Video Game Review: ‘The Walking Dead: Episode 1’

Publisher: Telltale

Platforms: PSN, XBLA, Steam (only available on Steam in Australia)

The Walking Dead has, in the past two years, found itself becoming a household name. Beginning as an indie comic written by Robert Kirkman it’s fanbase grew on a massive scale. When it was picked up by AMC for adaptation to television its popularity exploded. Given the compatibility of the subject matter (zombies) to the video game format it’s surprising that it’s taken this long to bring the source material to the gamers in an interactive format.

Not that it’s that simple. There are more zombie games on the market than pretty much…well, anything. Even none zombie related games like Call of Duty and Red Dead Redemption have included zombie versions of the game for largely unfathomable reasons. Given that ‘The Walking Dead’ took the genre to a new level of brilliance, depth and complexity. The action of zombie apocalypse is equally balanced with human drama nail biting suspense, challenging reader expectations by treating every character as a at risk – you never know who’s going to make it through the issue alive. Using the brand name associated with the series on a generic zombie shooter or knock off would be a massive disservice to the material a disappointment to fans.

Enter Telltale games, a development company who have taken an interest in creating point-n-click style adventure games based on retro material such as Back to the Future and Jurassic Park. This format combined with modern gaming set-ups creates a good balance of drama and action just like the source material. Plenty of smart design decisions have been made to ensure that the suspense and action delivers on the same level as the story.

The action takes place prior to the events of the original series, close to the beginning of the zombie outbreak. Players take control of Lee who it introduced in the back of a police cruiser on his way to prison. It’s only later in the game that we begin to get details about what Lee did to find himself in this situation, as the present is occupied with a roamer sending the car of the road. Shortly after staggering away from the scenario Lee meets Clementine, a young girl fending for herself. Lee take Clementine under his wing as they set out to face the horrors ahead together.

The control system is simple – Lee’s movements are restricted to walking and everything else is contextual actions. This keeps the focus on the story which proves more effective in the long run. Lee can pick up, use and interact with selected objects in the small area currently being occupied. The puzzles won’t have you scratching your head for long and require minimal exploration to find all the items. The real meat comes from interacting with the other characters. When talking with other characters you are given response options…not a new concept, but there is a time limit that gives you only seconds to respond. Your chosen response comes from instinct instead of weighing up the options, an effectively mechanic that really makes the player feel as though they’re part of the story and not just a passenger.

The only major deviation from routine comes with a set piece that involves finding your way past a group of zombies outside a motor inn. This requires a bit more thought and experimentation to work your way through, the heightened suspense coming from the player being unable to plan their moves effectively since exposing yourself to view the area will attract unwanted attention.

If there’s only one flaw it’s that the game crowbars in cameos from the original cast when it doesn’t always contribute to the game’s side of the story. Visiting Hershell’s farm and running into Glenn seems just to much of a coincidence. One or the other would’ve been fine but both seems like overkill.

The cell shading graphics is immensely effective (for the first time in gaming history) even with glitches caused by shadows and the voice acting is downright perfect. The right tone carries from scene to scene with the characters emoting believably, the music bringing the world to life and the split second choices that must be made keeping things fresh. You will be given only a second to decide who to save or risk losing them both. Most games aiming for this level of interaction and suspense usually end up gimmicky.

If you want to drop yourself into a thought provoking story-driven survival tale you cannot move past this title. The second episode cannot come soon enough. The extra bonuses of seeing how your decisions measure up against the entire gaming population and a preview of the next episode added a cherry to the cream heaped on the icing of a very gory cake.