Saturday, July 13, 2013

REVIEW - The Walking Dead : 400 Days.

The Walking Dead : 400 Days is the latest chapter in Telltale Games' Walking Dead series, meant to bridge the gap between last year's award-winning season 1 and the upcoming season 2.

It's less of an adventure game than season 1 and more of an interactive story - and instead of focusing on the relationship between two lead characters, 400 Days spreads itself out over five small chapters, introducing five separate characters who may feature heavily in the next season.

This will be brief.  Let's dig in.

Telltale's The Walking Dead season 1 was the delightful return of the adventure game - a genre that's been all but dead since video games went polygonal in the late nineties - and it was a surprising critical and commercial success.  While not a flawless exercise, The Walking Dead glosses over its sub-par graphics with strong camera work and art direction, and punchy textures that reference the heavy but simple, emotive lines of Kirkman, Moore and Adlard's comic books.

It uses a strangely intuitive reticle-based system for selecting and manipulating items, and - this is where it gets interesting - allows the choices its players make to inform the rest of the story.  It sounds more impressive than it is.  Very rarely will someone actually live or die depending on your actions - unless it's a "choose who lives or dies" situation.  More often than not, what your history with the game actually informs are side-comments and reflections of context in future conversations.

"Of course you'd say that, you always side with that other character!", says one of your best friends before a scene plays out exactly as it will for everyone else.  Fortunately, one grows so attached to the characters and the feelings our dynamic relationships with them elicit that the false illusion of its linear plot becomes inconsequential.

400 Days achieves less of a sweeping wave of emotion by nature of its five smaller mini-chapters, which deny it the long-form psychological build of the first-season episodes.  What's really impressive is that it still manages to register significant impact within the confines of its tighter framework.

Particularly in the cases of Russell (above), Bonnie (top) and Shel (below), Telltale proves very adept at rendering an efficient, punchy narrative that provides major payoff through sparse, elegant set-ups and the simple effectiveness of characters with relateable humanity.  Russell begins with the creepy situation of really needing a lift, but a palpable sense of unease about the person offering it.  Bonnie is a poor soul with a lot of baggage and a desperate need to prove herself a good person in the face of horrible guilt, and - perhaps most successful - Shel will do anything to keep the horrors of post-pandemic life from eroding what little remains of her younger sister's morality.

It's not always successful.  A car trip with a pair of freaked-out stoners is less funny than it should be (though  God bless it, it tries), and perhaps the convict Vince is the most interesting cast member simply by virtue of how little time we get to spend with him.

It speaks volumes that I want to know more, though - and hammers home that Telltale's The Walking Dead, with its heavy investment in character and story, is as far removed from the standard zombie experience as one can get.  I wonder what Vince got up to between the beginning of the game and its end.  I wonder how much crazier little Becca will get, how Russell survived and if Bonnie's sweetness will come back to bite her in the ass.

I want to see where this is going.  And with that, 400 Days is successful.  It's certainly hyped me for season 2.

Also, it has zombies.

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