This review is going to assume a working knowledge of the first four episodes in the season. If you’re not streets ahead, you can find our reviews for episode one, episode two, episode three, and episode four. Start at the beginning if you want a mechanical explanation (in short, it’s an adventure game sans surreptitious adventure game logic). Also, spoilers for past episodes imminent.
As the credits rolled to a crooning folk song, a knot loosened in my stomach. A knot that’s been there perhaps since the beginning — since I first played the aptly named Long Road Ahead — tightening and enflaming every month or so in accordance to Telltale’s The Walking Dead release calendar. It’s finally over. Sort of, anyway.
The fourth episode, Around Every Corner, ends in the direst of straits. Lee, the dulcet-voiced player surrogate with whom I’ve become so enamored and attached, is bitten. If you’re even a mite familiar with zombie lore, you know it’s a death sentence; worse, an undeath sentence. And yet (the again aptly named) No Time Left doesn’t want you to lose hope. Or maybe its writers just know that infernal hope, however unlikely the circumstances, is endemic to our frail humanity. We’re always holding out for some dues ex machina to come along and right wrongs, allay bad situations with a healthy heap of poetic justice. Telltale’s writers understand this deficiency in our brains and exploit it mercilessly.
I thought I was ready to finish up this journey, I did. I took a day to prepare myself mentally before having at it, my cat strewn across my lap as if he sensed the bad juju this download was steeped in. It’s nearly impossible to be ready for the snap decisions you have to make, unfortunately. Decisions made blind and uninformed; you helplessly, hastily tap one of two or more bad options. There’s no time for deliberation but enough time to know that all the deliberation in the world wouldn’t elevate one choice over another. There are no more pragmatic solutions. You’re fumbling through as everything goes to hell on either side of you.
There is an option early on that I’m going to spoil in this paragraph (and beyond; until more bold gives you an all clear) because it’s necessary and because I sure hope you’re not reading this review to decide whether or not to buy the game (hint: you definitely should have, a while ago). At the beginning of the episode you have the option to cut off Lee’s bitten arm in some last ditch effort to buy yourself some more time. When the option came up in a typical binary – to cut or not to cut – I echoed Lee’s sentiment. Screw it. Let’s do it. That initially surge of adrenaline ended up proving my eyes were bigger than my stomach, so to speak.
It sounds like a plan (even though, in your heart, you know it makes no sense) but when you actually take the bone saw in your hand and look at your arm, which will require manual cutting ala Heavy Rain, the tenor quickly changes. I went from reckless abandon to “nope, nope, nope, nope, nope,” waving my controller around and shaking my head back and forth. It was an absolutely mental decision. What’s more, no matter which buttons I mashed (surgically avoiding the “cut off your own arm” button), Lee refused to back out while I had immediately lost the stomach for it and wanted to crawl away with my tail between my legs. It’s puzzling, actually, why I wasn’t able to chicken out. Is Telltale that cruel? Did the writers think that I wouldn’t think badly enough of my own cowardice?
Maybe if I sat there and did nothing for an extended period of time it would have automatically backed me out of the decision, but I’ll never know. “Okay, fine, maybe it will help, somehow,” I lied to myself – there’s that incessant optimism again. More importantly, there’s no time left. I’ve got to save Clem. And so I pressed chop, pressed chop again, pressed chop again, and maybe even a fourth time, mouth agape, controller swinging wildly, shaking my head ‘no’ as I went through several of layers of flesh, rent the bone, and blacked out. Well, Lee blacked out. I was close.
While not letting me weasel out of the decision (with no contextual reason why I couldn’t) was a bit odd and maybe thought-provoking, I’m okay with it. What did slightly confuse me, however, was how Lee seemed pretty damn spry and chipper upon coming to and in subsequent puzzling sequences for just having self-amputated (an incredibly dangerous, deadly procedure even when done my medical professionals under the right circumstances). That strange normalcy to his actions – the cool and collected upright gait, the continued ability to talk smooth – post self-maiming offered a continuous disconnect for part of the episode as the lone blemish on an otherwise stellar conclusion. Oh, and spoiler done, I guess. That went longer than I had anticipated.
No Time Left is rather slim on puzzling and other tertiary elements. It’s all about wrapping up the narrative. Much in the way this survivor’s story has come crashing down in a dizzying tailspin so too has this piece devolved into a quasi confessional allowing me a means for meditation; to cope and come to terms with my humanity, with my inability to make things better, and with the levels of human turpitude the series explores.
The remaining emotional swings and climactic scenes, dear reader, I leave to you. Remarkably, even amidst this surprisingly high octane finale, the writing shines. We’re five episodes in and I still flip flopped with regards to Kenny’s character, which highlights his death. Coming into the episode I was largely unhappy with him, but started warming up toward him again. Then I ended up thinking he was the worst person to have ever been born, and somehow before the episode’s end I had come about face once more. I didn’t think, months ago, that the mustachioed, trucker-hat-clad hick would be bringing such ambivalence toward his character.
Telltale hit the mark, plain and simple. There’s an equally cathartic and disquieting pace toward the climax, which Is a nerve wracking affair — distorted shades of Heat and Se7en — as obvious as it was well done. During the whole ferociously, disgustingly civil scene it was like rotgut had just hit the pit of my stomach. Muted, understated and a mediated reflection on the last four episodes. A smartly contrived reflection on how You, dear player, played them. Though what does it mean to be good and what does it mean to be bad at the end of the world? And can either save you?
The ending is heartbreaking as you know it’s going to be and yet you hold out for fleeting, nonexistent hope because that seems to be the human condition regardless of how far things have fallen, as the vestiges of a “civilized” civilization remain (so too are these “survivors” vestiges, which is all the more damning). There will be tears, undoubtedly, no less poignant than anticipated. And though Telltale knows it has you by the throat this deeply invested, it doesn’t rest on its laurels or ham-fist the ending. In fact, toward the end there’s a particularly clever use of the series’ staple QTEs. The twist is that this one is undoable, unwinnable. I felt like I was about to dislocated my shoulder in fevered tapping but it was fruitless, a haunting echo of the situation at hand and a stellar example of how gameplay can be used (and expectations upset) to great effect.