Review: The Walking Dead: 400 Days

TheWalkingDead_400Days

Season One of The Walking Dead, a video game based on the biggest Image comic around (not the AMC show), was a fantastic piece of storytelling that combined powerful voice work, thrills, and a sense of immersion that can only come from a video game. Objectively, the parts of Season One that one actually plays were as poor as the narrative was good. Going through half-a-dozen painfully obvious and almost mentally-automatic steps to change the batteries put the wrong way into a radio or threading a belt through a generator were in no way challenging like the puzzles found in a classic adventure game. The few instances where the designers tried to inject a game element beyond seeing things – I need to get over that gap, how about I use this bizarrely convenient ladder, the only interactive object in the area – felt artificial. But it didn’t matter that saving Clementine and the other survivors from the undead was just a matter of clicking a cursor because it felt immediate and impactful. 

If Season One of the episodic game was a three on a ten point scale of story to interaction, ranging from an uninteractive story like a movie on one end, to a bullet-hell shooter on the other, this standalone episode from Telltale is a two. That is not to say it is not worth checking out, but it is barely a game and people need to know what they are getting into.

The Walking Dead: 400 Days is a Bonus Episode that is supposed to span the gap between Season One and the forthcoming Season Two of everyone’s favorite zombie-based tearjerker. The game is set up in five vignettes showing the events surrounding an important decision in the lives of five survivors made at different points in the first 400 days after dead started coming back to life. These range from a large group of fairly civilized people camped out in a gas station dealing with a captured thief to something as charming as a chain gang trapped in a prison bus. Which short story is played first is selected by staring at a bulletin board pinned with pictures of lost loved ones. It is like a really sad Mega Man select screen. After the memorial in question is picked, that person’s background will be set up in brief and he or she will have to eventually make a choice that will resolve an immediate threat and probably have consequences later on. As an introduction to new characters this is great and makes me want to play the new episodes where these characters will interact and be further fleshed out, but as self-contained stories they are meaningless.

In terms of tone, the foreshadowing of what is going to happen in Season Two is dark indeed. The walkers are creepy, but the most threatening things are unseen human antagonists that are only shown in spurts and flashes, if at all. The game makes good use of the unseen to convey a sense of menace. What is shown looks fine and just like the last season. The characters are all expressive and basically look like someone colored in people cut out of and modeled from the comic book. To be clear, it did not look like there were any people from the comic appearing in the five stories and there were only vague references to characters and events from the first Season’s episodes. The voices seem fine and distinct, but it is difficult to say what kind of range they will have given the examples. All in all the five main characters seem like interesting people who will clash with one another and recommend different solutions similar to the group dynamics found in the first installments.

The_Walking_Dead_400_Days

As before, if anyone is going to have a problem with this content it is going to be that there is no challenge or substantial gameplay. Walk here, click on this icon there, mash the button to keep this zombie from eating your face–it is all obvious and easy. The crucial step necessary to the most difficult puzzle involved looking in the glove compartment of a car. Now, it could be argued that this is supposed to be a realistic setting, but for the shambling corpses, it would be weird if there were trick keys, trapdoors and other tropes. One might further argue that any complex the Umbrella Corporation ever built is obstructive to getting evil corporate work done but insecure enough to allow a lightly-armed S.T.A.R.S. officer to break into every room and kill everything with weapons found on site, but that misses the point. Video games are usually fun because they are unrealistic. ‘Grand Theft Auto: Real Ass Consequences Edition’ would not be a lot of fun because the cars wouldn’t drive over eighty miles an hour without being impossible to handle, the civilian traffic would not be easy to avoid or plow through and when you die your save would be deleted.

It does help drive home the dire situation people find themselves in to not allow for fantasy or improbable solutions, but realism also makes the settings dull and limits what players can do when they play – as is the case here – people who have no extraordinary skills. If the ex-junkie, vulnerable girl who is willing to do whatever it takes with whoever is available is secretly a former Green Beret who can judo throw and headshot zombies left and right, then I will not have seen that coming. Perhaps the next season will be like this episode and told from the perspective of the different, physically weaker characters and not just one everyday He-Man. This would put a new spin on things. Maybe a single zombie will actually be a threat again. (Towards the end of Season One, players were mowing the undead down like Frank West.) The evolution from nobody to Michonne-level skills felt natural in the first game, but it did ignore the perspectives of those in the groups that they are not as capable. Seeing how they deal with problems could be interesting from an experience perspective. Just not very interesting to actually do.

The price comes out to about a dollar per twenty minutes of entertainment, or “gameplay” if you want to be generous. Telltale says that the decisions made in this episode will impact the start of Season Two, and it will be relatively clear at the end exactly how that will be. There will probably be some temptation to go back and replay everything to get different results, whatever might be perceived as the good or best ending, but that is missing the point. The Walking Dead game is most impactful when you decide what is right or what you would do in a given situation and then see how that plays out. I trust that none of the decisions players will make will lead to a glorified Game Over screen that represents the bad or lesser ending. There are some basic plot points that were hit for everyone’s game last season, the immersion came from directing how players got there and living through the reactions from the other survivors. It helped things seem more real even though ultimately it did not matter which decision you chose at any given time because you’d always get to the end of the episode. While that might be a horrible development chore to keep all this continuity in check, it helped make me care about The Walking Dead. But this episode alone for five dollars is an iffy investment. The stories are introductory, which means shallow, and it is barely a game. 400 Days is exactly what it is billed as: a DLC bridge between two seasons. But, like a real bridge, unless you want to be on either side of it, you would never want to be on the connection in the middle.

TryIt

Pros:
+ Good background for characters presumably in the next season
+ Bleak tone will make this the darkest cartoon you will ever play

Cons:
– No challenge to speak of

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available for iOS, PSN, XBLA and coming to Vita (requires Season 1 installed)
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: 7/3/2013
Genre: Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: DLC purchased by reviewer

About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.