In the zombie apocalypse, we'll all be human resource managers. We'll need to make harsh critiques on the value of one human against another in a post-apocalyptic scenario. At least, that's what the first episode of Telltale's The Walking Dead adaptation has taught me.
As someone who's mapped out his strategy for the zombie apocalypse countless times, I always told myself I'd keep my humanity; I wouldn't become the monster I was trying to survive. And then I chose to rescue a grown man over a helpless child.
The first episode of The Walking Dead, titled "A New Day," focuses on Lee, a man who's obviously got some trouble in his rearview mirror. Once the outbreak occurs, he wakes up injured and limps toward a suburban housing development, where he finds Clementine, a little girl with no one to look after her. From there on out Lee is the adoptive dad, bringing Clementine along with him as he tries to make his way toward family in a suburb of Atlanta.
The majority of The Walking Dead: Episode 1 revolves around making choices. Sometimes it's taking the time to get to know a character. Others, it's lying to cover your tracks. Or it's how you choose to handle a given situation with Clementine. The game logs each choice you make, seemingly impacting future events and how Lee is viewed by others in the game world.
General gameplay should be familiar if you've played other Telltale Games titles in the past. There are light exploratory sequences in which The Walking Dead acts like a traditional adventure game, peppered with quicktime events and conversations. Despite the relatively ho-hum pacing of the first episode – you kill a few zombies, but you're mostly just walking around and talking to people between cutscenes – the excellent writing and voice work more than compensates.
The dialogue system hides a layer of depth in which characters remember your actions and how you choose to react to circumstances. Certain characters may remember that you were once loyal to them in a dispute, while others may remember you sacrificing yourself to save them. It's a fine system on paper, but in the first episode – of a planned five – its impact is essentially nonexistent. Over the course of two hours, no decision really had any bearing on what was happening, save for the two times I was forced to choose between saving one person or another.
I don't really want to go much into the story, because it's quite good – the drama and events should be preserved for players to discover on their own. Sean Vanaman shines in his role as writer, even bringing me close to tears at one point. For example, should you tell Clementine that she'll never see her parents again, or should you lie to her so she doesn't break down? This was just one of the many hefty dialogue prompts I struggled with.
But as much I was hooked on the story of Lee and Clementine, the people they were surrounded by were fairly one-dimensional. This is the first episode of a series, so it's understandable that character establishment needs to be quick and concise. In other words, the "jerk" archetype needs to be a jerk right from the get-go – we don't get to watch him slowly descend into jerkitude. The telegraphed characterization is understandable, but it serves as a small detriment to the emotional impact and believability of The Walking Dead's characters. Hopefully they will grow throughout the season, giving them the weight and impact they deserve.
Ideally, I should feel something for these characters, but when every single individual is introduced as such a one-dimensional being, it's hard to empathize. For example, one scenario forced me to choose between helping the tough reporter girl with a handgun – and, incidentally, the only person in the game who has a damn gun – or the fat nerd whose only identifiable character trait is that he used to own robots. It's a pretty easy choice. Thankfully this isn't the type of loaded decision-making that happens often in the first episode, and it hardly brings down what is an overall excellent adaptation of The Walking Dead and a gripping, emotional outing from Telltale Games.
I'm really anxious to see where the next episode takes Lee and Clementine, and what other hardships they'll face in their struggle to survive. I hope my decisions have a real impact across each episode, and I want to see characters change their view of Lee and how much they are willing to support him, something that just isn't there in the first episode.
Still, The Walking Dead: Episode 1 remains a great adaptation of Robert Kirkman's comic, one that isn't a chore to play and is genuinely absorbing across its two-hour entirety, even with its hiccups. Also, if you're looking for the most depressing dad sim on the planet, The Walking Dead: Episode 1 is for you.
This review is based on review code of the PC version of The Walking Dead: Episode 1, provided by Telltale Games. The game is available today on Mac, PC and PlayStation Network. The iOS and Xbox Live Arcade versions will be released at a later date.
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