The Walking Dead: Episode Two – Starved for Help|
Telltale's had an amazingly strong run recently. The first Walking Dead episode was a coup for them, some of their best work ever, and episode 2 continues that success, despite some minor technical snags. Based on the style of Robert Kirkman's comics, The Walking Dead presents some of the tensest, most engaging gameplay I've ever seen in an adventure game.
You're Lee Everett, and you start in the back of a police car on the way to Atlanta. You're a former college professor, and you've been arrested for the murder of a state senator. You don't have time to learn much about your character, though, before the officer driving you hits a zombie. You wake up hurt, confused, and in handcuffs, and things get worse from there. Along your journey, you meet up with other survivors, and your interactions with them, and your choices about what you do, who you save, and what you tell them about you do a great job setting up Lee's character, and creating alliances and enemies within the group of survivors, each of whom is relatable and has their own personal agenda in addition to their own personal need to survive.
Telltale does an excellent job setting up situations that are difficult for Lee. When you're an escaped convict looking after a probably-orphaned child, having to try to be a parental figure is rough, especially when you need to compromise pre-collapse morals to survive. And everything will go wrong. While the other survivors are the real star of the show, the zombies aren't any slouch, either. They're the classic sort: Slow, implacable, numerous, and hard to kill without the right tools. You'll have a few tense fights with them as you go, and although the mechanics pretty much boil down to button mashing or 'use awl on zombie', the presentation sells it, and makes for more convincingly desperate, brutal zombie action than more action-filled horror games.
As you go through this episode, you'll mount desperate defenses against hordes, fight lone zombies while trapped and unequipped, and find ways to pick off a small pack to make your way to a trapped survivor. It's all classic zombie scenarios played out expertly by Telltale's writers and developers. Even the moments of brutality against the dead are terrific. When you keep hitting a zombie in the head with a hammer, and she just won't stop moving until her head is broken across the ground like an overripe melon, it really drives home the brutality and desperation of the situation, far more than the gratuitous murderfest of other zombie games.
Episode Two largely avoids the adventure game elements that bogged Episode One down, instead getting a much more evenly paced story. While it feels less like a game and more like an interactive graphic novel or TV show, that's not a bad thing in any way. The survivors are starving, and a bid to get food puts them between bandits, cannibals, and what might be the world's last functioning dairy farm. Without going into any further details, the game's twists and turns are more than enough to make up for the relative lack of puzzles.
The game's graphics and sound are right on the mark. With character designs taken straight from the comic and cell-shaded graphics, the game looks like an animated, colorized version of the comic, and the sounds and voice acting are right on. Even the little touches are brilliant. When you finish the episode, you're presented with a trailer for the next episode, with selected scenes based on the choices you made, followed by a list of the major choices you made, and how they stacked up to the choices others made. Even during the game, you get popups telling you when an NPC's attitude towards you has been affected by your choices. When you refuse to answer someone's pointed question about your past, and the game tells you that they'll remember that, it's about as chilling as being trapped by the dead. In a game so focused on player choice, Telltale really grasps every opportunity to highlight when and where the things you do matter.
The Walking Dead might not be for everyone, but for the people who realize that the real horror in surviving a zombie outbreak lies in other humans, Telltale's game provides a compelling drama. While I'd prefer more interaction and more desperate fights and less puzzles for the sake of padding things out, The Walking Dead is still one of the only zombie games that gets why Romero's zombies worked, and it's all the better for it.