The Walking Dead Episode One Review: Giving Zombies Their Bite Back «

At one point in time, the concept of a zombie apocalypse stood as a genuinely terrifying idea. But, over the years, zombies have begun to serve a different role altogether; for the most part, they’ve become meat pinatas, assisting us in acting out our creative ultraviolent fantasies. Dead Rising and Dead Island may give us the chance to take out thousands of zombies with patently ridiculous weapons, but the badass protagonists of these particular games barely bat an eye at the moldering hordes trying to get a taste of their sweet innards. When compared to these exaggerated experiences, Telltale’s The Walking Dead feels much more like a documentary than Dead Alive; each and every undead encounter is meaningful (and horrible), and taking down a single zombie amounts to much more effort than tearing your way through wet tissue paper. This grounded approach meshes well with the typical slower pace of the traditional adventure formula, and also makes for one of the more atypical and interesting zombie games seen in quite some time.

After Telltale’s dreadful Jurassic Park, the company looked to be headed in a dangerous direction; JP’s QTE-based gameplay might have been highly approachable, but it removed most of what we’ve come to expect (and love) from their brand. The Walking Dead doesn’t return completely to the mechanics seen in the later Sam and Max seasons and Tales of Monkey Island, but it gives the player back some much-needed agency, rather than forcing them to undergo neverending series of button prompts. Make no mistake: the interface can’t get any simpler. The ways you can interact with objects and people have been reduced to their absolute basics, and old-school adventure game fans may be disappointed to find that the main character doesn’t have a pithy comment for every piece of background scenery. You can definitely feel Telltale’s hand guiding you throughout, though the developer has provided just the right amount of wiggle room to allow their story to be told effectively. Horror relies entirely on tension, which can easily be broken if players are allowed to meander for minutes, poking at puzzles and exhausting their character’s knowledge of everything in his pockets.

By all accounts, I shouldn’t like The Walking Dead; I loathed Heavy Rain, though in retrospect, the “interactive movie” concept isn’t inherently flawed — it just needs to be done right. Though The Walking Dead has some adventure game trappings, these are mostly sleight of hand — and the game even features its share of dull QTEs, as if we haven’t been sick of those since the moment of their inception. But at a meager two hours, The Walking Dead never has time to bore, as Telltale has emphasized pacing above all else with their latest adventure. While the narrative often gives you time to stretch your legs and chat with fellow survivors, the game makes it clear that zombie encounters happen unexpectedly — and bring with them some pretty terrible consequences. Speaking as someone who’s been a bit annoyed by Telltale’s unwillingness to take a jump into the risqué with their past games, I’m proud to say that The Walking Dead: Episode 1 features a healthy amount of violence, salty language, and one genuinely shocking moment that’s better to see for yourself than have spoiled in a review.

In an attempt to add a little more life into a very brief and guided experience, the first episode of The Walking Dead forces players to make a series of permanent choices without letting them in on the results. A few of these amount to siding with or saving a particular person, but even the individual conversation options yield unique information about the game’s characters and world which can’t be absorbed in a single experience. Playing through this episode a second time can make for a somewhat different experience, though it’s disappointing to see some events take place regardless of your choice; still, certain decisions will save one character at the cost of another, and it’ll be interesting to see how effectively Telltale will let these actions inform the narrative of the upcoming four episodes. I get the feeling that we’ll only see the faintest echoes of episode one decisions during the final chapter, but I’m hoping to be surprised.

If all of this praise makes me seem like a fan of The Walking Dead as a franchise, I have to apologize; I gave the comic a shot, but quit around the time Robert Kirkman decided to turn an entire issue into torture porn. And the less said about the TV show’s fall from grace (after a fantastic pilot), the better. Despite my distaste for this particular brand of zombie entertainment, I’m going to stick with Telltale’s version of The Walking Dead — and not just because episode one ends on a killer cliffhanger. While I’d love a zombie adventure game with a bit more to it, with The Walking Dead, Telltale’s managed to craft a gripping interactive movie that doesn’t irritate and alienate in the way their most recent effort did. And now, I can quietly dine on at least a few of my words.

 

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