The Walking Dead: Michonne Episode 3 & Miniseries Review

The Guitar Hero franchise enjoyed widespread acclaim and healthy sales until Activision drove it into the ground. Content with near-nonexistent iteration, the series resigned itself to simply bombarding the rhythm-gaming public with a near-constant flow of new titles, a trend that peaked with a grand total of 7 releases in 2010. This continual influx not only bred dispassion amongst fans of the series, but surely limited the ability of the studios to develop games that felt like more than song packs.

Now I’m not saying Telltale Games have reached this point yet, or even that they’ll ever stoop to those lows. But if The Walking Dead: Michonne has highlighted anything for me, it’s the dangerous proximity of the Telltale formula to stagnation.

Other studios have taken cues from Telltale Games to actually progress the medium of choice-driven narrative games. Campo Santo, home to several Telltale alumni, wrote a beautiful playable essay on player agency and NPC interaction in Firewatch, while Supermassive Games crafted a deliciously engrossing horror story in Until Dawn, an ingenious use of the decision-driven mechanics popularised by Telltale. In other words: Telltale Games don’t have a monopoly on narrative games anymore.

The best recent release from Telltale Games is easily Tales From The Borderlands. Its success can primarily be attributed to its ingenious writing, but it also carried a worthwhile subversion to the Telltale formula in the form of unreliable narration. Most importantly, it was clear that the game was a labour of love and a clear effort to spice up the years-old core gameplay.

The Walking Dead: Michonne does not display such an attitude.

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Michonne Episode 3 directly follows the preceding episode to conclude the miniseries. As Michonne approaches the final confrontation with her adversaries, she continues to deal with hallucinations and has to pull together her allies for the climax.

As far as the story goes, Episode 3 acquits itself well enough. The climax and conclusion to the story feels earned, and the scenarios that lead you there are engaging enough. There’s a smattering of touching interaction with some children you’re charged with protecting that’s particularly well done; the Walking Dead property continues to handle children quite well. These aren’t the disgustingly annoying gnats that most video game children are. The problem is that since the preceding episodes were so short, you’ve spent so little time with the cast that it feels like you’re being manipulated into instantly investing in these characters because of their obligatory innocence. Making a sizeable number of your allies children kind of feels like a cheap way of driving player sympathy.

Another disappointment is the game’s handling of Michonne’s hallucinations and guilt complex. Michonne is a woman forged in the fires of tragedy, true, but the way that her grief over losing her daughters is visualised in this game feels clichéd and forced. It’s a blunt-force stylistic choice that fits neither the thoughtful precedent set by the series’ writing, nor my understanding of Michonne as a character. It’s in the more quiet, conversational moments that the writing truly shines: where Michonne’s concealed inner flame flickers darkly behind her eyes and words. Not that she’s all anger- Michonne is a well fleshed-out character capable of softness, and it’s clear that her ruthless efficiency is fuelled by a complex of grief, wrath, and a determination to live. But slower scenes are never given enough room to breathe as the game barrels towards the end credits.

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The length of all three episodes is certainly a factor impacting the value of the package. I’m a firm believer in case-by-case pricing, and I was originally pleased that this mini-series was accordingly priced for three Telltale Games episodes. However, with the three episodes coming in at a scarcely an hour each, the whole package clocks up only slightly more playtime than one of the longer episodes from The Walking Dead Season 1 or Tales From The Borderlands. That’s a fact that throws some doubt on the proportional pricing of Michonne, and it’s especially egregious when you account for the variation on show. More specifically, the lack thereof.

You only spend meaningful time in a couple of locations throughout Michonne. Most locations span multiple episodes; the house you’re at for the majority of Episode 3 was reached in the last third of Episode 2. The series was established on exploration of new environments, and while this is a miniseries there’s been far more diversity of location in any three sequential episodes of any other Telltale game. The places that you do visit in Michonne are drab, murky places devoid of any personality or life. The Walking Dead is not supposed to be home to exotic or vibrant settings, but that doesn’t mean you have to stare at what feels like a collection of brown smudges for three-to-four hours. It’s just an ugly production.

That’s an indictment of not just the visual design of Michonne, but the chugging game engine itself. Aside from some improvements on character models and animation, there’s not been much noticeable progression of the Telltale Tool engine over the past few years. The game stutters frequently on my decent gaming laptop, and camera transitions can feel awkwardly stilted even when it’s running as intended.

It all builds up to a whole that’s just not enough. The Walking Dead: Michonne lacks the variety and personalty of its peers, and even its moments of great potential are undercut by its stunted length and overall lack of originality. I can only hope that future Telltale games can learn from this and move on.

The Walking Dead: Michonne Episode 2 Review

This review contains minor spoilers regarding broad plot details of this series so far.

I think it’s telling that when I got the email to notify me of The Walking Dead: Michonne Episode 2’s release, my immediate reaction was not excitement. Not that I was actively displeased; I somewhat liked the first episode. It’s just that, in the intervening time between the original release and now, I seemed to have lost most of my anticipation for the next step in the story.

