Saturday, March 15, 2014

GOT 'IM - Telltale's The Walking Dead: Season One

Well, I failed my 4 in February goals, but not egregiously.  I wrapped up the first season of Telltale's The Walking Dead on February 27th, completing three out of my four "pledged" games.  Here's the review for the game that got me actually interested in a zombie apocalypse. 

Normally, zombies aren't my thing. I'm okay with seeing zombies as enemy creatures in a game, but as a small part of a fantasy menagerie and not as the sole monster in story-driven media.  With the exceptions of Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland (both of which are comedy films that happen to be set during zombie apocalypses), I'm not interested in zombie films.  Sure, the dead coming back to life is scary, but I don't find a relentless horde of zombies particularly terrifying or awe-inspiring the way that SO MANY people do.  I think that zombies, while not a "bad" plot device or movie monster, are overrated and rote.  Mostly, I just don't get why they have so many fans.  Like, specific, particular fans that will indulge in zombie ANYTHING. 

So yeah, I'm a little cold on zombies, but interested in this game.  I have relatively little history with LucasArts, Sierra, Double Fine, OR Telltale adventure games, but I have many fond memories of playing Full Throttle in elementary school at my friend Jason's house and I enjoy Japanese puzzle-adventure-visual novels more with each new one I play.  So I'm down to try adventure games.  But why go for this zombie adventure game, going so far as to put it on my list?  Well, it came as a bonus in a Humble Bundle, so that's why I have it.  But it was also one of the absolute most popular and best-reviewed games of 2012, earning absolute RAVES from just about everyone that I heard talk or write about it.  So first it had my curiosity, and in mid-February it had my attention.

The Walking Dead is related to the comic and TV show of the same name in that it takes place in the same world.  Nearby, in fact, as all three stories take place in Georgia around the same time.  However, the narratives never really intersect, and even if there are characters and locations shared between the comic and the game, none of it's the same.  So, I went into the game with zero knowledge of the TV show or comic, and I was 100% fine.  It worked out.

The Walking Dead is the story of Lee Everett, a convict whose police car hits a pedestrian while driving him to prison.  Long story short, that pedestrian was a zombie and the state of Georgia (possibly the rest of the country as well) is dealing with a zombie fuckin' apocalypse.  Lee manages to escape the Atlanta metro area with Clementine, a little girl that was hiding out in her treehouse before Lee found her.  Lee and Clementine cross paths with several other survivors, and the large group of them go through a large number of harrowing trials and tribulations traveling through Macon and Savannah in search of a safe haven.

I'm going to try and avoid spoilers as much as I can - all I really knew going in was that Clementine survives into Season Two (which is currently being released in episodes), since she is the star of that story. Lee and Clementine make their way to the city of Macon in the first episode (Lee's hometown) and join a group of survivors.  The group dynamic of that group is perhaps the biggest part of The Walking Dead, with Lee and Clementine's relationship taking center stage.  The player, as Lee, needs to decide which other characters with whom to agree or disagree.  Two of the central characters in the early goings are the pragmatic, family-first Kenny and the de-facto leader Lily.  Again, avoiding spoilers, Lee will have to choose between siding with Kenny or siding with Lily at several key junctures, and those decisions can have major plot implications.

And here's where The Walking Dead feels different from older adventure games.  It's less married to the weird puzzle rituals and Item-A-into-Slot-B event flagging of older Western adventure games, but also isn't explicitly about character interactions and seeking different endings like Japanese visual novels.  The Walking Dead is definitely about the story and characters, as each character will "remember" Lee's decisions between episodes and affect plot points, dialog, and even which characters live and die.  And speaking of dialog, The Walking Dead has some EXCELLENT dialog.  Voice work is superb, and the characters are surprisingly believable and appealing.  By game's end I was determined to protect the SHIT out of Clementine; the writers did a particularly strong job of making Clementine the coolest eight-year-old in gaming history.  Sorry, Nanako.

So we have a branching plot, branching dialog, and a character-driven story.  That's where The Walking Dead shines, but it still has some video-gamey-ness stuck in it.  There are several item-grabbing scenarios and puzzles where you have to fiddle around with machines and escape from locked rooms, just like all those puzzle-driven visual-adventure games I mentioned four or five paragraphs ago.  The puzzles aren't NEARLY as rough as those from the 1990s heyday of adventure games, and it's appreciated.  Hey, I mentioned having affection for Full Throttle, but that doesn't mean I've beaten it.  Or any LucasArts game for that matter.  The Walking Dead is about character interaction, difficult decisions, and experiencing the story.  Puzzles are there, but they take a backseat.

Two things that weren't very strong about The Walking Dead's new modern take on the adventure game are, unfortunately, key parts of the game.  The basic interfaces are slow and clunky at best.  Lee meanders at a snail's pace, and this is usually fine, but occasionally frustrating in larger areas or sectiosn where backtracking is necessary - those places are only occasional, but still present.  The controls are usually fine, but during timed sequences it can be hard to see what the hotspots are (i.e. the things you're supposed to interact with).  That's a problem.

The other gripe is action sequences.  There are sections where Lee is supposed to kill undead without being seen, or run from them while accomplishing a secondary task like shooting, or accomplish a task on a timer.  These are sometimes great, and sometimes weak.  The game does a good job of making timers obvious (either with reddening screens or visible timers right there) but when it's not clear what Lee's supposed to be doing, it'll result in a game over.  Thankfully, those game overs usually just mean replaying less than three minutes of expository dialog, but I still think they're clumsy for the most part, even when they're entertaining.

EDIT: yeah, forgot to do this earlier.  Audio stuff.  The voice acting in TWD is excellent and enhances the portrayals of the already-interesting characters.  And the soundtrack, while occasionally a little sparse, does its job pretty well.  With few standout tunes other than the signature theme that plays during episode ending sequences, the sound design is very strong and does a great job of building tension, which TWD never seems to lack. 

Now visual stuff.  TWD has stylized visuals that *look* cel-shaded but I'm not sure if that's what it actually is.  It resembles the comic books a little, and overall is bold and clear without compromising its message.  What's more impressive is the very cinematic ways that the action is presented;the way the camera moves during scenes (especially action scenes), occasionally moving to a first-person view, makes upcoming zombies more menacing and makes the assorted jump-scares better.  TWD isn't going to win any awards for technical graphics or visual excellence, but it gets the job done and looks great throughout - playing on the PC, I didn't notice any bad glitches or visual tears. 

The Walking Dead has me very intrigued and optimistic about the future of adventure games.  Telltale has four different IP's it's working on in 2014 (including season two of TWD) and I'm definitely interested.  Of all my target games I've finished this year, it's probably my favorite. 

Games Beaten: 2014 Edition
1. Ys Seven
2. Rayman Origins
3. Assassin's Creed II
4. Dust: An Elysian Tail
5. The Walking Dead (season one)
6. Frog Fractions

Targets: 4/14


Quick word on Frog Fractions: it's an amazing browser game.  I tried playing Frog Fractions through last year, but got stuck in one particular segment.  I tried again earlier in the week (first week of March 2014) and got through it.  Hell of a game.  

I'm not sure I'll get back to Mark of the Ninja since it wasn't really clicking with me, but I did make it around 70% of the way through so maybe I should just wrap it.  Next up, Vagrant Story.  That game is weird, intimidating, and fourteen years old.  Let's do this. 

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