Lee Everett is a man who gets a lucky break at the unluckiest of times. On his way out of Atlanta and headed to prison for a crime of passion that resulted in the death of a U.S. congressman, Lee suddenly finds himself set free thanks to the unlikeliest of Get Out of Jail Free cards: the zombie apocalypse.
This week, Telltale Games kicks of yet another transmedia treatment of Robert Kirkman’s zombified black & white comic book series, The Walking Dead. Writer Sean Vanaman, who also lent his talents to several Tales of Monkey Island episodes, has crafted a new story built into Kirkman’s universe, one that will play out over the course of five episodes. The first episode is out now, serving up a handful of adventure gaming hours in Lee Everett’s shoes.
Functionally, this interactive take on The Walking Dead falls somewhere between Telltale’s recent previous efforts Jurassic Park and Back to the Future. While the environments are more constricted than BttF‘s, there’s a fair amount of exploration with “find the item” puzzle solving built in. There are also action moments, essentially QTEs that require an additional bit of point-and-click dexterity, that we saw much more of in the dino adventure.
Really, the gameplay speaks for itself. This is a Telltale game, after all. The studio doesn’t always stick to the same formula; if anything, it’s constantly iterating on previously introduced ideas. The basic precepts of a Telltale adventure game are impossible to miss though, and they form the core of your interactions with The Walking Dead.
It falls to the story, then, to really deliver. Kirkman’s comic book series is like a constant, unending gut-punch of human misery. The man is merciless with his characters, and you can always bet that the penalty for any happy times they experience will come at a steep cost. It’s impossible to judge how Telltale’s take on The Walking Dead will go about capturing that with only one episode on the table so far, but Vanaman gets things off to a solid enough start.
This first episode is very much about scene setting and basic character development. We learn a lot about Lee Everett in the opening hour, but many of the facts that surface about him also raise additional questions. Some of these elements you’ll even shape through your own choices. More than once, the game forces you to choose between saving one human life at the cost of another. How these scenes play out will carry over across the four remaining episodes.
Character death isn’t the only thing shaping the larger story, however. You’ll talk to the various survivors you meet throughout the episode, and reveal facts about yourself in the process. The characters take note of what you say, a fact that the game will inform you of with a pop-up that reads something along the lines of “Character X will remember what you said” or “Character Y will remember that you sided with him.”
Most every time you’re presented with a set of dialogue options to choose from, an on screen timer appears pushing you to make an on-the-spot decision. It’s a simple feature, but it’s one that helps to keep you in the moment at all times.
The big element missing from episode one of The Walking Dead is any sense of payoff. With the exception of the life-or-death choices that are forced on you, there’s really no sense yet in this first episode that how characters perceive Lee mean anything. There are some big character moments for Lee that could certainly influence the way the story continues to unfold, but the biggest of these appear to be entirely pre-ordained.
That said, there’s a lot of promise here in this first episode of The Walking Dead. It does much to set the stage, though the hope moving forward is that some of the more one-dimensional characters — which is to say, all of them other than Lee — will develop further, and in unexpected ways.
For fans of Kirkman’s comic book series, this is a no-brainer. The books dig deeper, but they’ve had the advantage of time in being able to do that. The overall look of the game is great though; it’s pure Charlie Adlard, except rendered in color. Overall, The Walking Dead: Episode One is a fine first step even if the jury’s still out on whether or not Vanaman can nail the heavy themes that Kirkman explores in just five episodes.
(This game was reviewed on the PC on a copy provided by Telltale Games)