Guts and gore hit new heights in the penultimate episode of The Walking Dead. Around Every Corner sees you shooting, stomping, and axing in the head more of the shambling piles of stink than in the three previous games combined, but this astounding level of carnage does not make for a very interesting escapade into the postapocalyptic zombie wasteland. While trying to flee the hungry dead is still terrifying enough to mess with your sleep, both the scripting and characterization are hit-and-miss. Where the preceding games were more notable for their moral choices than for their tight plots, this is a more formulaic drama that chugs along with the expeditious goal of setting everything up for a big finish. (Note: the following review contains information that could be considered spoilers for previous episodes.)
The drama picks up where things left off at the conclusion of the previous episode, Long Road Ahead. The gang has arrived in Savannah, Georgia, with the goal of securing a boat and sailing off to sunnier shores. As in the previous three games, the lead character is Lee Everett, a convicted murderer who is finding his redemption in serving as a surrogate father for a little girl named Clementine. Other members of the group include resident jerk Kenny, awkward high-school kid Ben, an old guy named Chuck, and two other people you met at the end of episode three. In addition to this crew, you team up with some newcomers, including a couple of survivors from a cancer support group living in a morgue, and a hoodie-clad ninja who jumps around building tops like a superhero and wields a climber's pick the way Michonne from the comic series wields her sword.
All of these characters present a real problem. There are too many of them, and not one is given much screen time. It's hard to care about anyone aside from the core power trio of Lee, Clem, and Kenny, who have been with the game from the beginning and are easily the most fully fleshed-out characters. Ben is a one-note imbecile. All of the promise of guitar-playing drifter Chuck (how has he survived on his own? what's his real story?) is abandoned. The young couple is so unrelentingly beige that it's tough to remember their names. The newcomers are here-today-chomped-tomorrow temps who have about as much impact on the plot as a red-shirt-clad nobody in an old Star Trek episode. Only the ninja makes any sort of impression, but even she exits abruptly and without explanation, leaving her to seem like nothing but a zombie-slaying plot device.
Now it's down to rooting for Lee and Clem, waiting for Kenny to implode, and nodding at new plot points involving a miniature fascist state in a neighborhood of Savannah, and trying to find out who has been chatting with Clementine over her walkie-talkie. None of it is all that interesting, however, largely because there is a real rush to get everything resolved because the end is approaching fast. Plot lines that could have been the focus of entire episodes are wrapped up prematurely, adding to the feeling that the game is just trying to quickly cover ground.
Game design has some weaknesses, as well. Push-button action sequences have been multiplied. Combat has you blowing away zombies on such a regular basis that they don't seem all that intimidating anymore. In the previous episodes, zombie attacks were mostly rare and startling. Here, there is a lot of combat, including a few sequences where you go Rambo. You gun down whole undead gangs with shots to the head on a couple of occasions, and you even hack and smash your way through a pack of zombies on a stairwell at one point. This episode plays out more like a game than its predecessors because of all this action. You get hemmed in on a few occasions, but it's hard to get worked up about getting chomped after seeing how Lee can take down six or seven zombies with a pistol in mere moments.
Some of the story has been padded. An early scene involving the disposal of a corpse is accompanied by a shoveling sequence that outstays its welcome, hammering home a point and then continuing to hammer. Character actions are more erratic than before. Kenny's boat plan has gone off the deep end, and it's impossible to believe that no one is challenging him on it. A new addition to the group switches attitudes abruptly and without explanation, and there is even a careless, groan-worthy moment of stupidity that you'd expect from a bad horror film, but not here.
Furthermore, a few technical glitches interfere with smoothly telling the tale. As with previous games in the series, the Xbox 360 version of the episode is a lot darker than its PS3 and PC counterparts. Scenes aren't as murky as they were in previous episodes, but that's largely because a lot of Around Every Corner takes place during sunny Savannah daytime. You still lose detail in the darker parts of the game, although it doesn't affect your ability to play the game very much (after you've cranked up the brightness on your TV, that is).
Additionally, lip movement sometimes doesn't sync properly, which is distracting during scenes loaded with emotion. There are also regular long pauses at the end of dialogue sequences that almost make you think that the game has locked up. Art remains very good, however. The graphic-novel stylings of the visuals are first-rate, and settings like the school where the fascists are headquartered are downright eerie with blood on the walls and moonlight shining in the windows. All of the voice acting continues to be stellar. The actors handling Lee and Clementine are particularly fantastic, again. Both convey emotion and sincerity while avoiding the trap of falling into melodrama.
Even though you can't help but be disappointed that Around Every Corner does not live up to its predecessors, there are some strengths here. The action scenes give the game a very different character than the earlier episodes, which serves as a change of pace. If you are playing the episodes together as one unified adventure, you might well appreciate the chance to get into some gunplay after the more traditional puzzles and dialogue of the previous scenes getting that train rolling to Savannah.
Dialogue choices continue to be the heart of the series. Even though you do a lot of killing, you also answer a lot of questions and make judgment calls during conversations that woo friends and exacerbate enemies. Emotions come to the fore on a few occasions, most notably when Kenny encounters a zombie with a familiar face, and when Lee flips out trying to locate Clementine. There are more tough decisions to be made, and everything comes to a close in a you-didn't-see-that-coming cliff-hanger that will leave you frustrated that you have to wait for episode five to keep playing.
Around Every Corner is still a satisfying Walking Dead adventure, but it falls short of the lofty levels of storytelling on display in its three predecessors. Much of this episode feels forced, with characters being maneuvered into position to wrap everything up in the finale. It also seems like the developers have painted themselves into a corner, having loaded the first three episodes with so much tragedy and death that we're left stranded with a bunch of strangers in episode four. With that said, it is still impossible to put this game down, and the stage has been set for the story of Lee and Clementine to come to a fitting, tragic conclusion.