Author: Rory Young
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Tuesday, April 24th, 2012
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Games/Reviews/walking_dead_ep1/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.
Arguably one of the best comics ever created, The Walking Dead is brutal and graphic and, perhaps most importantly, honest. Human nature during a zombie apocalypse would be a simple thing to gloss over, to censor, to develop a happy ending for, but The Walking Dead does no such thing. This isn't some gory slasher flick, though. Conflict in The Walking dead is often heavily interwoven with character relationships and very horror-atypical emotional drama... with graphic violence and gore too.
Enter The Walking Dead video game, a five episode adventure title from Telltale Games, better known for its lighthearted titles Back to the Future, Sam and Max and Puzzle Agent. Telltale's more mature offerings have suffered, in part due to poorly represented mature themes, but mostly as a result of the adventure game archetype itself. Slow pacing, complex and drawn out puzzles, blocky and concise dialogue are all characteristics of a typical adventure game. How then can you convey the intensity and melodrama that goes with adult themes like sex and violence? Or rather, how can you create a believable zombie apocalypse? Even then, how can you compare with the excellent writing, artistic design and style of one of the greatest comics ever made?
Telltale's solution is surprisingly smart – they break down the genre, altering or outright abandoning aspects that don't fit with The Walking Dead. No more long, complicated puzzles or tedious inventory management. Then you add systems that compliment your project, like extended dialogue options, decision trees that ultimately affect gameplay, and action-style quick time events for those up close and personal zombie moments. The result contains all the pieces necessary for The Walking Dead game to succeed. While Episode 1: A New Day may not deliver the best of The Walking Dead, it does set the board for a very memorable experience, and perhaps Telltale's best adventure game yet.
Visually, The Walking Dead is striking in more ways than one. It would be near impossible to convert the artistic style from the comics into an animated game, but the alternative Telltale has created stands on its own. The new, cell-shaded style maintains the illustrative nature of the comic, allowing for deep shadows and expressive facial animations. It's realistic enough to be disturbing, but not so much to wander into the uncanny valley. It isn't a perfect science, however, and Telltale struggles to balance the sharp emotions shown in a comic panel versus the subtleness an actor can display in motion. For example, characters are very believable at displaying fear or pain, but during casual conversation or when displaying complex emotions like suspicion, will still have exaggerated movements that can break immersion.
The environments are rather hit and miss as a result of the cell-shading. Open areas like freeways or neighborhood/city streets feel sparse and poorly textured. Enclosed and shadowy areas, however, are dark and foreboding, filled with harsh angles and alcoves that likely hide a variety of hungry undead. This also lends itself to the point and click genre, where indoor settings have a variety of knick-knacks to peruse. Or perhaps it has more to do with atmosphere and the nature of the zombie apocalypse in general -- daylight is safe, night time is dangerous.
It's also worth mentioning how gloriously creepy the zombies appear. Each of them, with their missing appendages and weeping wounds, is memorable and startlingly creepy. Their staggered and awkward movements are well animated by the Telltale team. Their faces, while quite gruesome, seem both sad and hungry. Again, it's not as graphic and detailed as the comic or television show, but it's good. Unfortunately, the zombies' strong design ultimately does them a disservice, because you'll notice the same zombies in each of the game's different areas. “Fat and Bald” was a favorite of mine, though “Skinny, Green and Jawless” is a crowd favorite, and I wouldn't be surprised to see them return in Episode 2.
Gameplay in The Walking Dead is much more cinematic than classical point and click adventures. Again, there's less of a focus on item collection and manipulation, and a greater emphasis on dialogue and conversation options. Yes, conversation options and gameplay decisions will change how the story plays out. While Episode 1 doesn't have any dramatic examples of this, some late game decisions will have lethal ramifications on Episode 2. I played through the majority of the game twice, making small changes in my conversation options and sadly there were hardly any differences.
The Walking Dead comic is well known for its inclination towards dialogue. It's a result of the comic medium's tendency to both show and tell, and a criticism of the television show adaptation which does more show and less tell. The game has a tumultuous time finding its happy average between the two. Main character Lee's habit of commenting to himself feels natural, and is very similar to comic book protagonist Rick's inner dialogue. Things become awkward when dealing with conversation between the different survivors, however. It's a lot of relationship drama to define in a single point and click adventure episode, only 2-4 hours long. Some reactions are unexpected, some are just plain ridiculous, and most if not all feel a bit forced rather than sensible. Episode 2 should have more background story to draw off of, and will hopefully feel less predetermined.
What The Walking Dead Episode 1 has done well is simple: it introduces and covers all the basics for a promising 5 episode season. There's action, there's puzzles, there's consequence to decisions, there's interpersonal relationships – friends and enemies alike – and of course there's a horde of zombies waiting to eat you if you make a mistake. What's unfortunate is that despite the groundwork they've done, Telltale hasn't created anything outstanding or even memorable, yet. The Walking Dead readily available in comics and on television is going to leave its mark on you, one way or another, often through graphic display of violence, or emotionally disturbing events. Episode one includes some death and mayhem, and at least two or three very emotional situations, along with some graphic zombie smashing, but nothing particularly striking. Consider this – I finished the episode in a general state of contentment, feeling like everything was going to be alright. That can't be right, right?
That's where The Walking Dead stands after Episode 1: A New Day. The series can embrace its source material and become one of the best point and click stories ever told, or it can mire itself in mediocrity and absence of risk, willingly becoming another average Telltale adaptation. Consider purchasing A New Day as a high-potential investment; I'm betting it only gets better from here. After all, how difficult is it to find drama in the zombie apocalypse?
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