[Editor’s note: We realize that Episode 1 – A New Day was released in April. We received review code a little late, and held this review to coincide with the launch of Episode 2. Look for Episode 2’s review tomorrow!]
The Walking Dead: Episode 1- A New Day is Telltale Games’ best outing in the adventure genre in recent memory—if not, ever. Regardless of if you’re a fan of Robert Kirkman’s comic book series, which serves as the basis for Telltale’s series, there’s still a lot to take away from A New Day. If, however, you dislike zombies, a gripping narrative, Heavy Rain-like story progression, and the fact that you’ll be doing way more talking than shooting, then you might as well stop reading this review right now.
A New Day is the first of five episodes in the pipeline for the PlayStation Network. Players take control of Lee Everett, a man with a mysteriously troubled past. The episode starts with Lee being taken to prison. A hitch-hiking zombie bails him out of his sentence by introducing him—and the officer driving the car—to the end of the world.
This introduction does a great job of opening up one of the game’s biggest mysteries: what did Lee Everett do so wrong that he’s being brought to jail? If you play your cards right, you’ll have a little more information by the end of the episode. As usual, I’ll veer away from spoilers in my review, but I’ll have you know that Lee’s past makes him a deeper, more interesting character than your average ‘run-and-gun’ game protagonist.
The characters and story will keep you coming back and engaged with The Walking Dead’s episodes. Sorry, but if you came into this expecting anything more than engaging conversations, tough decisions, and downright gnarly consequences, you’ll be disappointed. But, if you came into this expecting (and wanting) all that, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised when the action takes center stage. Trust me; there are times when heat-of-the-moment decisions mean everything, and you’ll most probably end up second guessing yourself on responses you’ve chosen in certain conversations.
The Walking Dead game is defined by its story progression and character arcs. You choose your next move, how much your co-survivors know about you, who you choose to save in life-and-death situations, and which members of your group to befriend. But with the good comes the bad; you can’t make everyone happy. You’ll end up downright pissing some of your allies off, which will indirectly change the outcome of how the episode plays out. Story is everything in this game, and if I haven’t hammered my point home yet, let me make it simple: the tones, language, and moral grey areas brought forth by this narrative are a cut above most other games, at least in terms of maturity. I ended up legitimately caring for some characters –especially Clementine, a little girl you save at the beginning—and even regretting some of the things I said or chose. Games don’t often enough punish you for being an idiot, something The Walking Dead does in spades.
Gameplay is where The Walking Dead will be hit-or-miss for most people. In most situations, you move Lee around with the left analog stick while aiming your reticle across the environment with your right stick. At times, aiming your reticle might seem a little slow, but this is most probably designed that way in order to add to the high level of tension. Exploring environments takes some getting used to as well, but luckily, Telltale gives you the option to toggle a feature that subtly highlights objects and people you can interact with in the world with a white dot. The face buttons are used to select dialogue options during conversations, as well as selecting objects/people to interact with. For example, you can press the X button to speak to someone, or press Square to hand them an object. Other than that, all that’s really left are QTE sequences. I wasn’t kidding when I said that you’ll be doing more talking than shooting.
For example, at one point in the episode, a huge argument takes place between your group of survivors. As a player, you’re tasked with making quick decisions on what you say. Things get tense, and when push comes to shove (literally), you have to pick and choose sides on the spot by pressing face buttons, which are each assigned to a response (think Mass Effect).
Thoroughly exploring environments has its perks. You can find things like a tool or a photograph that will open up different choices when interacting with objects or speaking to someone respectively. However, you won’t have extreme freedom to roam wherever you want. The game is, after all, in the same vein as other Telltale games. It’s still a linear experience, but your choices affect the outcome of practically everything, gracefully giving the player an illusion of non-linearity.
In short, gameplay consists mostly of engaging in conversation; going on fetch quests (either for items or survivors); solving very, very basic puzzles; exploring; and giving items—like an energy bar—to your companions. The action sequences are different and varied enough that they all feel fresh, but it’s usually all about aiming your reticle over a zombie and pressing the X button to attack.
Presentation was another high note of the game for me, and will be for you, if you enjoy the art of Tony Moore & Charlie Adlard from the comic book series. The art is cell-shaded, and really focuses on character facial animations to convey emotions. There are some slight hiccups and frame rate drops here and there, but not enough to actually detract from the experience. The super stylized look of The Walking Dead keeps things enjoyable to look at—from slight details on Lee’s beard, to a pile of gore that was once a zombie before you went brutally swing-crazy with a hammer.
Voice acting and sound effects are pretty much always very well done, a blessing in disguise. Telltale shows that it understands what makes a story believable and great by nailing audio just enough. Nothing would pain me more than to have all this great writing bogged down by low-budget voice acting. Thankfully, this isn’t the case. From the sound of zombies chewing through flesh and bone, to Lee’s voice gently teaching Clementine about the new world, voice acting and sound effects are not only believable; they’re good enough to add tension and drama to any situation.
It’s hard not to finish The Walking Dead in one sitting, and that isn’t because it’s only 2-3 hours long—it’s because you won’t want to stop playing. At $4.99 per episode ($19.99 for a ‘Season Pass,’ which nets your all 5 episodes for $5 off), the asking price of admission isn’t high at all. Five bucks is a small price to pay for content that’ll keep you this engaged for over two hours. Remember: most movies in theaters these days can’t even do that.
I’m already sold and invested in Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. I can’t wait to see how my decisions will play out in future episodes, and I’m equally excited to see what happens to the characters I care about. Obviously, things could be better—no game is perfect—but I’m excited by the ride that Telltale will take me on in the next couple of months. If the California-based studio keeps this up for the next four episodes, it could have one of the best examples of how great episodic gaming can be, not only in this generation, but ever.