Review – Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season One

Lee Everett, Zombie Slayer

Announcing a point-and-click style adventure game based on The Walking Dead franchise raised a few eyebrows, but after Telltale released the first episode, it was quickly evident that the game could be something special. With the fifth and final episode released last week, The Walking Dead has earned early Game of the Year buzz including nominations in multiple VGA categories.

The Walking Dead is an apocalyptic zombie tale that is not really about zombies. By focusing on the issues between the survivors themselves, the graphic novel and television series have each earned legions of devoted fans. Telltale’s videogame adaptation provides a powerful argument for videogame’s legitimacy as both entertainment and an art form by putting the player directly in the middle of the franchise’s signature drama. Impossible decisions become more than just emotionally charged scenes playing out on screen as players guide protagonist Lee Everett through life and death decisions that are rarely black and white.

As the events surrounding the outbreak unfold, Lee finds himself in charge of the apparently orphaned Clementine. After listening to a series of absolutely gut-wrenching voice messages I came across in Clementine’s home, I felt a real need to protect her.

This desire to keep Clem safe led to a maze of forged relationships and broken trust and casts extra doubt upon those who show signs of threatening the girl’s safety. Still, Clementine never felt like an unnecessary burden or annoyance — the need to protect her remains genuine throughout the entire experience.

The times I was forced to save one character over another were the easiest decisions I made — At least those situations came with relatively clear consequences. Most dilemmas were far tougher to confront. Should I let the stranger die if it means giving my group a fighting chance at survival? Should I trust the newcomer? Do I make public my suspicions against someone in the group, or do I bite my tongue and hope that I’m wrong?

I always try to play the role of the good guy, and in the beginning, The Walking Dead let me pursue that path with relative ease.

By the second episode, the concept of “right” and “wrong” started to become more difficult to discern, and while I felt I made the “right” choices all the way to the game’s conclusion, I found myself rationalizing actions I would have never dreamed about pursing in the game’s early scenes. The changing nature of my choices showed a clear evolution of my character — of me — as the game progressed.

While Telltale’s modernization of the classic point-and-click adventure design is largely a success, a few missteps serve to get in the way of the story and progression. A fixed-camera view that sometimes obstructs movement and features plenty of “invisible walls” is an issue that’s plagued the genre for years. Even after setting the game’s brightness slider to maximum, the oft-dark scenes could be nearly impossible to make out.

I’ve never had a problem with Quick Time Events in games as long as they’re used well, and for the most part The Walking Dead does just that. Minor additions and alterations to the simple button-flash mechanics add a depth of interaction even if that means simply pressing down on the joystick in order to crawl away from an approaching walker.

The game stumbles a bit when it tries to deviate too far from the formula. A shooting segment that crops up early in Episode 3 is easily the worst offender, suddenly tasking the player with quickly dispatching enemies using a rifle that is difficult to aim and offers little feedback as to just where the shots are actually landing. As the series moves towards the end, shooting segments do get better — likely a result of the game’s episodic development — but they never fail to feel out of place.

The auto-save system did a good job of making sure that I was never set back too far when I did fail, but replaying a handful of sections multiple times due to poor mechanics only served to break up the gripping story rather than adding tension through difficulty.

Traditional point-and-click style puzzles are littered throughout each episode, though solving them rarely requires much effort or thought. Players can up the difficulty a notch by customizing the UI settings and turning off the icons that help identify usable items in the world, but The Walking Dead won’t offer a great deal in the way of challenge.

The Walking Dead has a unique visual style. Aside from the previously mentioned issues with darkness and camera, the game excels at creating a gritty world that feels ripped straight from the pages of a graphic novel. Occasional hiccups in the animation were evident, causing me to miss the action in a few minor sequences. Flashback sequences like the ones that recap key decisions at the start of a new episode do a great job highlighting major plot points, but feel a bit disjointed and transparent.

Events within the individual episodes are broken up well and the pacing is phenomenal. There is rarely a moment without some type of dramatic tension, but the few periods of respite allowed me to grow closer to the characters in my group. They also left me wondering what the next horrible surprise would be, and who I might soon lose.

Through it all, I came to love some characters and hate others. I second-guessed just about every major decision I made, and found it hard to react rationally rather than emotionally to many of the situations I faced.

Actions that would have once seemed evil and inhuman became no-brainers. I regretted some of my choices and others I stood firmly behind up until the bitter end. By the final credit roll I felt like a different person — through Lee — than I had when the zombipocalypse first broke.

I grew. Or diminished. It was difficult to tell which was true.

Those who can make the same emotional attachment to Telltale’s Walking Dead offering will find a gem of an experience with few rivals. The underlying gameplay suffers from many of the flaws that led to the point-and-click genre’s decline in popularity over a decade ago. These could prove to be a turn-off for those unable or unwilling to overlook these issues. For me, the problems were minor and largely inconsequential. The story, however, is something I won’t soon forget.