Telltale’s epic adventure lands on Vita with some teething problems which thankfully aren’t sufficient to detract from a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
World-building & Story
The Walking Dead opens with Lee Everett, convicted felon on his way to prison, when the police car he is being escorted in crashes and he is able to escape. He quickly discovers a world infested with living dead zombies before stumbling upon Clementine, an unaffected young girl trying to find her parents. The pair embark on an adventure alongside various other characters during which they’ll travel across the country over a number of months to attempt to find Clem’s parents but – ultimately – to survive in this post-apocalyptic world.
It’s the simplest of setups yet gives way to some incredible emotional drama – Lee’s past; the fate of Clem’s family and the stories of the other survivors you’ll come across. Yet this only forms a backdrop, as the focus is very much on the developing relationships between this gang of people thrust together in a vastly changed land, as both leads make their way alongside different groups of survivors.
Both Lee and Clem make compelling protagonists – the former for his strong sense of morals while still trying to protect what’s important to him; the latter for her wide-eyed optimism untouched by the reality of the situation. Throughout their journey Lee will have to reluctantly grow into Clem’s father figure to teach her the skills she needs to survive in this devastated world and it’s this that forms the crux of the story, providing plenty of compelling scenes to push things forward.
For all that Lee and Clem anchor the story, the side cast are still a large part of the equation. I found myself getting very attached to fellow survivors, whose personalities cover the full spectrum from psychotic to subdued. Each has their own motivations and goes on their own journey – for example Ben, a young clumsy student, watches the grizzly demise of his friends and remains quiet and aloof but begins to mature after joining the group, mostly through necessity. Comparatively Lilly, a strong-willed woman travelling with her father, immediately takes charge of the survivors which causes her to butt heads with everyone and become increasingly paranoid.
They won’t all make it to the end of the game and deaths are often sudden and shocking, something which The Walking Dead plays to its advantage to create many emotional moments. A major example of this is a blossoming romance early in the game that’s doomed no matter what choices you make in the story – the way it unfolds is a long way from what I was expecting, yet it works so well right to the brutal conclusion.
It’s worth briefly talking about choice – this is a major focus in the game, although you’ll ultimately see the same story no matter what you pick. What changes is the characters who accompany you on your journey; their attitudes towards Lee and Clem and in some cases, their ultimate fate. You’re often presented with morally grey choices where neither option is desirable and the game sometimes feels relentlessly punishing in this regard. Equally, the supporting cast make their own decisions throughout and have their own set of priorities, which creates some very interesting clashes..
To allow all of this human drama to develop the setting has to be just right and again this is another aspect that The Walking Dead nails. The post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland here is beautifully realised, full of relics of abandoned civilization which allows the characters to scavenge for what’s left. Although it’s based on the comic book series and tied to the TV show, no prior knowledge is needed and I enjoyed the game as a standalone piece.
Presentation & Sound
Employing a cel-shaded look for its graphics, The Walking Dead can be an incredibly pretty game at times although it often doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny due to some unfortunate hitches.
Characters are generally well modeled – realistically proportioned yet thanks to the art style resemble an interactive comic book. They’re impressive, with some decent lip-sync and even manage to get across various emotions,although little details detract from the experience such as hair clipping through bodies or weird glitches with their clothing. There’s nothing game-breaking here, but a little more polish would have been appreciated (and I wonder how much of this was caused in the porting process to Vita).
Environments fare substantially better – each location feels carefully crafted, full of intricate little details which really bring them to life. There’s some beautifully realised locations here – most notably an abandoned train at dusk, but everything here is memorable for one reason or another. The visual design certainly goes a long way in helping create atmosphere, as every area really does feel like it’s been ravaged following the fall of society.
As you’ll spend virtually no time in menus, the remaining part of the game stating at conversation wheels. You’ll often be given four choices – each corresponding to one of the Vita’s face buttons. This interface, along with quick-time events, are clearly mapped on screen and easy to follow.
