Just before Telltale’s episodic video game adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s comic book series The Walking Dead first debuted in April, fans of the property had a laundry list of concerns. Would a video game be able to capture the oppressive atmosphere that has made Kirkman’s books such a macabre joy? Would Telltale have the courage to push their game intto the shockingly dark territory that The Walking Dead books usually plumb for their most emotionally resonant moments? Do people still want to play a classic adventure game in an era where gaming is defined by endless first-person shooters and bombastic explosions?
Then Telltale released Episode 1 of The Walking Dead and all doubts were immediately cast away, replaced instead by a sense of awe at how well-crafted and engaging Telltale’s game was. Of course, fans then expected the worst and assumed that the developer wouldn’t be able to match the quality of the first Episode in its sequel. Telltale proved doubters wrong there as well. Over the course of four increasingly violent, increasingly frightening, and increasingly depressing episodes, Telltale has repeatedly topped itself to the astonishment of fans and gleeful critics alike (now would be a good time to have a look at our reviews of Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, and Episode 4).
And now comes the final chapter, Episode 5 of The Walking Dead, the appropriately titled No Time Left. If you were expecting Telltale to finally drop the ball, we’ve got bad news for you: The Walking Dead Episode 5 is not just a fantastic end to this first season of the game, it’s also the best Walking Dead Episode to date.
This Is The End
If you know only one thing about The Walking Dead, it’s that the property centers on zombies. However, if you know two things, you know that in truth the game, comics, and television series are not so much stories about the zombie apocalypse as they are stories of disparate groups of survivors attempting to remain sane and alive amidst the apparent end of days. A strong focus on that second aspect has been the backbone of all of Telltale’s Episodes so far, and in that regard Episode 5 does not disappoint. It may not be the most violent episode, but what it lacks in straight-up gore, it more than makes up for in shock value. Not in the “cheap jump scares” sense that plagues so many modern survival horror games, but instead by building a complex, multi-layered world that constantly kicks players when they’re down. There is no happy ending once the credits roll on Episode 5 (but if you’ve been expecting that, you likely haven’t been paying very close attention).
The other key theme of The Walking Dead has always been that no one is safe. No matter how much you like protagonist Lee or the adorable Clementine, either one of them could be torn apart by zombies or shot by another survivor at the drop of a hat. It would be easy for this concept to wear thin on players very quickly as too many deaths would simply desensitize them to the plight of the characters in the game. Too few deaths however, and you lose a sense of tension. To solve this problem, Telltale’s writers have spent five episodes crafting some of the most complex, nuanced human characters we’ve ever seen in a game. Each person, though obviously not an actual human, seems to have his or her own motivations, fears, and hopes for this bleak new reality. By building The Walking Dead on a classic adventure game template, Telltale made it easy to connect with each individual, which only makes it that much more harrowing when a character you’ve come to know and love is killed. Most games can’t even form a connection between a single protagonist and a player, so it’s very impressive that Telltale is able to create connections so effortlessly, even if it then twists these connections to heighten the game’s horror atmosphere.
If you thought this would be the point where I drop the bombshell that both Lee and Clem are killed off in horrific fashion during Episode 5, sorry, but that would be revealing too much of the plot. Though it does make the game more difficult to review, if you take nothing else away from this, trust that you are better off experiencing The Walking Dead’s expertly-crafted plot for yourselves, as Telltale intended. Ideally, in a dark room, with few distractions and maybe a stiff drink to take the edge off when your nerves become a bit too frayed.
That said, those of you who were hoping that Telltale would continue to ramp up the dark tone of The Walking Dead should be very pleased by Episode 5. It’s not quite as blunt as Episodes 3 or 4, but the incidents you experience are as emotionally resonant and actively moving as anything in the series to date. Once the credits have started rolling (by the way, you should definitely sit through the credits; trust me on this one too) you should be sitting there, mouth agape at what you’ve just experienced and how thoroughly Telltale is able to draw players into a relatively traditional survival-horror story purely by virtue of amazing writing and realistically complex character building.
Sadly, The Walking Dead’s story is so good that it casts a stark relief on the rest of the games industry. After playing The Walking Dead, it’s difficult to return to other, more traditional blockbuster titles, as the majority of developers are either unable or unwilling to match the quality of the writing seen in Telltale’s game. On the other hand, this episodic adaptation of The Walking Dead has been selling quite well for Telltale, so maybe this is an indication that players, if given the choice, would readily gravitate toward good writing and well-crafted characters, instead of the rote run ‘n gun action we see so often.
