The Walking Dead: The Final Season begins with a beautifully animated synopsis of Clementine’s story so far, and it’s testament to the insignificance of the previous season that no more than ten seconds are spent recapping its events. Telltale’s been through a bit of a rough patch behind-the-scenes, but there are signs in Episode 1 that it’s beginning to get its mojo back.

As has been widely publicised prior to release, this four instalment series will bring an end to its adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s iconic comic. In a particularly neat twist, the setup mirrors that of 2012’s award-winning first season, with returning protagonist Clem tasked with caring for her adopted child AJ – just like Lee did for her all those years ago.

The engine has improved drastically since last year’s Batman: The Enemy Within, with facial animations being the real highlight. Characters are now able to interact using simple expressions and eye contact, which has a massive impact on the story-telling. It’s still janky and fundamentally a Telltale game, but you’d have to be a Walker not to notice the vast enhancements.

The gameplay has also changed slightly, too. Gone is the unwieldy cursor of old, and it’s been replaced by over-the-shoulder exploration. In a way there are less things you can interact with due to the adoption of this format, but combat’s no longer purely QTE focused, with some sequences allowing you to either stun or shiv the undead. It’s unwieldy, but it’s another alteration.

Collectibles have been implemented as well, with Clem and AJ’s new safehouse able to be customised depending on the things you find. We anticipate that the room will be decorated over the course of the campaign, which should give a nice sense of persistence between episodes. It ultimately means that you’re going to have to work a little harder for that Platinum Trophy this time.

Of course, this is still an interactive story at heart, with branching dialogue options at its beating heart. The return of Clem in the lead role means that the stakes are immediately raised, and her relationship with AJ brings purpose to her actions in a way that previous seasons have lacked. It finally feels like she’s fighting for something again, which is a welcome change.

Without spoiling anything, the pair start out alone but eventually stumble upon a camp, which has a Lord of the Flies flavour to it as it’s entirely occupied by kids. The absence of any adults makes for a more teen flavoured dynamic, which seems somewhat cynical on the surface after the success of Life Is Strange, but given the apocalyptic nature of the plot it quickly emerges as its own thing.

One of the things that Telltale’s always been good at is establishing strong supporting characters quickly, and given the speed with which key cast members are killed, that’s a good thing. While it’s too early to draw any firm conclusions on this season’s roster, there are already one or two standouts – and the game neatly lets you determine which one you want to spend time with in one sequence.

It does still feel like you’re shading in the details of a story that’s motoring in one direction anyway, but it would be absurd to expect Detroit: Become Human-esque branching from a release on this kind of budget. The most important thing is that the plot puts you into positions that will make you panic, and there are plenty of moments where your palms will be perspiring while the clock counts down.

Conclusion

It’s practically impossible to make any firm conclusions about The Walking Dead: The Final Season in its first episode, but the engine improvements have really helped step up the storytelling, while the new cast of characters seem interesting at this early stage. While we could take or leave the gameplay tweaks, particularly in the combat department, it’s already clear that the stakes are going to be much higher in this concluding season than the series’ previous disappointing outing – and for now, that’s enough for us.