The Waking Dead comic book was a very successful attempt at long-form storytelling in a zombie apocalypse setting. Typically tales of zombies overrunning the world involve a small band of survivors who are slowly picked off one-by-on until a couple of survivors escape to face an uncertain future. With The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman explored what happens next, in a monthly comic that has followed Rick Grimes and his friends for years. The television adaptation was surprisingly successful, but no one should be surprised that a video game adaptation happened too. While this could have been yet another mindless zombie shooter, or Resident Evil clone, the franchise made its way into the hands of adventure game developer Telltale Games. While that might seem like an odd choice, it resulted in a great game and an unusual new take on both horror and adventure gaming.
Even though it’s an adaptation, Players don’t need to know anything about The Walking Dead comics or the TV show. The game features a new protagonist name Lee Everett, and is set shortly before the events of the comic books (And show). Fans of The Walking Dead will recall that the main character from the comics, Rick Grimes spends several weeks unconscious in a hospital bed before waking to find the world overrun by zombies. Lee is a convicted murderer who is being transported through Georgia when the outbreak occurs, so Lee’s story is set during that brief period before Rick awakens.
This makes The Walking Dead game something of a prequel, and lets players see some familiar faces like Glenn and Hershel before those characters go on to meet Rick. It’s a clever way to bring in people and places from the comic, without fiddling with the back story and cannon.
But, again, fandom isn’t a pre-requisite to enjoy this game. Lee’s story is very engrossing; he’s saved from prison by the timely zombie outbreak, but quickly finds himself as the sole caretaker for a young girl named Clementine whose parents are “Away on vacation”. He must care for her while seeking out his own family, and also assisting other survivors. To do so, he needs to earn the trust of the other characters, and that means a careful balance of honesty and keeping his criminal past a secret.
Players are given multiple dialog choices, but are put in the hot seat when trying to choose what Lee will say next. Almost every time he speaks there is a timer, and players much choose what to say quickly. Sometimes these decisions just mean slightly different responses from the NPC, other times they can significant consequences.
Unlike the typical zombie game, violence is uncommon, and guns are extremely rare. Combat usually involves finding the right weapon, getting Lee into position and then quickly finding the right spot on the zombie to click. It sounds simple, but aiming the deliberately unwieldy crosshairs at a moving target is tricky, and there is very limited amount of time to take down the zombies. This is an example of the game differing from traditional Adventure mechanics: The player’s character can die!
These split-second decisions keep players on their toes, and the sense of vulnerability and anxiety are what makes The Walking Dead a true horror game rather than a point ‘n’ click adventure that happens to have zombies.
Telltale Games uses an episodic release formula, meaning that this is just the first part of five, with the other four episodes coming in the months ahead. Therefore, Episode 1 has a short runtime of about 2-3 hours. However, there is great deal of replayability to The Walking Dead. This isn’t the sort of game where players are given a series of puzzles and riddles that, once solved, offer no reason to run through the game again. Here, Players are repeatedly given important choices that have a significant effect on the plot; these include several scenes that involve having to pick which characters live and die, and this affects who will accompany Lee on the rest of his journey (Including the upcoming episodes).
Others event require Lee (And the Player) to make heavy moral decisions that affect how the other characters react to him. There are also many dialog choices that change forthcoming conversations even if they don’t have a big effect on the overall plot.
A fun feature is that at the end of the episode, the game displays statistics on how other players reacted to the same choices. If this degree of player choice continues through the other four episodes, The Walking Dead is going to warrant numerous playthroughs.
The Walking Dead Episode 1 A New Day is out now for PC, Mac, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. It is well worth grabbing for fans of the franchise, but is also recommended for horror and adventure fans who want to see some twists on these genres. This new series from Telltale is off to an excellent start and Explosion.com will have reviews of the forthcoming episodes as they arrive.