Telltale gets it.
I had my reservations about The Walking Dead after playing Telltale's atrocious Jurassic Park adventure game. But now, it's clear Telltale knows what makes this franchise tick – character.
If you approach this first episode of Telltale's five-part Walking Dead saga expecting a bevy of moments where you're going to be bashing in/shooting off the heads of zombies, you're going to be disappointed. Instead, Episode 1 is all about establishing and making you care about its cast of characters, and rightfully so. The Walking Dead has always been about character first and zombies second, and Telltale might understand that better than the folks running the show over at AMC, even.
Telltale's The Walking Dead also benefits from being an actual canonical addition to the comic book source material. You read that right: Telltale's adventure has nothing to do with the super successful AMC series; instead, it's firmly rooted in the canon of Robert Kirkman's original series — adopting a gorgeous cel-shaded visual style that hearkens back to the books — and tells the story of one Lee Everett, a convict who gets entrusted with taking care of a little girl, Clementine, due to her parents being M.I.A. during the beginnings of the zombie apocalypse. The bond Lee forms with young Clementine is the crux of Telltale's story, and thankfully there's strong enough writing on Telltale's part and voice acting on the actors' part to carry this emotional through line and make it not only touching, but believable.
In fact, the entire cast of The Walking Dead stands out. You'll meet a wide range of characters over the course of this first episode (including everyone's favorite bait-and-switch, Glenn), each with their own motivations and intentions. You'll form allegiances with some, while others will unfortunately side against you, resulting in some intense confrontations as the plot progresses.
And that's what's great about The Walking Dead: your choices absolutely matter. You might not feel like all of your fast-thinking decisions make a huge splash in this first episode, but they will surely play into events later down the road in upcoming episodes. The reason I know this is because the game constantly gives you little update logs to let you know who will remember what and who you're making friends with (or enemies with, for that matter). The decisions that felt like they mattered, I loved; the constant Twitter-esque feed running down the choices I made, not so much. I wish they left that information hidden so I could revisit the game and not know exactly what choice led to what eventual outcome.
Now, when you're not making life-or-death decisions, you're exploring the environment to pick up clues, solve puzzles or talk to your companions to learn their backgrounds or ease their minds. Like all previous Telltale efforts, The Walking Dead, in the simplest of terms, is a point-and-click adventure game. You're allowed to freely walk around the environment, but your main goal is to just bumble around and click on things to see what does what and figure out how it can help you in your current predicament. Again, The Walking Dead is a tried-and-true adventure game; it's not an action-fest like most zombie titles on the market.
When you do get into the occasional scrap with a zombie or two, the fights usually amount to you hovering over the zombie's head with your mouse/analog stick and pressing a single button to trigger a cutscene where the monster gets a screwdriver through its brain, or an axe lopping off its head, or a bullet through its eyeball, or… well… you get the picture. That doesn't mean these encounters are any less thrilling, mind you. Surprisingly, the moments where you do come face to face with a walker are very tense and nerve-racking. Telltale found a nice balance between classic adventure game tropes and catering to the happy trigger fingers among us.
When all was said and done, I closed the book on this first episode of The Walking Dead and immediately started looking forward to Episode 2. That's in stark contrast to how I felt about Telltale's previous effort with Jurassic Park. It seems Telltale learned their lesson from that game and applied the knowledge to their latest licensed project, to splendid results. This first episode delivers some great characters with solid characterization, as well as some truly suspenseful moments that should have most gamers on the edge of their seat. The Walking Dead: Episode 1 is Telltale's most mature title to date, and it also happens to be one of their best.
The Walking Dead: Episode 1 is available now for XBLA, PSN, PC and Mac.
CraveOnline received one advanced copy of The Walking Dead: Episode 1 for the Xbox 360 from Telltale Games. By the time we got our review copy, the embargo for coverage had already lifted. Before starting our review, we completed 100% of the game. Bring on Episode 2!