The Walking Dead Episode 1 Review
Developer: Telltale Games / Publisher: Telltale Games / Played on: PS3 / Price: $4.99 / ESRB: Mature [Strong Language, Blood and Gore, Intense Violence]
I am a huge fan of The Walking Dead comic series. As a version of the zombie movie without an end, it captures the zombie apocalypse as a singularly unique place and time. So when Telltale announced they were working on a game with the property, I was curious and excited. The TV show is enjoyable in its own way, and while it doesn’t capture the spirit of comics too broadly, it does a serviceable job to the story. So what does a videogame bring to the universe?
Right off the bat I have to congratulate Telltale and the art team on The Walking Dead; somehow they’ve managed to lift Charlie Adlard’s illustration style straight from the comic books. The resulting look makes the entire two-hour experience feel like an interactive motion comic.
But it’s not just the art that captures the feel of Kirkman’s series, it’s also the writing and characters. The Walking Dead is known for its detailed dramatis personae and the game does an excellent job retaining the drama and tension between personalities. Protagonist Lee Everett, who is on his way to jail outside Atlanta for an alleged murder, serves as the window through which you view this world. And his internal struggle with his past and the state of the world post-zombies is as much of a draw to the story as his interactions with the various families and troubled survivors that populate Georgia. Oftentimes, too, it’s the quieter, more human moments in Lee’s tale that are most memorable and evocative, like finding Clementine, a little girl whose parents have been killed, in her tree house near the beginning of the adventure. Clem will be by Lee’s side the entire way as a focal point of the relationships Lee develops with the other NPCs in the game world.
In all aspects, Telltale has crafted a fitting game using the comic series’ established themes and tone. That is a wonderful achievement, and those who also enjoy the comics will be pleasantly surprised with some back story on characters from the comic itself, including Glenn and Hershel. Canonically the game takes place after Rick Grimes is shot at the beginning of issue #1 and before he wakes up in the hospital, so the game reveals a lot of information about events and actions untouched by the comics series.
I do have some gripes, however. Character movement animation is often stilted and strange. Lip-syncing is up and down. The game chugs when loading new camera perspectives during cutscenes. The reason I bring up these details is because of the amazing quality of the rest of the game. If the technical oddities could have been smoothed out, we are talking about an undisputed contender for Best Downloadable Game of the year in December. That said, this is still one of the strongest digital offerings so far this year.
Ostensibly The Walking Dead is a point and click adventure game. You move your character, move a cursor, and press buttons (not necessarily in that order), which doesn’t necessarily sound compelling. But in this setting, with this story, it remarkably is. The way the game builds tension through the most mundane of activities is quite enjoyable. One puzzle might be “how do I get this gate open so I can grab a brick to cause a distraction?” The process of figuring that out and going through those motions is full of tense encounters, quick reaction tests, and plenty of zombies. There’s even a point-and-click stealth action section that works really well!
All of the moment-to-moment conversations and tasks you undertake convey the same sense of doom and urgency that is present in every issue of the comics, yet another aspect that Telltale has translated well. There’s even a neat chart once you beat the episode that shows you the percentage of the rest of the community’s key decisions in the story compared to what you picked. Immediately upon completing this first chapter, I wanted to dive right in with another playthrough to see how different choices affect the way the story plays out.
The scope of the storytelling in The Walking Dead video game is almost never attempted in downloadable games, let alone executed this successfully. This is a top-flight narrative, and an excellent example of episodic gaming done right. I am really looking forward to the next several months for the follow-up episodes. And really, at this price, there’s no excuse not to take a chance on this game.