Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season 1 Review

(Update, 12/9/16: With The Walking Dead: A New Frontier coming out in a little over a week, I thought this would be a good time to review the first few Walking Dead games in Telltale’s library. Then I remembered that I already have reviewed Season 1, and there’s not much point in doing it again. Even though the bugs and framerate issues are much better when playing on the PS4, this is still the same game, I still think it’s great and Kevin still hasn’t played it. Maybe you could guilt him into doing so in the comment section. Otherwise, my original review follows.) 

The next generation of video game consoles are here, and we here at Pegboard couldn’t care less. Not only are those new systems horribly overpriced and riddled with numerous technological issues, but at this point there are hardly any games worth owning anyway. Meanwhile, there are a bunch of titles from this generation that Kevin and I have yet to play, and it just makes a lot more sense to us to focus on those before we even consider dropping half a grand on a new console. Thus, we are happy to start our own series of video game columns, where we will be reviewing some of our favorites from the current-gen systems. Or I guess they are now the last-gen systems? I know, it’s confusing.

First up: Telltale Games’ critically acclaimed episodic adventure, “The Walking Dead: The Game.”

Before we get any further, you should know that while Kevin and I typically agree on games that are good and games that are complete shit, I haven’t played everything that he has and vice versa. As with all of our reviews, this one will only reflect my opinion of “The Walking Dead,” though I’m sure once Kevin gets around to playing it himself he will share that opinion. My confidence is derived from the fact that, among other things, “The Walking Dead” is a truly unique experience that evoked a strong emotional response from me, and it was burned into my memory from the moment that the credits rolled after my first playthrough. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the game is based off of the comics and not the TV show, because otherwise I’d be sitting here describing to you in detail how bored I was most of the time and how moronic all the characters were. But hey, the beginning and the end were both great!

Just in case you weren’t following me, the game is much better than that.

You play as Lee Everett, a former professor turned convicted killer who just so happens to be getting a ride out of Georgia when all hell breaks loose. After escaping your first encounter with those damn walkers, you stumble across an eight-year old girl named Clementine, whose parents are missing in Savannah. Lee promises to look after her and the duo set out to find a safer place, only to learn very quickly that in this new, uncompromising world, no such place exists. To say anything else specifically about the story would be far too spoilerish, and although I realize that I would be completely justified in doing an in-depth analysis of a game that’s been available for over a year, the truth is that any plot description I could do would completely fail to encapsulate this groundbreaking narrative. 

The gameplay revolves around a very basic set of point and click mechanics, and to call it basic is a fairly severe understatement. To sum it up, you see little icons that you can click on, which will either begin an action or  a conversation. There’s no upgrades, no inventory system and you can only smash walker brains or interact with other characters when the game makes it possible for you to do so. It’s more like a playable comic than anything else, which is fitting when considering the source material this is based off of. If you can’t tell by now, those looking for a high octane thrill ride of a zombie game are going to be let down. The game doesn’t provide you with any more gameplay than necessary to tell its story, but that’s not at all a negative thing if you can get over the fact that this isn’t a “Left for Dead” kind of experience. You will meet a host of fascinating people along the way that you will bond with, and at the heart of the game is the relationship that you build with Clementine, who is absolutely one of the most endearing kids in any medium anywhere.

Looking past “The Walking Dead’s” shortcomings in the way it plays is essential to forming those bonds and becoming invested in Lee’s goal to protect Clementine and provide her with the tools and knowledge that she will need to survive her childhood. The other survivors in your group are a mixed bag; some are helpful and lighthearted, others are harsh and paranoid and there are one or two who you don’t like at all but who you can’t help but feel sorry for. These people don’t always see eye to eye and before you know it you’ll find yourself thrust right into the middle of heated conflicts, forced to make increasingly difficult decisions with no clear-cut right or wrong answers. Unlike other games that allow you to control the story in this way, “The Walking Dead” puts a timer on every important choice that you’ll make, and allowing that timer to expire will earn you scorn from others because of your indecisive manner. This creates a heightened sense of pressure every time that you have to do this, and even when you feel good about your decision, not everyone around you is going to see it that way. You won’t want to, but at certain points you’re going to have to take sides my friend, and being forced to do that on the fly is stressful as hell.

The choices you make carry over into subsequent episodes, meaning you will constantly be reminded of the gravity of your decisions by who is alive and who’s dead, by who agreed with what you did and who hates your guts for stabbing them in the back. After all, this isn’t so much a story about the undead as it is one about people who are desperately trying to survive in a dangerous new environment, with the walkers simply serving as the catalyst behind the actions that people take to outlive everyone else. The game is beyond heartbreaking and every tragic event that transpires only makes you more determined to make sure that what befell others doesn’t hurt Clementine. What’s most impressive about Telltale Games’ product is how successful they were in making everyone who plays it care so much about that little girl. My Lee was an honest, responsible guy who made peace where he could and did his best to hold the group together. Your Lee might be a bit more selfish, savage and untrustworthy, but I guarantee you’ll be just as attached to Clem as I was, and that’s the real beauty of this game. Granting players the freedom to respond to everything in their own way while simultaneously creating one of the most universally loved characters ever regardless of who is playing is a stunning accomplishment, and one that resonated more deeply within me than I ever expected it to.

All praise aside, there are a slew of technical bugs, particularly with the framerate, that hinders the game’s ability to keep players immersed. “The Walking Dead” isn’t exactly a visual wonder, so it doesn’t make much sense to me how it could suffer from those kinds of issues, but it does. They happen often enough that you find yourself being sucked out of the experience and there are a few instances where the game is on the verge of being unplayable. When you compare it to other games from this generation that are graphically superior and run much smoother, it makes you even more frustrated and confused. It’s not a game-breaking problem or anything, but it does prevent “The Walking Dead” from being the masterpiece that it should be.

Sure, it’s not perfect, but “The Walking Dead: The Game” is a crowning achievement by Telltale Games, one that every person who loves video games should experience. The fact that it was so impactful despite utilizing only the simplest of mechanics makes it all the more impressive, and I really admired the way Telltale so seamlessly mixed touching human moments with shocking instances of raw horror. I probably sound like a broken record, but in the end it all comes down to doing whatever it takes to keep Clementine safe. It’s not an easy task, one that is made even more perilous in the face of danger from both the living and the dead. When humanity falls to unimaginable depths, do you keep your own humanity or lose it along with everything else you have? These are the issues at-hand here, but Clem is Lee’s trump card; she keeps him going and gives him purpose. Somewhere along the way, that becomes as important to you as it is to Lee, and that’s when you know that “The Walking Dead” is on to something special.

That’s when I knew that I would never forget this game. Ever.

Jesse’s Rating: A

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