Michonne Episode 2 kicks off from the moment the last episode ended, moments after an unfortunate death. Michonne and her companions Pete and Sam must escape their captors and make it to safety while being hunted down by the psychopathic Randall. All the while, Michonne continues to deal with her flashbacks to the start of the zombie apocalypse, where she feverishly searches for her missing daughters.

I’ll cut to the chase: Michonne Episode 2 is rushed. While the first episode felt a bit thin, this one is skeletal, clocking in at about an hour. While previous Walking Dead Telltale games took a decent amount of time to let you spend time and forge emotional bonds with characters, Michonne seems like it just wants to plough through the story beats so it can end while teasing the next episode.

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Perhaps this is intentional due to Michonne’s no-nonsense, standoffish attitude. She’s a woman hardened to loss and reluctant to invest emotionally in others’ lives. Not that that’s something people who haven’t read the comics or seen the show will know, and many will choose to have her act more sympathetically towards people. They’ll be rewarded with characters that feel as paper-thin as any Telltale characters have felt thanks to the game’s seeming need to plough to the end in the quickest acceptable fashion.

It’s frustrating because what little character writing and acting there is, is excellent. There’s a shock death scene later on in the episode that would’ve been much more affecting with a bit more time to get to know them. I was enjoying taking a break from the constant action (the parts of gameplay that aren’t interactive cutscenes are almost absent), but the game seemed like it was done letting itself breathe and lurched forwards, again, towards the finish line.

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While I found it hard to care about characters other than Sam and Randall, the story is at least engaging as we rush through its beats. I’m invested in this story, but only just.

But I just keep thinking about how much variety was in the previous seasons of The Walking Dead and other Telltale games. Season 1 featured loads of memorable locations with their own fascinating stories from episode to episode. Michonne Episode 2 introduces one small location in the present (that we don’t even get to explore), and re-uses Michonne’s apartment from Episode 1 in the flashback scene.

I know that Michonne is being billed as a mini-series. But I was hoping for more than the meagre offering we’ve received so far. Compared with the price of The Walking Dead Seasons 1 and 2, Michonne is appropriately priced for three episodes. But I feel that the two episodes we have now, combined, only just add up to the value of a single episode from either of those games. With a creaking engine and a studio output that’s approaching saturation, Telltale needed to cram much more quality content into Michonne to justify its existence.

The Walking Dead: Michonne Episode 1 Review

Back again with the franchise that elevated their good name, Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead: Michonne offers us a 3 episode- long miniseries telling the story of what happened to Michonne during a leave of absence between issues #126 and #139 of the comic book.

Michonne’s always been a fan favourite with her no-nonsense persona and accomplished fighting skills, so it makes sense to set a spin-off side story around her exploits. She’s also the first protagonist of a Telltale The Walking Dead game that’s established in collapsed civilisation and capable of dealing with the physical threats of the apocalypse right from the get-go, since we met Season 1’s Lee right at the dawn of the dead and Clementine was still a child in Season 2. People who haven’t read the comic books needn’t worry about getting up to speed with Michonne as a character; the game takes the time to establish her as the badass-with-baggage that she is.

Michonne’s gameplay and visuals remain unchanged from past Telltale efforts, with all of the good and bad things that entails. Simply put, if you’ve become bored with Telltale’s games and are frustrated with their seeming lack of engine iteration, Michonne isn’t doing anything to change your mind. The game progresses via linear box-ticking adventure-game-lite segments, QTE combat, and Telltale’s signature branching dialogue. I don’t really mind, though; Telltale’s strength lies very firmly in writing, and the QTE combat and short walkabouts do their job okay to add variety to the gameplay while the compellingly written story and characters drive us forward.

The writing, then, is as strong as ever. The cast of characters are distinct (it helps that each person has an individual, expressive visual design, another strength of Telltale’s) and well-acted, the decided villains of the piece are interesting beyond being threatening, your relationships start to develop nicely and the plot begins to pick up…

But then the episode kind of ends. The buildup that had been nicely ticking along for the duration of the experience fizzles because the episode feels like it ends too early. Despite the stakes continually rising for Michonne and the last scene depicting a somewhat climactic event, when the game cut to black and ran the “Next Episode…” video, I was genuinely shocked and confused.

The Walking Dead: Michonne Episode 1 suffers from being maybe 20 minutes too short. With more time it could’ve played more with certain important characters who at present feel more like an effort to retread old ground than fresh and original people. Threats could have been given more time to exert themselves. You could spend more time with your companions, which would make you feel more inclined to protect them. As they are, none of the relationships or narrative threads feel like they’re well developed enough for what’s ostensibly one third of a story. Even if the episode ended in the same place plot-wise, more time could’ve been plugged into making it actually feel like a satisfying conclusion.

I’m all for a miniseries to tell a succinct story, but if the next two episodes don’t make better use of their time then Michonne will be remembered as a missed opportunity. Episode 1, like the titular walkers, doesn’t quite have enough flesh. Sadly, it falls just short of feeling like a justified, fulfilling, self-contained episode in the 90 minutes it takes to play through. It does its job to hook you into the story and invest you in its characters, but at this point we’ll have to see whether the next episodes will fulfil what promise Episode 1 presents us.

Image credits- telltalegames.com