If It Looks Like A Zombie And Sounds Like A Zombie
In our reviews of The Walking Dead to date, we haven’t spent much time discussing the game’s technical aspects. Not because we dislike what Telltale has done with this game’s aesthetics and sound, but because they’re so good that you simply don’t notice them. Yes, it’s impressive that Telltale’s artists were able to nearly replicate the Walking Dead art of Charlie Adlard for the video game. Yes, it’s impressive that Telltale assembled such an excellent cast of vocal talent and that the game’s ambient sounds are perfectly capable of terrifying players by themselves. However, it’s far more impressive that by the time Episode 5 was ending, we’d completely stopped paying attention to how the game looks and sounds, in favor of focusing entirely on the story. Ideally, graphics and audio should exist to serve the story, and it’s almost depressing that The Walking Dead stands out specifically because it’s one of the few games that manages to get this concept right.
It should also be pointed out though, that with Episode 5 it seems that Telltale has finally mastered the engine it created for The Walking Dead. Though we adored the past four episodes of The Walking Dead, each had a few minor glitches and scripting errors that, while far from game-breaking, did serve to momentarily disrupt a player’s suspension of disbelief. It’s difficult to stay engaged when a character disappears from a scene at random or certain lines become unsynced from a character’s lip movements. It’s never been a huge issue for the series, but it’s nice to see that Episode 5 appears to have sloughed off these minor flaws. Even with the issues which inevitably crop up when reviewing a game prior to its official release, I didn’t once notice any oddly aberrant behavior, or glaring moments that were obviously mistakes.
There is one bit of novel technology in The Walking Dead that we can’t help but mention: The game’s decision making system. As with previous episodes, Episode 5 allows players to make various dialogue choices during gameplay that can have surprisingly dramatic effects on the game. We interviewed Gary Whitta, writer of Episode 4, shortly after its debut, and he told us that while all the divergent story lines eventually get to the same key points by the end of the game, it’s very easy to have a drastically different experience than your friends did merely because you happen to be a bit more kind-hearted. The end result is a game that plays out like a personality test, with no real “rewards,” just different scenarios to experience based on your choices. Episode 5, being the final episode of the first season, is where most of these story threads merge back together, and it’s really great to see a decision you made months ago in one of the earlier episodes finally pay off in a big (or not so big) way. Again, no spoilers, but I predict that a lot of you are going to be kicking yourselves over choices you made in the past.
If I have one qualm about The Walking Dead Episode 5 though, it’s that it marks the end of this adventure. We’ll eventually be playing through a second season of The Walking Dead, but it may be asking too much to hope that anything you’ve done here will carry over to Season Two in any really meaningful fashion. From a design standpoint I understand why Telltale wouldn’t want to push a bunch of loose plot cords to the next season, but at the same time there’s an undeniable sense of finality once Episode 5 has come to a close. This, it seems, is the danger with episodic entertainment: You get used to playing new adventures every month, and then when a company runs out of stories to tell, you’re stuck waiting anxiously for something to fill that entertainment void. Hopefully Telltale doesn’t make us wait too long for Season Two.
It should be apparent by now that we adore The Walking Dead, but more important than how we feel about it, is why we feel so strongly that each of you should rush out and buy each episode. Here is a game, released in the same time span as big-budget blockbuster games like Halo 4 and Assassin’s Creed III, that trumps both of those multi-million-selling titles purely because it’s such a fundamentally sound gaming experience. Instead of relying on flashy graphics or ambient sound designed to push $5,000 surround sound systems to the brink, Telltale Games has created an adventure that succeeds on the strength of its writing, and thus should be enjoyable not just for hardcore gamers or people who get off on killing zombies, but also for anyone who likes the idea of being sucked into a witty, dark, emotionally intense tale for twenty-plus hours of their lives.
Though Telltale’s game doesn’t really do anything terribly original, the elements in this game are so well-crafted that they serve to create a whole that is far more than the sum of its albeit impressive parts. No hyperbole: The Walking Dead is the perfect modern adventure game, and given its necessarily tight pacing and the length of its individual episodes, it may even trump Kirkman’s own Walking Dead comics as the best rendition of this universe to date.
Then again, even if it isn’t better than its comic book source material, The Walking Dead is still an utterly perfect distillation of everything that makes Kirkman’s writing so great: Realistic human characters, oppressive atmosphere and an unending drive to emotionally torture players by destroying the lives of a small group of desperate survivors. Top that with intuitive, surprisingly diverse gameplay options, and a game engine that delivers great graphics and audio, and it’s easy to see why The Walking Dead has attracted such a vast, rabid fanbase. Hopefully this kind of support ensures that Telltale will keep creating new Walking Dead Episodes until all of the world’s shambling corpses are reduced to dried up skeletons choking the streets of Savannah.
(This review was written using a digital copy of The Walking Dead: Episode 5 provided by Telltale Games.)