Well, the end is upon us. Through good and bad, through horrible and slightly less horrible, through hacked off limbs, food shortages and crying children, “The Walking Dead” has brought to the table some of the best characterisation I’ve seen in video games, with a deeply emotional, harrowing narrative that ups the ante with each episode. Now it’s come to an end. Well, this initial series at least. Episode five recently hit the PSN store, which I saw as an opportunity to finally review the game as a whole.
Unlike the upcoming first person shooter “The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct”, this “Walking Dead” is an adventure game, with quick time events and an emphasis on player choice weaved through the game, which largely manifests as a speech system. Apart from cameos from Glenn and Hershel, the game doesn’t involve the cast of the TV series, instead focusing on a whole new group, pieced together largely in the first episode, with a few other members joining later. You control Lee Everett- a man who is inducted into this new, apocalyptic reality while being driven to prison for a crime he may or may not have committed. After escaping to a nearby house he meets Clementine- an eight year old girl who soon becomes very close to him, with her consistently being his guide when it comes to moral issues and the like. First off, Clementine is a rare thing in fiction for me; a genuinely likable child character. All through the game I was doing my utmost to keep her safe, happy and generally trying to make decisions that kept her in a positive place. Her relationship with Lee is touching and believable; it’s probably the best example of the excellent writing and character development in the game.
As previously mentioned, “The Walking Dead” is an adventure game. You control Lee with the left stick, and use the right stick to move a cursor round to look at, pick up or use items. During the frequent attacks from zombies, a quick time button press may appear, or you’ll have to hover the crosshair over whatever is attacking you and use a context sensitive action. This largely works well, with the speed required to successfully implement the context sensitive attacks not being unfair, but feeling rewarding when you pull it off. However, they can be messed up if you aren’t paying attention, which sometimes results in Lee’s death, or, more often you’ll get another chance. The exploring/finding items/using said items part of the game relies much more on logic than most adventure games – particularly some of the older ones – and feels involving while advancing the plot. Two stand-0ut moments include being tasked distribute four food items amongst ten people, and in the same episode coming across a man caught in a bear trap; Lee’s options being leave the man, or hack his leg off with an axe- an action that takes several attempts and is far more harrowing than any violent action game I’ve played. It’s mainly down to the context and atmosphere- it’s so heavy and dreadful and every action in the game has weight to it because you don’t know if it will come back into play later. The game points out every episode that the “Game is tailored to the way you play”, and it genuinely feels that way.
However, there are some problems. Episodes 1, 2 and 3 have technical issues- mainly in the form of freezing and the odd vanishing texture. They don’t cause too much of a problem, but they’re definitely noticeable and can be irritating at times. Fortunately, they’re ironed out by episode four. The bigger problem, however is that despite the choices you make, certain things are unavoidable. Only a certain amount and combination of characters can be present at the start of episode five, and the ones that do die can’t be saved, at least not for long. Taken as a whole, the game’s story can seem quite linear, but with a story this strong it doesn’t hurt for it to be guided sometimes. It’s certainly a lot better than the same problem in “Heavy Rain”, for example. There are plenty of choices that do make a real difference, though- the decisions you make in these moments are displayed at the end of the mission, along with the percentage of players that voted the same way as you. The majority of the choices are genuinely hard to make. This is compounded by the fact that the choices often appear suddenly and give you a very tight time limit to decide what you want to do, which works brilliantly.
The story across the five episodes is the best part of the game, when combined with the decisions. Seeing the characters grow and reveal different sides of themselves as the situation grows more and more dire is a joy to behold. A harrowing, depressing, horrible joy that wears you down and leaves you feeling drained at the end of the episode, but a joy all the same. The story and characterisation is joint-best this year with bleak, harrowing, disturbing military shooter “Spec Ops: The Line” (One of my very favorite games of the year, and indeed ever). Bascically, it demonstrates that video game stories can stand up to fiction in other media.
Despite some problems, “The Walking Dead” is a masterpiece of characterisation and storytelling. The central realtionship between Lee and Clementine is worth preserving through the game, and the two characters themselves are wonderfully endearing. It’s violent, horrible, bleak, depressing and utterly, utterly brilliant. It’s one of the best games I’ve ever played, and brought out an emotional reaction in me that other games have consistently failed to achieve. It deserves to be played. It needs to be played- to show that this sort of thing is still relevant these days.
By James Lambert