This review was originally posted on a website I briefly served as Senior Editor, examining these games on then-new gen platforms Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
The video game industry has quickly become one of the single most vibrant enterprises in all of entertainment, and it's easy to see why: with increases in technological capability, game developers and storytellers are coming together to turn the interactive format into one of the most potent narrative mediums active right now. While some video games try to tell a good story and sometimes fail, one developer that has consistently shown a dedication to the storytelling is Telltale Games, with their creative and engineering staff unifying to bring truly resonant games to life for millions of players.
After their effort with the Vertigo/DC Comics adaptation The Wolf Among Us, based on the ongoing comic book series Fables, it was clear to see that a lot of the gameplay and design elements in that experience are owed to perhaps Telltale’s most defining success to date: their games based on the comic book series The Walking Dead, created by writer Robert Kirkman and artists Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard. With no narrative ties to the popular AMC TV show of the same name, the video game’s connection to the comic book series is apparent in everything from the art style present in both games, to even some of the characters.
Recently, both games, or “seasons” of The Walking Dead were re-released for new generation consoles: the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. This gives old and new players alike the perfect opportunity to revisit both games, and see whether or not they hold up in transitioning to new hardware. So, let’s dive into the overrun desolation of The Walking Dead, and see how the games stand alongside other new gen competition.
Design and Story
With the first season seemingly picking things up mere moments after the beginning of the zombie outbreak in Atlanta documented in early issues of the comic book series, The Walking Dead is primarily a story of good people trying to survive an undoubtedly bad situation. In season 1, the main character is Lee Everett, whom we meet in the back of a police car on his way out of Atlanta to serve a conviction for murder. It doesn’t take long before the gabby policeman takes his eyes off the road long enough to hit a shuffling mass of undead flesh in the middle of the highway, sending the car off the road and providing Lee a means of escape. It doesn’t take him long to realize that something is seriously wrong, and through fate or happenstance meets a resilient young girl who’s doing her best to survive on her own. Her name’s Clementine, and with her parents gone and no one to look after her, Lee takes it upon himself to give the kid a guardian in a time when she really needs one.
Lee and Clem eventually meet up with another group of survivors, as they try to find supplies and make it as best they can. Much of the actual plot of The Walking Dead games can be described as trying to make the best out of a bad situation, since Lee, Clem, and the other characters of focus are often put in extremely difficult positions that are often choices between life or death for themselves or other members of the group. The way in which you play the game actually determine’s Lee’s overall personality, since you can choose to be a calm, patient role-model for Clem, or a violent and even belligerent fighter who would just as soon shoot another survivor as fast as you see them. Ultimately, the story of the first game is actually rather heartwarming when looked at in the context of Lee and Clem’s relationship, as he helps to form the young kid into a resilient survivor equipped to make a lot of very difficult decisions on her own.
She’ll need that equipping, too, since Clem is the sole character of focus in the second game. Spending the first part of the game cut off from other survivors, Clem has to put all of her skills to the test to make it on her own. Eventually finding a new group that’s less than trusting of her upon their first meeting, she’s forced to creatively demonstrate just how much of a survivor she is when she’s given no one else to depend on but herself. This eventually gives way to more heartwrenching decisions where you ultimately decide the fates of many people within your group, and you’ll need to quickly and carefully weigh the consequences of your decisions, since it can ultimately affect your standing later in the game.
As is customary with modern Telltale games, the story is actually rather open-ended when compared to a lot of other games on the market, and it's completely dependent on who you choose to associate with, and how you ultimately choose to make decisions over the course of both games' stories. While Lee and Clementine have some fundamental differences as characters, you are the unifying factor, since it will still be you making decisions for them as you play both games. Your overall attitude in choosing how to survive the zombie apocalypse will be the ultimate factor in determining where the story ends up going, especially as it pertains to the second game. Characters are very well developed whether you interact with them for as short as 20 minutes or as long as a couple of full episodes, and those characters can often come with their own agendas and secrets that you need to consider before joining their ranks...or declaring war on them.
The stories in both games are very well-told dramas, putting you at the center of each story beat but, in a way, the choices that the games ask you to make can be very emotionally taxing. While I was absolutely addicted to finding out what would happen next, I was often afraid of what could happen depending on the circumstances of each situation: likely the sign of a good horror/suspense game.
Design-wise, the games evoke the comic book they’re styled after very well. Playing the game on an Xbox One or PS4 when compared to the Xbox 360 or PS3, there is definitely less of a visual hiccup of sorts when playing: the framerate on the new gen version is much smoother, and the overall presentation was preserved very well. While I don’t think the actual elements necessarily look better on the new hardware, the games definitely played smoother, and that was a welcome change in the transition to new gen, since the wide gamut of platforms these games are available on doesn't always make them run particularly smoothly.
Much like The Wolf Among Us, The Walking Dead‘s choice-based gameplay gets a huge chance to shine here. Again, the story is the chief star of the experience, and all of the gameplay elements are designed to accentuate the choices you have to make, and the elements that you have to find in the environment in order to move the story along. More conventional gameplay elements, like the times where you have to engage in combat, are similar to those present in Wolf, which I described thusly:
When you’re actively investigating, each point of interest within the game map is highlighted for you to find, but in some cases it may also be easy to miss something. You may also have an item in your inventory that you can then apply to a situation that doesn’t have an obvious solution. Combat in the game is a mixture of quicktime events (or “QTE’s”) requiring a deft button press or continuous tap, along with maneuvering your cursor in a tense situation to find an object or throw a decisive hit in a specific place on your opponent’s body, or in the environment.
Choice, though, is the name of the game. As you progress through the story, the choices you make determine the overall direction of the story, since the game actively tailors itself to the choices that you make over the course of your play-through. While in The Wolf Among Us the choices often led you down a thicker plot or a path of intrigue, in The Walking Dead it can often lead to some form of heartbreak for either you or another character in your group.
I’m not sure I’ve ever played another game that ever made me question whether I actually had enough emotional maturity to play it, since as of right now, that spot is solely reserved for both seasons of The Walking Dead. Whether that makes you want to play it or avoid it, to me, that’s one of the biggest compliments that the game can be paid, since you feel like the story means something even through all of the hard or terrifying moments. Through it all, life has a meaning.
Both seasons of The Walking Dead are masterpieces. Each one was a solid contender for “Game of the Year” from a multitude of different outlets, the gameplay is emotional and engaging, the characters are extremely well-written and performed, and both experiences still stand as spectacular because of the pivotal element of choice. It’s one thing for a developer to implant choice in a game on the surface level, but it's another thing entirely to create experiences that change based on your choices, and make it feel as though each choice can open up a whole new set of possibilities and consequences. The Walking Dead accomplishes that in both its seasons, forcing this reviewer to join the chorus of praise that’s been consistent with these releases since the first game bowed in 2012.
With newfound availability on recent formats like the Xbox One and PS4, there really is no reason why you shouldn’t give these games a try, especially if you’re a fan of thought-provoking, well-written zombie fiction. While the world goes to hell around them, in the end these are still stories about people and their willingness to survive. Thankfully, Telltale never loses sight of that, and in fact celebrates the humanity of all the characters in having to deal with an impossibly harsh situation. Go play these, now.