Throughout The Walking Dead, Telltale has been crafting and nurturing human relationships. It's taken a while, sure - the first episode was released all the way back in April - but any worthwhile relationship requires a little bit of time.
This has never been truer than with the series' final chapter, where the relationships are at their most tenuous, and each tick of the clock has never been more valuable. No Time Left is the culmination of everything; for Lee, for his fictional companions, and for the player. The pay-off here has to be worth the investment - a big dollop of satisfaction without any cheap deus ex machina to sidestep what Robert Kirkman's source material strives so relentlessly to enforce: this world is a bloody nasty place.
It's often been more intriguing to talk about The Walking Dead than it has been to play it. Of course, there's an argument for whether you even play an episode of The Walking Dead at all, and there's a major difficulty to having this discussion at all when you can't mention the series' individual merits and weaknesses when you're trying not to ruin anything for everybody.
Still, The Walking Dead has gone from strength to strength in proving the power of script and conversation - hardly an secret in films, TV and books but still something regularly absent from gaming. The zombies might be the initial draw, over-saturated pop culture stereotypes that exist on the surface as viscera to lure you in, but the walkers are essentially just filler with a hyperactive appetite for human offal. It's the people that are the stars: no matter how violent and disturbing the method, or how brutal the outcome, it's in the evolution of the series' fictional friendships and rivalries between its human characters that has enticed players in.
However, there's a definite focus shift in No Time Left, away from the overall group dynamic and more toward the finer intricacies of the relationship between player-character Lee Everett and his pre-teen charge Clementine. Telltale has managed to craft a sensitive, humanising and affective relationship here, one that the series has never explored in such emotional depth as in No Time Left. That's likely because we've had so much time to develop the connection, but not many moments to give Clementine the time she deserves. There's been a zombie turning up, or a group crisis that needs solving.
No Time Left hammers the importance of this core paternal relationship home like a stake in the heart. What started as a fortunate chance encounter has become a genuinely loving partnership - the protector and the protected. It's never been a particularly innovative thread for Telltale to pick at, but it's portrayed with expert accuracy and delicacy. When it comes to rounding out this near-flawless bond, this is easily the strongest and most memorable episode of the series.
The chapter begins with almost everything up crap creek, although that description could easily be fitting for the series as a whole. Players are forced to relive some of their previous most agonising choices as the game simultaneously seeds doubt after the conclusion of the last episode. Lee is pushed to question himself, and the consequences of your previous missteps are quick to rear their ugly heads once the episode really gets going.
This doesn't take long, as No Time Left's action kicks off with surprising gusto. This is the shortest episode of the series, averaging at about 90 minutes from start to finish. What it lacks in longevity it makes up for with succinctness, however, but the hopping from point-to-point often feels hurried, especially compared to the characteristic slow burn of the series. That said, there's no arduous wandering around, or investigating objects that have no genuine use to you or your party - everything here has the spring in its step you'd expect from a chapter that needs to execute on its promise of finality. No Time Left feels like Telltale nailing everything great about its series whilst still coming up with inventive new ways to shock and surprise, even if it's over quickly.
The chapter also attempts a couple of action sequences, one of which is the series' best, but these are relatively infrequent within the overall runtime. It's also clear that Telltale is doing its best to exercise directorial control, as No Time Left rips the interactivity away from you a lot more than any episode. This is both strength and a weakness. On one hand, you get the chance to properly absorb the subtleties without always being overwhelmed by fast paced decision-making. On the other, it only serves to make an un-gamey franchise even less gamey than before.
When you are in control, No Time Left still retains The Walking Dead's trademark intensity, but isn't as claustrophobic as Around Every Corner's tight urban corridors. Much of your time is still spent nattering away, but in my favourite scene you're a listener - no shooting or hacking away with rusty knives; you're barely interacting at all save for some dialogue interjections, and it's more engaging, engrossing and terrifyingly tense than any action sequence the series has produced. A remarkable high point.
Any gripes are minor but notable. There are some uncharacteristic decisions from a few companions that come across as contrived, and the hurried nature of the chapter feels like things resolve too quickly. A few resolutions never come to fruition at all and, while excellent, the final outcome feels a little disjointed from your in-game decisions. The technical hiccups also continue to be a drag, and despite No Time Left being the best-produced episode of the series it's a shame that shoddy framerates continue to hamper crucial scenes.
At the end of the day, though, No Time Left provides an emotional, tear-jerking and ultimately satisfying conclusion to the year's best gaming narrative, proving how the best relationships take time to sprout into something worth treasuring. Lee Everett has been a blank canvas shaped into a character, while Clementine has been dutifully waiting on your every word. And whatever choices you made along the way, Telltale's Walking Dead is one of the year's best games, even when it forgets to hand over the controller and let you have a turn.
Version tested: Xbox 360
This review was written after playing No Time Left for 90 minutes, though all previous chapters have been played previously. Retail code was paid for by VideoGamer.com.