Sunday, March 23, 2014

Game Review: The Walking Dead: the Complete First Season (PS Vita)

The Walking Dead: the Complete First Season won nearly 100 "Game of the Year" awards in 2012 and with good reason. Its storytelling is superb, the voice acting is excellent, and the script can go from tender to brutal in a heartbeat. This is a game with a lot of heart and a lot of brain, and I'm not talking about the ones splattered all over the streets. (It is the zombie apocalypse, after all.)

In the game, players take control of Lee Everett, a convicted killer on the way to the big house when the world goes to hell. After gaining his freedom and encountering Clementine, an orphaned girl, Lee must decide how to keep them both alive in the world where the dead walk.

The game is episodic and adapts itself to the choices players make, usually in the form of dialogue or a critical action such as pushing away zombies. For instance, in a tense situation among fellow survivors, Lee could either be reasonable or aggressive. Or, if a herd swarms the group, Lee frequently has to choose between saving one person or the other. Decisions need to be made quickly; there's a bar that counts down whenever Lee is presented with a choice, and not choosing in time has consequences, too. In my first playthrough, I couldn't figure out the controls, so the guy I was trying to help got eaten. That got Lee and Clem kicked out of a safe place.

The stakes get higher and higher as Lee discovers that staying put is not a good idea, and neither is trusting others completely. Here, puzzle-solving and action take a back seat to figuring out how to get your character's--and everyone else's--personal baggage out of the way in time for the next crisis.

The writing is strong and often takes jaw-dropping turns. Characters react believably to situations. The only exception is Episode 4, which I thought was weak and contrived, and no wonder -- developers switched to another writer for that one. Fortunately, trusty Sean Vanaman came back for Episode 5, the final chapter, which had me wincing at the start and in tears at the end.

The graphics are great -- comic-book style, and everyone's faces are expressive. The only issue I had with the PS Vita version was the game's inability to process intense action. I would know when a cut scene was coming up because there would be an interminable pause. This technical glitch took me out of the moment several times over the course of the game. Ruiner!

There's a bonus episode called "400 Days," where players control five different characters for short vignettes. A diner acts as an anchor throughout the disparate paths. The choices made affect the ending of the episode.

Speaking of endings, players can see if they made the same decisions as other players after every episode. It was interesting to see how close the differences were in some cases, like a 48/52 split between letting someone annoying get killed and trying to help them. In one case, I was in the minority for choosing to save someone. Huh.

Still, for all the moral ambiguity that the game writes in, the message is always clear: as soon as one of the living opts for survival at the cost of compassion, humanity loses a little bit more of its soul, and the world becomes darker still. I guess that's why end-of-the-world type stories are so fascinating -- you have to wonder: What if society breaks down and all the rules and laws and niceties can't be enforced anymore? Who's always had that little dark corner in their head that's been wanting to let loose all this time?

The answer: PAFO! Play And Find Out! (Taken from the late Robert Jordan's "RAFO!")

This post brought to you by sleeplessness. Seriously, I slept fitfully after I finished the game. That doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement, but it is. The ROI on my emotional investment was high! Well done, Telltale Games, well done! NOW FINISH SEASON TWO AND TAKE MY MONEY

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