"...these are indications that Telltale has reached a tier of quality that demands more of them..."
If you've played Episode 3, you know that it left off in the middle of an intense scene, to say the least. Unlike some previous episodes, Episode 4 begins right where we left off. Over two months since we received an update, I actually didn't find it difficult to readjust to Clementine's rag-tag crew and dilemma. Following a memorable and exhausting chapter of the series, the apocalypse doesn't let up on Clementine. Rich and full of accomplishments and failures, Episode 4 ably sets up the season finale.
In a word, Episode 4 is about "growth," which is ironic considering the episode is titled "Amid the Ruins." The writers complicate Clementine's relations by throwing in some unpredictable dialogue, choices, and nonverbals from her companions. Remembering that this second group of hers is still relatively new to her, the variable actions make sense. In fact, one might even call them "human." Kudos to Telltale in this regard.
However, I must execute some caution with my praise. While acknowledging the complex nature of human beings, the audience still has to believe that each character is authentic, or else the ever-coveted sense of immersion is lost. At times, characters we have come to know as stable and grounded become unbelievably judgmental in response to a difficult, jarring scenario — to a little girl, no less.
That is key, as well: Clementine is a child. Telltale has put themselves in this difficult (and fascinating) situation, and has, for the most part, helped us accept that this child — and she is a child — has some capacity for choice amidst a group of adults. Now, I can allow that the zombie apocalypse has bent societal rules and hardened young survivors such that they grow up early. With these two factors, I've come to accept that other characters believe Clementine can make choices, but Clementine appears as if she's the unofficial leader of the group. This problem is compounded by the fact that she is almost single-handedly making difficult decisions that will define whether members live or die in situations that do not require hasty calls. At times, I felt as if the other characters were President Clementine's cabinet of advisors.
Even worse, Telltale seems to corner the player into making selfless, unrealistic decisions that put several people's lives in danger, but since we know that Clementine cannot die in Episode 4, we may feel compelled to act inauthentically. This is where the "game" part of this comes into play. How everyone approaches the game is up to them, and we at RPGFan have even authored a feature discussing just that, but given known parameters of what I'm calling "gamey-ness," a potentially richer tale seems limited. However, Telltale may wow me with Episode 5 and how they acknowledge some of the more difficult choices previously made.
Unfortunately, I wasn't always sure of what decisions I was making as the dialogue timer sped by almost randomly. This is an old criticism of Telltale and one I thought I would never have to make again after previous episodes seemed to have rectified the issue. Rather than belabor the issue, I'll simply acknowledge that it's still there and how much of a shame it is that Telltale is allowing something as draconian as a dialogue timer hinder the potentially immersive tale they are crafting.
I've made plenty of criticisms here, but these are made as exceptions to the high standard we have come to expect from Telltale. In a way, these are indications that Telltale has reached a tier of quality that demands more of them after they have set the bar so high. Rest assured, fans of the series will love Episode 4 and the constant punishment Telltale doles out to Clem. However, work still needs to be done if those who tell tales want to close the curtains with the same grandeur of Season 1.