This review is going to serve a sort of dual purpose, both a review of the final episode and a retrospective on the season. The series tells a gripping story, to be sure, and is more of an interactive TV show than a game, which really isn’t a problem—there are as many types of games as there are gamers, and no one right answer as to what makes something a “game” and what doesn’t. Despite some interesting evolutions in the concept of choices and a great story, though, technical problems have harmed the experience on the consoles, and the script could have used another run-through to make sure that you’re really able to build your character as you’d have liked.
Gameplay has always been the most difficult part to talk about because excepting a few specific set pieces and events, there really isn’t any. The game seems to be trying to be a cross between adventure game and Heavy Rain-style QTE-heavy narrative gameplay, and winds up being more of a visual novel, playing out a main plot with changes to character interactions based on your choices.
Choices are definitely where the meat of the game lies, and that certainly doesn’t stop in the final episode- though you are still working yourself towards the same goal in the end, interactions with characters still makes a difference in some of the paths you’ll take there and the ways in which you wind up leaving the characters in the end. The design is very clearly narrowing here, and as you slowly leave members of the party for one reason or another, you see it’s narrowing down to a final climax. It’s the usual diamond shape you’d see in most choice-heavy games, but it works a little bit better here since it’s not the world at stake. Instead, the choices in The Walking Dead have smartly been about character relationships. Unlike a game like Mass Effect, where you’re changing the fates of millions with your choices, The Walking Dead is a much quieter, smaller experience that makes the choices matter by making the characters more immediately important.
I won’t go into spoilers here, but I will address the climax and ending of the game by saying that I like some of the ideas better than I like the execution. A specific encounter with the sort-of main baddie has an idea that’s been tried in a few things before, and I was pretty excited when it started. However, as it continued, the reveals and the backstory of the character were a little forced, with a few unanswered questions and leaps of logic that I didn’t really like. It was a smart idea that the seemed to have to backpedal too hard to fill in and try to make sense. It also throws back a lot of choices in your face, sounding like you did something evil. It sort of goes against what they were trying to do with the game by having someone judge you for your past actions, which is a disappointment given how well they handle the morality at other times.
After you get past that, though, and you get to the last scene, I can’t complain. It builds to this last scene exquisitely throughout the entire episode and once it gets there… it’s one of the most memorable things you’ll probably experience in a game for a long time.
The graphical style of this series has been fantastic from the first reveal. It has the look of a comic come to life, and it’s been very well maintained throughout the series. The art direction has been pretty strong, and the characters all have a unique design to them. Some parts do show some of the seams that come from the rushed episodic nature of the game, but with so many new sets in each episode and the feeling of movement that they create, it’s pretty impressive what they’ve been able to churn out.
Yet, as stylish as the design is, the game never looks like it’s very technically challenging, and it really creates the question of why they could never fix the technical issues on the console. The game often runs so laggy or with so much weird artifacting that it actually affected the gameplay. Some of my choices wound up coming out wrong because the cursor didn’t move right and it was incredibly frustrating, not to mention the action parts that wound up being a series of trial-and-error retries because of the atrocious frame rate. There were even a few things that happened that I’m not sure even still if it was a story element, or a bad graphical glitch because it’s never addressed anywhere in the rest of the series. Technical issues are annoying as it is, but in a game that weighs every choice, when you don’t have a chance to actually MAKE that choice, it’s saddening that they never got it right on the console, making this version feel like a giant afterthought.
The Walking Dead does 2 important things.
First, it does something new with choice. Like I mentioned earlier, The Walking Dead’s best decisions with this system are to make your choices both not matter to the world at large, and completely do away with a morality system. It’s a perfect fit for the world you inhabit, a world which is already lost. There’s a force that’s taken the world that is far beyond your control. There is no feeling of “we will kill all the zombies and SAVE EVERYONE,” instead replaced with a goal of “we can at least save ourselves” and that makes all the difference. That way, when the story starts to funnel you, you don’t feel cheated. It still feels like you’re having an effect on things as you go through, even though the one final goal is still clear.
The problem is that there are definitely times where the script didn’t care about my choices even when it should have mattered. Some of these are places where Lee suddenly acts in a way that I didn’t want him to, like getting angry at someone for something when in the previous scene I was forgiving or comforting them over it. It’s a real shame- the game is supposed to be about these moments from character to character, but when they take away my control over the one thing I’m supposed to have a say in, it feels more like an oversight, especially when Lee DOES wind up doing something that is completely out of character for how I built him. I know that the story is always going to lead me to the same outcome, and that the world is out of my hands, but the one thing that always mattered through the series was making sure that I had the relationship with the characters that I wanted; taking that away for whatever reason, be it accidental oversight or to move the story forward in a specific way, actually takes away my reason to play the game. It only happens a few times, but they’re really problems that shouldn’t have been there.
Losing the morality system was also a smart choice because there really isn’t much of a sense of right and wrong in a world where you’re just looking to survive. That really does boil down to the player, and your own personal philosophies wind up being put to the test. So while you can walk about thinking that you just made the only right decision, once you compare yourself to the percentages of everyone else who played it, it does a great job of making you wonder if you really did what was right after all. It creates a good conversation as you compare what you did with what someone else did, and also makes it a great game to play with someone who can help you make the difficult choices.
The next best thing was in getting episodic content right. A lot of gamers already felt that Telltale had nailed this concept—they’d done quite a few games episodically, but their older games tended to have you just waiting for new puzzles and quips, but it makes a big difference that Walking Dead relies less on puzzles and more on character. As each new month came around, you were excited to come back in and see what happened to everyone you met, and each episode was so impactful that you kind of needed a little bit of time to deal with what had just happened. It was like sitting down to a TV show every week, and gave the same experience of an event to talk about with people later. Who did you save? What happened at this point? What did you think when something happened at some point? It made each month’s episode exciting in a way that it wouldn’t have been if it had been just one giant release at the same time.
So does The Walking Dead change game storytelling forever? Not really—it’s not exactly anything too new that they’re trying. They’ve introduced a gameplay type that most people probably aren’t used to experiencing to a larger audience; no game of this type has really been as popular as The Walking Dead was. So while this sort of story-heavy gameplay-light experience isn’t anything new, the refinement of choice, morality and episodic delivery is still important in its own way, and might really be where the impact of the game winds up being felt in the future.
Despite any issues, you should play The Walking Dead on whatever console you have access to it on. This first season tries some very interesting things with the choices and the episodic nature, and what’s more, they get a lot of them right. Though some of the episodes are definitely better than others, it creates a very compelling story and keeps you interested all the way through to the end. The biggest issues wind up coming from the rushed nature of the season—with a little more polish and a couple more once-overs of the script, I’d definitely love this game a lot more, but as it is, there are just enough problems to keep it from greatness.