The Walking Dead 400 Days review: Take five

The most terrifying thing about The Walking Dead "400 Days" DLC isn't the shuffling, blood-soaked zombies desperate for your flesh, nor is it the reminder that gas used to cost $1.98 – it's the characters themselves. The ones you play as and the ones they interact with, those whose relationships you can shatter with one errant press of a button, an itchy dialogue finger or shaky gunshots. It's the words that Telltale forces into your mouth and the actions that you can't stop.

Living people who love, hate, kill and conquer are the most horrifying thing in The Walking Dead because, chances are, they won't be living for long – and 400 Days stars five of them.%Gallery-191351%

400 Days tells the disparate stories of five people as they survive – we hope – the zombie apocalypse in small town, Georgia. This is near the same area that The Walking Dead traveled in Season One, and it ties into those first five episodes in subtle ways, passing by the same roads and landmarks. The characters are introduced as names and photographs on a billboard, pinned over evacuation notices and scraps of missing people. They each present a story at a different point in the undead nightmare, but all within 400 days of its inception.

Technically, there is a chronological order to the characters' stories, starting with Vince, whom we find two days into the zombie outbreak, but the playable order is entirely up to whoever holds the controller. For what it's worth, my playthrough order was Wyatt, Bonnie, Russel, Shel and Vince – I saved Vince for last specifically because I knew his story was "first." Because I'm a rebel.

The plot lines are separate, but fluid – each one contains bits of the other narratives, adding depth to the latter characters' actions and tying everything together in a familiar way. With Season One, Telltale proved its aptitude at dropping hints and developing lush stories steeped in poignant detail, and 400 Days continues that narrative mastery.

Telltale is testing the infected waters with 400 Days, including quasi-mini-games that drive the action forward and add more interactivity than simply shooting things, picking up items or talking to other survivors. Wyatt, for example, enters a heated rock, paper, scissors game with his car-mate; Bonnie has to evade flashlights in the rows of a corn field; Russel dodges bullets in a dive from cover to cover; and Shel plays a brief round of cards with her younger sister, Becca.

Shel affects me on a deep level. Her story isn't more dramatic than the others, nor does it involve trickier decisions or more violent actions. She's holed up in Red's Diner with a small group, including her younger sister, Becca, her friend Stephanie and the pack leader, a cold yet fragile man named Roman. They have a small garden, bottled water, guns, flashlights and shelter. As far as Armageddon goes, Shel has it pretty good.

Her story gets me because it's eerily similar to my own life – I have a younger sister around the same age as Becca, who also has an artistic streak and a strong spirit, and Telltale gives me the option to protect Becca the same way I'd watch over my own sibling. That's the appeal of 400 Days. With five different characters, chances are players will find one that resonates, someone whose small details make their story more real than the others. In Season One, Lee is the amalgamation of every player – one character for people in every walk of life to connect with. In 400 Days, that potential connection is multiplied by five. It may not reach everyone, but it certainly hits me.

The Walking Dead 400 Days review Take five

As always in The Walking Dead, each decision players make has the potential to impact the story later on, breaking or solidifying bonds between characters, or setting up future strategic scenarios. These stories are brief glimpses into the lives of five characters, but Telltale quickly establishes a strong relationship between the player and the on-screen action, building foundations in tales of trust, independence and coming-of-age. And zombies. Telltale makes the player care for each individual character within a matter of minutes, and that feat alone takes raw storytelling talent, and a bit of practice.

The individual stories in 400 Days are short – it's DLC, after all, not a new season. It's meant to tease Season Two and leave players wanting more, and in that respect it's a rousing success. When it's all done, we're left with five richly developed characters embarking on a new journey. The stories come together at the end, in what Telltale describes as a Pulp Fiction-style wrap-up, and I'm thrilled to see how my decisions will impact the next episode.

This review is based on a Steam download of "400 Days", provided by Telltale Games.

Note: Joystiq does not provide star ratings for downloadable content reviews with the understanding that the quality of the core game's experience is unchanged from the retail release; See our reviews of each episode of The Walking Dead season one.