be sure to stay through the credits for a hauntingly beautiful performance of "In The Pines (Where Did You Sleep Last Night)" by Janel Drewis. I've never heard an American folk song more aptly arranged and performed for a genre.

Despite the focus on conversations, there are still plenty of creative and unexpected action sequences. Clementine handles a number of weapons -- both purposeful and makeshift -- during the course of the episode. Without spoiling anything, one sequence is unlike any other in a Telltale game, and kept me on my toes for its entirety. (I even directed Clementine to her unfortunate demise at one point.)

Telltale continually raises the bar in video game storytelling, and "A House Divided" is no exception. Heck, it feels like the only competition Telltale has at this point is itself, and even then, they set a new bar. Even more so than the first episode of "The Walking Dead Season 2," moreso than the excellently executed sophomore episode of "The Wolf Among Us," "A House Divided" is the most polished and impressive representation of Telltale's skill to date. Fans of strong storytelling in any medium will find a tight and well-paced piece of adaptive fiction impossible to get anywhere else.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to play through the entire thing yet again.

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