The Walking Dead has its third season premiere tonight although I won’t be able to watch it until tomorrow since I’m pretty sure we don’t have AMC in my apartment (instead we just seem to have a million different versions of the same network tv channels on our cable service. maybe I’m doing something wrong). Anywho, long time readers will know that I was pretty tough on the show’s second season. To say that it had problems would be a massive understatement. About half of the episodes were brilliant and some of the best things on TV right now. The show would find the perfect mix between character-driven storytelling and good old-fashioned zombie action. And then the other half of the episodes would be terribly slow and not in a good way. The show wanted to be more intellectual than it had the actual talent to pull off and it drove me crazy. It found itself again by the final two episodes so I have hope for this new season. Plus, the prison arc in the comics is some of the best work in comics that I’ve ever read and if the show can follow it even remotely faithfully, it should create some brilliant TV.

To celebrate the return of the TV series, I finally decided to purchase The Walking Dead video game that was released by TellTale, one of my favorite video game companies because of their work on the newly revamped Tales from Monkey Island series of adventure games. The fourth episode was finally released (of the five planned for this initial season) last week, and since the Playstation Network has a deal for the entire season at $20, I decided to go ahead and buy it. As a fan of games like Heavy Rain which put a high, high focus on narrative, a chance to play a game in a similar vein was something that I would eventually have to succumb to. The only reason I waited so long to get it in the first place was complaints people had that the games were little more than interactive cut scenes. That may be slightly true, but the emotional impact that this game was able to achieve after just one episode (roughly 3 hours of play) more than makes up for any weaknesses it had in gameplay.

For those unfamiliar with the video game offshoot (or possibly even the comics/TV series), some introductions are in order. The Walking Dead takes place during a zombie apocalypse. The comics/show begin a month or so after the outbreak as Rick Grimes awakens from a coma and then follows his attempts to find his wife and son and to eke out some type of existence in a world gone to hell with his fellow survivors (who can be more dangerous than the zombies/walkers themselves). The Walking Dead: A New Day takes place within the established universe of the comics but instead follows a different survivor (though you see some familiar faces like Glenn and Hershel). You play as Lee Everett, a convicted criminal being hauled out of Atlanta by a police officer when your car crashes and you find yourself thrust into the first days of the zombie outbreak.

Although Lee is a self-admitted criminal, he is a good man at heart and early in the game you find a young girl named Clementine whose parents were in Savannah when the outbreak started. Clementine has been hiding in her treehouse for days as she waits for her parents to return, and after a Walker nearly kills Lee as he’s searching her house for help, she intervenes and Lee takes it upon himself to look after Clementine for as long as he has to. It’s not long before you meet up with other survivors just trying to not become zombie food, and it would be a disservice to the excellent pacing and plotting of the game for me to go into any more detail about what happens.

I’ve never played a game that plays quite like The Walking Dead: A New Day. The closest parallel would be Heavy Rain,  but that similarly narrative heavy game has more game elements than The Walking Dead. Perhaps, it’s easier to compare it to old school point and click adventure games like Monkey Island. However, whereas those games had brain-busting puzzles and often frustrating inventory management, The Walking Dead instead forces the player to make very, very difficult choices. Although you do have the opportunity to solve light puzzles (like how to quietly clear a parking lot full of Walkers to save a woman) and there is some combat, the combat itself is very light quick-time events and just generally having the wherewithal to find the weapons around you in case a Walker catches you barehanded. The game is not difficult (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing).

Instead, the “difficulty” of the game comes from the decisions you have to make. When you converse with your fellow survivors, you generally have three or four options and a limited amount of time to make a decision. Virtually every decision you make will have a consequence down the line, and similar to the Mass Effect franchise, you will ultimately have to bear the fruit of your decisions. If you side with one survivor in a dispute, you may gain his loyalty but the suspicion and hostility of the man you didn’t back. If you lie and are caught in it later, the other people in your party will trust you less. Those aren’t even the big, key moments in the story though. On two separate occasions during the first episode alone, I had to choose between the lives of two different survivors (although the first time, you don’t realize that’s what you’re doing). The cast itself will change based on the decisions you make, and throw in quieter (but no less potent) moments such as deciding whether to help a woman who’s been bitten commit suicide or not, and you have one of the most emotionally heavy games I’ve ever played.

The screenshots I’ve included in this review should clue you in that The Walking Dead is a very visually unique game. True to its comic book roots, The Walking Dead utilizes cel-shaded technology ala Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker or Viewtiful Joe, and it looks great doing so. Fans of the comics know that they were in black and white, but it was a good decision to add some color to the universe for these games. It might not have the best animations around (by that, I mean the way the characters move), but faces are extremely expressive in a way that more “realistic” looking games can’t achieve, and the dark, oversaturated colors match the tone of the post-apocalyptic story. The game also isn’t afraid to shy away from disturbing portrayals of blood and gore either, and pretty much everything about the game’s visual style adds to the immersiveness of the experience.

The voice acting isn’t always that great although the person voicing Lee (Dave Fennoy) does an excellent job as does the person voicing Clementine (Melissa Hutchinson). Some people are going to be turned off by the very simple nature of the game play. People who can’t stand the level of non-interactiveness in Metal Gear Solid will be even more frustrated by a game which is much more story than actual game play. Once I figured out how the game actually worked, there was never a moment when the game play itself felt challenging and most of the puzzles were very simplistic. However, not even Mass Effect has made me second guess my own decision making as much as I can already tell The Walking Dead will. For people who are willing to take risks on games that think outside of the box, The Walking Dead delivers.

Final Score: B+

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