This is a spoiler-free review.
The Walking Dead: Season Two is the sequel to the acclaimed 2012 game, which was based on The Walking Dead comic book series created and written by Robert Kirkman. While the games are based in the same fictional universe as the comics, they follow a different plot and cast of characters. The first of Season Two's five episodes were released on Xbox 360 in December 2013.
Don't let the title fool you: The Walking Dead games have zombies in them, but this is neither a hack-n-slash body count game, nor is it a scrounging-for-resources survival game. It is a story. In Season Two, you play as Clementine, a young girl who was the companion to Lee, the playable character in Season One. Your job is to keep Clementine alive in a harsh world where "walkers" are always around the corner and food and other basic necessities are scarce. Clementine needs other people to survive, but everyone else is out for themselves, and few people can be trusted. Even the "good" people Clementine meets are flawed and/or desperate and are liable to do bad things.
Loss is a main theme of The Walking Dead, and interpersonal conflict is a major element. Clementine meets new groups of survivors throughout the series, but accidents and tragedies keep whittling their numbers back down, while quarrels break out among those who are left. Clementine is often put in the position of who to side with or whose aid to come to. She is not above the fray, either: often, the quarrels are with Clementine over something you had her do or whose side you had her take.
As with all Telltale games, each episode of The Walking Dead: Season Two begins with this announcement: "This game series adapts to the choices you make. The story is tailored by how you play." What this means is, at many points in the game, the player must make choices: Do I tell the truth or lie? Whose side do I take in this argument? Who do I help out of a life-or-death predicament? The choices you make as a player matter somewhat, but let's be honest: the major events of the story are changed little, if at all. When you say something to Sam and the game tells you, "Sam will remember that," that may seem weighty at first, but that weight is lifted when Sam is killed two minutes later, regardless of what you do. (That wasn't a spoiler, because there isn't a Sam in the story.) Most of the times that there's a branch in the story based on a player decision, the possible story branches have a way of converging not much later.
A lot of players of The Walking Dead and other Telltale games decry this "illusion of choice" mechanic. I admit, I'm not totally on board with it, and I do feel like the opening announcement of each episode falls short. I wish my choices mattered more and had more long-term effects on the plot and on Clementine's relationships with the NPCs. At the same time, it does work on a certain level. In my first playthrough, I played Clementine as someone who was as non-threatening as possible, quick to trust, quick to forgive, and who always tried to be a reasonable and fair peacemaker when interpersonal conflicts came to a head. In my second playthrough, I'm playing her as aggressive, mouthy, suspicious, unforgiving, and a chaotic pot-stirrer who is eager to sow seeds of distrust and resentment. I know the story is going to go the same way, but it is nevertheless a very different experience. When I play role-playing games, I tend to seek the "best" outcome, but in The Walking Dead, there is no best outcome - there is only one bad outcome and a number of equally bad ways to arrive at it. The "illusion of choice" mechanic works, then, when you don't try to anticipate the outcome, but you simply decide who you want Clementine to be and then roleplay that version of her purely for the sake of roleplay.
I found it easy to become immersed in the story. Clementine is a pre-adolescent girl who has had to grow up quickly. She often exceeds the other characters' expectations. For example, she is more capable at surviving and more mature than an older girl she meets who has been shielded by her father. Still, she is believable - not a superhero by any means. Some of the NPCs basically have their acts together, but they range from my-way-or-the-highway leaders to team players to loners. Other NPCs serve as loose cannons, dead weight, or outright liabilities. Clementine is constantly being forced to decide how to treat them, and the choices are rarely clear-cut. I enjoyed the story a great deal. There are some emotional, memorable scenes, sometimes involving Clementine's choices but also in seeing her doing what she has to do to survive. There is one scene in particular in Episode 1 where she is alone in a shed that is about as intense as anything I have ever seen in a video game.
Throughout Season Two, there are enough references to past characters and events that I would strongly recommend playing Season One first. It will help you appreciate and enjoy Season Two much more. Let me reiterate: if you have not played Season One, but you play through the first episode of Season Two and you enjoy it and plan to continue, STOP, get Season One and play it all the way through before beginning Episode 2 of Season Two. Season Two will look for your Season One save file and use your choices from it. If it doesn't find one, it will randomly select Season One choices. These don't add up to much at all, though, so if you played Season One and Season Two on different consoles, like I did, then you're still good.
The Walking Dead is a point-n-click adventure game that requires you to locate objects, use them, and have conversations with NPCs to advance the story. It doesn't really have an inventory aspect: if you need an object or weapon to advance, it will be around somewhere, and once you no longer need it, you'll lose it somehow. There are a few what could described as puzzles, but that's a stretch, considering how simple they are. The game progresses linearly, meaning you rarely get to choose which direction you're going in, and there's no backtracking to a previous location. (There is no map; there are just scenes in the story.) The controls are basic: walk, look, pick up/use, talk, attack. The gameplay and controls serve as a means of advancing the story and nothing more.
Each episode has several combat encounters, where you must fend off walkers or human antagonists in quicktime. If you fail, Clementine dies. The action will restart at the beginning of the combat, so you just keep trying until you get through it. The combat scenes are short and the timing on them is generous, but nevertheless I did die a few times because I could not figure out what I was supposed to do. (Usually, there was an object or weapon nearby that I needed to grab, but I didn't see it.) The amount of combat is adequate. I wouldn't have minded a little more of it, and I wouldn't have minded if it were harder, but it does add variety to the gameplay and reminds you why everyone is so freaked out all the time.
The only glitch I had was that during the quicktime scenes, the game would freeze for several seconds. It's a little disconcerting when you hurriedly mash A to hit the gas pedal because the walkers are about to snatch you, and nothing happens for four seconds. These freezes were not fatal - ultimately the car did move, or whatever else I was trying to do did happen - but they were frequent and were always mildly aggravating.
VISUALS AND SOUND
The Walking Dead artwork is in the style of a comic book, with thick black lines, simple textures, and lots of color. I enjoyed the style, and think it complements the game's emphasis on narrative and story. The cutscenes looks good, but the animations in the point-n-click sections - mainly when Clementine is walking around - look weird.
The voice acting is great. If you're worried about playing a game with a little girl as the protagonist because you expect terrible voice acting, don't be. Melissa Hutchison, an adult actress, does a great job as Clementine. (In the above-mentioned shed scene, I tried looking away from the screen as much as I could, but it didn't help, because her acting was so good.) I also enjoyed the good voice work for Reggie, who I immediately recognized as Director Tann from Mass Effect: Andromeda, as well as for another character whose name I can't use for spoiler reasons. There isn't any bad voice work in the game.
The music isn't anything to get excited about. The "danger is coming" drumbeat cue is pretty good, though.
All of the achievements are unlocked by completing the story. I appreciate that this lets you concentrate solely on enjoying the story and being immersed in it, rather than affecting the way you play so you can get achievements, but still, I would rather have more achievement variety and difficulty. I don't mind playing through a second time to pick up achievements.
In fairness, I did identify the flaws of this game - the illusion of choice, the freezing during combat, and the uninteresting music and achievements. Despite that, I'm giving it 5 stars. The story is just that good.