Zombies are everywhere. Not in the literal shambling around eating your loved ones sense perhaps, but in terms of popular culture they’re ubiquitous. Comic books, films, TV series and of course games are rife with the bitey buggers. One zombie brand in particular has made the leap across multiple formats, from comic books, to TV and most recently to games.
AMC’s The Walking Dead television series, adapted from Robert Kirkman’s comics at first promised to be a breathtaking serialisation of the zombie apocalypse. We watched in our millions as that bloke from This Life and Teachers did his best silly American accent, all the while wielding a giant handgun that gaming’s finest zombie-killer (Barry Burton) would be proud of. It’s inevitable in zombie fiction, that the tale becomes not about the zombies themselves, but the breakdown of human society and the collapse of morality in an ailing world. It becomes about humans being human and humans turning in monsters of a different sort. Sadly, for the Walking Dead TV show, it also seemed to be about sitting around on a farm, awkward love triangles and silent black men standing in the corner, their only form of communication; the frantic look in their eye that screams ‘please, just give me one line this episode, just one! I promise I won’t mess it up’ It’s a show that frequently fails to deliver on the compelling premise and becomes mired in melodrama, though it sprinkles enough Zombie thrills that we yet retain some hope that it will eventually come good.
We’re now up to Episode Two of Telltale’s adventure series adaptation, and if moving The Walking Dead’s zombie action into Telltale’s signature – talk a bit, combine some items and do a simple puzzle – formula seemed like an odd fit initially, now that we’re onto Episode Two we get a better sense of Telltale’s vision and what they’re trying to do. It turns out, they’re trying to make a story that runs parallel to the TV series, incorporates a lot of similar themes and probably does a better job overall than the TV show. Episode Two picks up a couple of months after the conclusion of the first, our hero Lee and the band of misfit survivors he’s attached himself to are living in the motel discovered at the end of the first episode. They’re also slowly starving to death, with in-fighting and bickering taking root within the group. Rather than spend nine episodes showing that bickering (ala the TV Show) the game gets across the central arguments through its characters, who are well-drawn and for the most part sympathetic (except Larry, Larry is a dick). As Lee, we can take sides, try to remain neutral or try and assume a leadership position of our own, through our words and through our actions. It’s here we see the most compelling part of the game – the on-going relationships of the characters. As well as making key decisions throughout each episode that carry on to the next, there’s a real sense that the other actors in this play are paying attention to what we do or say. So, the time I (as Lee) slipped and said something ‘smelled like shit’ in the first episode, is remembered by the ridiculously cute orphan Clementine, whose innocent repetition of the offending word in Episode Two brought a guilty chuckle. There’s a real sense as you play that the words Lee utters (as selected by you) don’t just exist in the context of that conversation, but change how characters react to you in the future and that’s an impressive achievement.
The Clementine character acts a moral centre for the game, the temptation with Lee is to turn him into a gaming stereotype badass who swears and punches his way to a position of tired legend. But if you’re anything at all like me, you’ll find yourself holding back, thinking before you act and trying to set the best example for your young charge, doing what little you can to shield her from the horrors of The Walking Dead’s world. Speaking of horrors, tender moments of conversation and smart character development aside, The Walking Dead operates in a pretty bleak place. In a reversal of ‘every cloud has a silver lining’, it turns out that ‘every glimmer of hope and humanity is immediately cancelled out by a moment of brutal blood-letting and despair’. If the first episode was about desperate survival, then Episode Two is geared more towards creeping paranoia and the sense that the people left over in the world face a real struggle to keep their humanity. As Episode two’s climax builds to a crescendo, a real sense of dread creeps in, not relying on cheap shocks, but gut wrenching reveals as characters you’ve come to feel attached to are put through the grinder.
The player’s interaction with the game is limited to dialogue selection, some adventurey frolicking/puzzling, the occasional choice of decisive action and partaking in some crude but relatively inoffensive QTE’s. Whether or not that’s enough for you, I suspect hinges on how engaged you are with the fiction and the characters. The audio and visuals go a long way towards this, with solid voice-work across the board and a fitting comic-book graphical style. In my case, I cared and I felt responsible for the on-going survival of the group. The characters in the Walking Dead don’t always seem like they’re worthy of salvation, too entrenched in their petty concerns and selfish (yet relatable) desires. But when you’ve seen the alternative, you’ll come to realise that Lee, with fire axe in hand and ragged band of survivors at his back, deserves a fighting chance. As the player, our role is to make sure Lee gets the important decisions right, Telltale have given us agency in a terrific story and that alone is worthy of the price of admission.
Verdict – Headshot
Platforms Available – PC/360
Platform Reviewed – PC
For more details on our scoring system, please check out this post.