The Walking Dead: Season 1 is an episodic, point and click adventure series by Telltale Games; released in 5 parts over the course of 2012. The game is based on the Walking Dead comics created by Robert Kirkman, which is pretty easy to spot given the cell shaded comic visuals and story driven gameplay; it also runs in the same universe as the TV series bearing the same name.
As you probably know by now the Walking Dead is your standard zombie apocalypse; where everything is normal right up until it isn’t. A group of survivors happen upon each other and then argue all the time while dead things eat someone now and again, a paradigm as old as time itself. The human drama and relationships are the only fuel for this game, and it tends to do well; tension is adequately built up and difficult choices are presented regularly enough to keep you a little worried about the possible outcomes at each turn. Every decision can affect which characters will stay with you and which live or die, as well as changing some of the more minor plot points; while the main story arc seems to be fixed.
The protagonist is Lee Everett, a history teacher who has done some questionable deeds before the outbreak; and Clementine, a young girl left alone with her babysitter by her parents in another city. The relationship between these two is the workhorse of the campaign; strongly reminiscent of the couple in The Last of Us, they travel together under Lee’s protection until they come across other survivors. The story spans several locations including a motel, a train, a dairy farm and the city of Savannah; all of which bring nice background from which the characters can argue. Characters come and go depending on the player’s choices, but the story progresses forwards whatever happens.
The constant arguing and strife is where story begins to break down for me. In many situations the characters act in odd ways, creating conflict and tension where there really shouldn’t be. Almost every character is insane: choosing the worst time to argue over often trivial problems and resulting in needless deaths. This really started to break the immersion; with one character still trying to kill me despite saving his life and the lives of others, it was here I began to side with the walkers. And when you are siding with the obvious enemy in any story, you have a good idea that something isn’t right. Many situations feel contrived; the tension is artificial and easy to see through: characters often react extremely slowly in order to get themselves captured by walkers. All of this led me to killing off characters as early as I could, as some kind of karmic punishment for extreme stupidity.
None of this is helped by the gameplay (or the lack of): your choices of action and speech affect, to varying degrees, what next unbelievable event will happen. But often you are not given a speech option that you’d like, or even one that makes sense in the given context; many of the situations could be ameliorated by a little explanation. Instead each character would rather shout and quickly come to an insane conclusion before doing something rash. If, like me, you often feel infuriated by a lack of common sense in a TV programme or movie, don’t expect to avoid such feelings with this game. The cast (as annoying as they are) however is very diverse, and it’s nice to see different people coming from different background come together to be eaten.
Other elements of gameplay include small action sections, QTE’s (quick time events), shooting and quickly interacting with something before it hits you. These often feel like a hollow attempt at bringing the player into the action, and left me feeling jaded; especially the QTE’s that you are supposed to fail. After about 5 minutes of button bashing in one such event I decided to fail intentionally only to have the next cutscene pop up, talk about mixed messages. Puzzle sections also make an appearance, giving you a small area to move around in and interact with five or six items: do this in the correct order and you get to process. Oddly enough the solutions make logical sense (getting a blowtorch to cut down a truck hanging from a bridge for example) and aren’t too difficult to complete, but still give a small sense of satisfaction.
Presentation is also important to a story, and in this case works against it. Comic style cell shaded graphics reminiscent of Borderlands are the chosen vehicle, providing an interesting aesthetic that differs from the usual grey and brown of zombie shooters. While nice to look at (if cell shading is your ‘thing’), it does begin to rub the shine off the oft-serious story. Most notable in the eyes and facial expressions of the main cast (which are pretty important in character led drama): eyes are huge and bulging, giving everyone a surreal look which can simply make you laugh in an otherwise tense scene. This is made worse by the exaggerated expressions that aren’t just weird; they ride off the uncanny valley with a BMX. Changing expression from neutral to angry instantly, combined with the robotic movements of each character and this creates an unreal feeling to what should be a very real human conflict.
Not all is lost though, there are many moments where the tension, loss and unrelenting atmosphere of death comes together to make some truly powerful scenes. Most notably at the end, when you are brought to face each decision you have made from the context of an outsider. Things can look very different from someone who hasn’t taken the same path. The choices you make do feel as if they have gravity on the story, and they are quite difficult to make. Even more so when the timer is involved, sometimes forcing you to make a snap decision that can have unforeseen consequences; although this can seem a little unfair when you are reprimanded for something when you couldn’t have known the outcome given the situation. This can be especially worrisome as some of the dialogue prompts take a very different direction to what you would expect, judging from the sample sentence given to you.
To finish; if you enjoy the Walking Dead programme, or zombie survivor stories in general then you will probably enjoy this game. With such little for the player to do, the story is the entire focus and doesn’t always stand up to take the load. Just know what you are getting into: don’t expect a great deal of gameplay or any replayability (I could barely stand dealing with the characters on one playthrough) and you might end up loving the outcome.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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