Their problem relies in responsiveness and this is a problem with The Walking Dead in general. Any quick decisions which need to be made are marred by a stutter-y load before the choice is presented, leading to some frustratingly short windows to actually make the choice. It never becomes unbearable and I do feel it gets over-represented, but it is an annoyance that should be noted.
Conversely, sound is top notch throughout. Music is sparsely used and mostly background noise, but the game uses silence incredibly well to create atmosphere and tension. Voice acting is on point – actors fit their characters perfectly, with people like Carly coming across as the calm voice of reason while Ben sounds nervous and jumpy. Each can give an incredibly emotive performance when necessary, which really helps add attachment to each character (making their likely demise even more heartbreaking).
Gameplay & Content
Feeling like somewhat of an evolution of the point ‘n’ click genre yet with a lot of the challenge stripped out, The Walking Dead is an interesting hybrid. Many elements of its gameplay experience are spot on, but others feel somewhat under-baked.
At the core of the experience is choice. Although this is a linear, story-driven game, you’re constantly presented with decisions to make either in conversations or actions taking place on screen. These help to shape what version of Lee you build and affect the reactions other characters will have towards you. This is handled by a simple on-screen menu presenting up to four options mapped to the four face buttons and is decidedly easy to get to grips with.
I feel conflicted about how effective these choices are, however. There were many times I suspended my Vita to think about which of the four equally awful choices I wanted to pick and this definitely helped keep me engaged in the story, yet I did feel slightly miffed when a later bad guy berated me for whichever option I’d pick (I actually went back to pick the alternative which did not change the outcome). You can make small branches in the narrative with your actions, but overall you’re heading in exactly the same direction no matter what.
Although I can understand the need to tell a coherent story regardless of what the player decides to do, it did end up feeling a bit cheap by the end of my playthrough. Still, The Walking Dead presented a story that had me gripped during the whole time I was playing so I can’t criticize this element of it too heavily.
Aside from dialogue choices, you can interactive with the game world in other ways. The main one of these is quick-time events, something I’ve never really been a fan of. They’re handled okay here – generally just button prompts that need to be pressed within a certain time-frame, although can sometimes be more creative such as lining up a shotgun blast before a zombie reaches Lee or Clem.
The final way is by taking direct control of the player character and moving around the environment. This is done from a fixed-camera perspective and will generally allow you to interact with objects to inspect them and move the game forward. This is where the title most resembles a more traditional adventure game and is all the better for it, although any puzzle solving is fairly simple and merely involves fumbling around until you discover the item you’re looking for.
Still, the areas themselves are generally gorgeous to look at and provide a nice break from the other elements in order to shake up the gameplay. And in this way The Walking Dead strikes a nice balance of different actions to keep the game feeling fresh enough throughout a playthrough.
In terms of content, the title was originally released episodically meaning there are 5 chapters here of about 2-3 hours each. It’s an interesting way to break up the narrative (each generally starts in a new location) and provides a decent amount to work through, but there’s little reason to replay unless you desperately want to see every possible avenue of the story.
Perhaps the incorrect way to classify this given it doesn’t have to be downloaded on Vita, The Walking Dead also includes some additional content named “400 Days” which follows flashbacks for a group of survivors prior to them meeting. A number of mini-chapters comprise this extra episode and generally look at one major event that’s happened to each person following the zombie apocalypse.
Gameplay and structure is exactly the same as the main game, but it is a nice respite to play as different characters than Lee with new goals and aims. There’s a wide variety of characters in various predicaments covered here and as always the moral dilemmas presented require some serious thought about what the best course of action is.
Even if it wasn’t included with the base game I’d say this content was worth playing, but as it is 400 Days provides a nice bonus to an already great package and is well worth giving a go once you’re done with Lee and Clem’s story. It leads in nicely to the second season of the story and sets up plenty of plot threads that I hope will be resolved in the following chapter.
The Walking Dead won’t be for everyone and a legion of technical issues detract from the experience. But underneath that there’s a beautiful game full of believable characters; tragic decisions to be made and a fascinating world to be explored. It fits in with Vita’s library perfectly and is something I can easily recommend for the platform if you’re willing to put up with some issues for an overall amazing experience.