The deck seemed a little stacked against The Walking Dead games from the start. Videogame adaptations of other mediums have rarely gone too well (the Batman Arkham games being the major exception of recent times), zombies seem to have lost all mystique by this point, and developer Telltale’s attempts at turning Back to the Future and Jurassic Park into adventure games have been underwhelming and appalling respectively. Amazingly, The Walking Dead manages to outdo both the comic and TV show of the same name.
It takes the visual style (pseudo hand-drawn rather than photo-real) of the former and the focus on character relationships of the latter to create something darkly memorable, packed with difficult decisions and attendant horrible consequences. Rather than being an action game – because God only knows we’ve got more than enough opportunities to shoot zombies over and over again already – the focus is on making choices intended to keep a small group of apocalypse survivors alive.
Split, as is Telltale’s habit, into five two-to-three episodes, it’s very much about telling a story. Episode 2 has just landed, and successfully builds on the tension and drama of the surprisingly affecting first instalment. The series doesn’t follow the characters of the comic and TV show, though occasionally features cameos or shared locations, and instead is the tale of ex-con Lee Everett. A good man with a dark past, he accidentally becomes a replacement father figure to a young girl apparently orphaned during the zombie outbreak, as well as the lynchpin member of a band of survivors who can barely stand to be in the same room as each other.
It’s zombie movie staples, but between the touching relationship between Lee and his wide-eyed charge and the fact that it’s your decision that leads to others’ horrible deaths, it doesn’t feel like it’s treading over-familiar ground. Choices such as who to side with in an argument or who to save when the undead inevitably break through the barricades have to be made incredibly quickly, for if the timer in these events runs out inaction will likely mean double-disaster. It’s this that’s the main substitute for action, and even if it arguably means actual interaction with the game outside of choosing dialogue options could be said to be limited, the pressure and the presentation of the consequences reliably masks the game’s simple nature.
Meanwhile, the comic art-aping visual style gives it a look that’s all its own and hides a multitude of technical shortcomings by simple being hugely characterful. Received wisdom is that zombie games should be grim and gloomy, but by going bright and exaggerated, the juxtaposed horror of the undead attacks is that much more pronounced.
Less successful is that the more direct attempts at action, which tend to mean quick-reaction button-pushing to boot a zombie in the face before it eats your brains, or walking in tandem with a rolling cart to keep in cover. Mercifully, The Walking Dead doesn’t overdo these moments and tends to deploy them to amp up the tension rather than to fill time, but they can highlight the limitations of the game engine and controls.
Really though, the major complaint is having to wait long, often indeterminate periods between episodes of what’s turned out to be a compelling, unpredictable and impressively dark tale of what people will do to try and survive certain doom. It owes that to the moreish, long-running comic series, but while that’s exploitation with a disturbing nasty streak, the game has a heart of gold underneath the gore and fear. So far it’s avoided the soap opera-esque water-treading of the often tedious TV series too – though admittedly there are three episodes still to go.
If those final three can prove as strong and striking as the first two, we’re looking at something very special indeed.