The Walking Dead: Season 1 Review
May as well be the best zombie game to have come out in quite some time
There is no doubt that when it comes to movie, TV show or comic book video game adaptations there have been more misses than hits, so naturally when a game based on the Walking Dead franchise was announced many kept their hopes low, especially since it was going to be an episodic point-and-click adventure. On the other hand, the studio responsible for the title’s development was Telltale Games, and if there is one thing that these guys have shown us is that they know how to create great games while fully respecting their source material. Fortunately, from the very first episode, the game proved more than worthy of Telltale’s reputation.
The 1st season of the Walking Dead game consists of five episodes, each taking around 2-3 hours to complete. The game’s story takes place in the world of Robert Kirkman’s comic books rather than that of the AMC series. The events occur sometime before Rick Grimes – the main protagonist of the comic and the series – wakes up from his comma, which allows a few cameo appearances from well known characters like Glenn Rhee and Hershel Greene, but without spoiling anything for those who are not familiar with the Walking Dead universe. In fact, the game can be perfectly enjoyed by someone who has never watched the series or read the comics, since it mostly features new characters and the overall situation is cleverly explained in the early conversations and events of episode 1.
We are introduced to the main protagonist, Lee Everett, a former history teacher, as he is being transported to jail after being arrested for murder. We do not get much information about Lee as his conversation with the officer transporting him is cut short when the car hits a walker (as the undead are often called in the Walking Dead universe) and crashes. Lee barely makes it, and after managing to exit the car and deal with the dead police officer who has come back as a walker, he finds refuge in a seemingly abandoned house. Soon enough he is attacked by another walker and manages to escape with the aid of Clementine, the young daughter of the house owners. As Clementine has been left all alone, with the exact fate of her parents remaining unknown – although it is heavily hinted that things are not so good for them – Lee takes her under his protection.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the story is the relationship between the two main characters as it evolves through each episode; we see Lee start to genuinely care for Clementine, protecting her and eventually turning into a sort of father figure for the little girl. The story progresses as Lee and Clementine meet other survivors, some friendly and others not so much. Much like the series and the comics, the game’s story is less about the undead and the threat they pose, and more about the people and how each of them reacts to the situation. The characters that we meet are everyday people who respond realistically to the ‘apocalypse’ that they are facing. They are human, therefore flawed; they get frustrated, they freak out, they get angry at each other, and they are often overwhelmed by the circumstances surrounding them. Moreover, we will meet characters that have resorted to all kinds of extremes in order to survive, having actually become way more dangerous than the walkers.
From the beginning of the game Telltale promises the player a “tailored” gameplay experience, which is true to a certain extent. Choices do affect some parts of the story but they mostly impact your relationships with other characters. There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ choices to make and there is almost never a way of keeping everybody happy. As the player is asked to make a certain decision it is never clear to them what the consequences might be. Additionally those decisions are never easy; in a life threatening situation who are you going to help? and how will you deal with the criticism of your fellow survivors? When food is scarce, how do you divide it?
Even though the Walking Dead is an adventure at its core, it plays more like an interactive movie in the style of Heavy Rain rather than a classic point-and-click. It becomes evident from the start that the game emphasizes on the story and characters rather than the puzzles. In fact, each puzzle that Lee comes across is easily solved by using a couple of items that he has previously collected. This is by no means a disadvantage, as difficult puzzles and a huge inventory would take away from the overall experience and eventually harm the game.
Even if the choices the player makes do not heavily affect the big parts of the story, the game perfectly succeeds in giving you the illusion that everything that happens is a consequence of your own actions, especially during the first playthrough. You will feel guilty and stressed, mainly since the game constantly rushes you and doesn’t allow you to do things at your own pace. During the dialogues you only have a limited amount of time to pick an answer - or remain silent - and during certain events you have to act fast or things take a turn for the worse, which also increases the tension. In addition, since you are not allowed to save and load whenever you want, you do not have the luxury of regretting a certain choice and going back to fix things. In the end of each chapter you get to review all of your choices and also see what percentage of the other players made the same decisions as you. Also, some actions that might initially seem irrelevant will make more sense once you have finished playing all the episodes, as things come together in the end.
The game uses cel-shaded graphics reminiscent of the Borderlands games, which, even if they may seem a bit dated, suit the title surprisingly well. It is noteworthy how the designers managed to make the characters’ faces show so much emotion while their features practically remain still. When it comes to the controls things are relatively simple as mainly you have to move Lee around and interact with items and people by clicking on them. The game excels in creating realistic and believable characters and this is mainly due to the brilliant writing and the great voice acting. Most of the actors do an excellent job in bringing their respective characters to life; in particular, Dave Fennoy as Lee Everett and Melissa Hutchison as Clementine give enormous depth to the two protagonists, making the player truly care about them. By the end of the game you will come to feel like you really know those characters, especially the ones that have stuck with you since the beginning.
It is not easy to explain what makes the Walking Dead game so good without spoiling some parts of the story. It is enough to say that the title, without using breathtaking graphics or a complex gameplay system, succeeds in offering an unforgettable gaming experience. The game, without being flawless, manages to appeal to people who do not usually play adventure games or are not fans of the franchise. The writing is excellent and the character reactions are convincing. Players will certainly second guess their own choices and eventually come to care about Lee and Clementine. The game might not feature the fast paced battles and gunplay of similarly themed titles, but it has heart, something that we haven’t seen for a while. The term ‘zombie’ might not even exist in R. Kirkman’s universe, but the Walking Dead may as well be the best zombie game to have come out in quite some time.