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Final Impressions: The Walking Dead

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Unfortunately, my plan to review The Walking Dead episode by episode was derailed by both Telltale Games' erratic release schedule and the fact that I fell prey to the vicious bug in Episode 4 that wouldn't retain your game save. Thankfully, that bug was finally fixed, and I was able to complete Episode 4 at long last, and then plow through Episode 5 in one sitting.

So I'm not calling this a review, because it's really not. Episode by episode, The Walking Dead maintained the quality of its first episode, and in some places, surpassed it by leaps and bounds. While for me, Episode 3 will remain the high point of the game, taken as a whole, the entire experience is tour-de-force of gut-wrenching storytelling. Therefore, I have thoughts.

Which you will find after the jump! (Obviously spoilers abound, so if you haven't played, beware!)

Thankfully, The Walking Dead is based on the comic book series by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard, and not the also-entertaining-but-slightly-inferior TV series. The graphics look like the characters just climbed off the pages of the comic and came to three-dimensional life. They're expressively animated and well-voiced. In fact, they are so well-animated that there are certain scenes where no dialogue is necessary to wring emotion out of the player.

As an adventure game, you spend time collecting items and solving simple puzzles in order to move the story along. But there's no obtuse item combining here — every solution makes logical sense. The meat of The Walking Dead, though, is really the character interaction and the choices that you make throughout the game. However, being a zombie story, the options are less between good and bad and more between bad and worse. The choices you make effect the future of the game in ways both subtle and dramatic.

I enjoyed at the end of each episode when you would see a display of all the major decisions you were forced to make, and how your choices compared to all the other players. Because there is often a time limit, you have to choose quickly, which I feel makes the selections more reflective of a person's true nature. And I was relieved to see that for the most part, the stats showed that people were generally good-hearted.

The gameplay of The Walking Dead is pretty standard adventure game fare, clicking your way through puzzles, quick-time events and conversations (along with some awkward shooting bits sprinkled here and there). Where the game really shines is the story and its characters. Being a zombie tale, obviously there are going to be some deaths. But these characters, even being made of pixels and polygons, are so well-developed in some cases that you actually care what happens to them. Even though Larry had been a complete asshole throughout all of Episode 1 and 2, when he was having a heart attack, I felt compelled to try and save him. Same thing with Ben in Episode 4. Nobody was going to die on my watch if I could do anything about it. Unfortunately, the problem is that the game still needs to dispatch the characters anyway, so your attempts are ultimately futile. But the well-developed characters combined with the general sense of interactivity with them via the game leads to more emotional connections than you would get with the characters on the Walking Dead TV show.

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The most affecting moment for me was in Episode 3 where the boy, Duck, is bitten and is clearly starting to die/turn. His mother shoots herself, unable to deal with the horror, and his father, Kenny, is paralyzed with grief. There was no way that I was going to make Kenny shoot his own son in the head, so I took it upon myself to end it for him. But I immediately regretted my decision as the game actually made me hold a gun to a little boy's head and pull the trigger. Yes, you're just aiming a reticule over a polygonal representation of a child and pressing a button, but it was a brutal moment that made The Walking Dead the second game in history to actually stir up enough emotion to make me cry. I was an emotional wreck. Over a game.

My second favorite moment was in Episode 4, where you are burying the body of a small boy you find in the attic of a house in which your group is hiding. In a callback to Duck's death, you are again forced to choose whether to let Kenny finish the zombie off or do it yourself (I always insisted on shouldering the responsibility). So my emotions were already heightened as I scooped the dirt onto the grave. The game forces you to select the dirt and dump it repeatedly, but after being lulled into complacency by the repetition you're shocked out of it as Lee leans forward to shovel up some more earth and the camera reveals a previously-unseen shadowy figure standing directly behind him. It's a classic horror movie moment that works brilliantly. In fact, because of the save game glitch, I ended up playing this scene probably four or five times, and it never once lost its impact. Bravo to the director on this one.

During the climactic scene of Episode 5, the game's structure began to show through the cracks as the mystery man was revealed and basically recaps some of the major decisions you made throughout the game. But his identity as the owner of the car you (maybe) pilfered from in Episode 2 was a nice twist. While it was clear that the game was recapping itself, the dialogue and performances kept it from being a distraction that fully pulled me out of the game.

Also, in Episode 5, I was frustrated by Ben's death, negating my saving him in Episode 4. But it was Kenny's demise that annoyed me the most. He stays behind to presumably put a bullet in Ben's head to keep him dead, and then is overwhelmed by a swarm of walkers. It happens off-camera and is surprisingly anti-climactic for such a major character who has been with you since almost the very beginning. But later I thought about it and couldn't help but wonder if his off-camera non-death scene was deliberately orchestrated that way to leave things open ended for the inevitable sequel. (The Walking Dead won tons of Game of the Year awards and was a big success — a second season is a no-brainer) In the subsequent force-your-way-through-a-zombie-crowd scene, I kept expecting Kenny's corpse to show up and force me to put a meat cleaver in his skull, but he didn't, so maybe he's still out there somewhere...

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Being a zombie story, obviously the ending isn't going to be particularly happy. And after Lee is bitten at the end of Episode 4, it's pretty clear how things are going to turn out (despite his gory, if well-intentioned attempt to stop it). But interestingly, while I shed tears over Duck, I didn't cry at the ending to Lee's tale. Although at the moment when Clem clearly realized all hope was lost and her sad eyes went wide with horror and disbelief, my heart clenched up. I think the ending is just so grim and devastating that I was shellshocked for the last 10 or 15 minutes. And it's right that the game ends with just Lee and Clem. While some of the supporting cast were strong characters, these two were the strongest.

The epilogue leaves things open-ended, but there's a part of me that doesn't want Telltale Games to follow-up with the surviving characters in the sequel. As long as they don't officially say otherwise, I can imagine that Clem is still out there keeping her hair short and fighting the good fight. Come on, Telltale, give me that at least!

And while I would love to play another season of The Walking Dead, I hope Telltale takes their time in developing it. Both because I want it to maintain the quality of the first one, and because I need some time to come down from the emotional roller coaster ride of the first one. (And also so I can go back and replay it and make different decisions... but I'm going to be careful not to do anything to my original game save in case Telltale uses it as the starting point for the sequel...) The Walking Dead turned out to be more than just a survival-horror adventure game based on a popular license. It turned out to be one of the most emotionally powerful games I have ever had the pleasure to play. Bravo, Telltale... bravo.

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