The Walking Dead: 400 Days is a fascinating exercise in rapid-fire storytelling. This is not the saga of Lee and Clementine, two characters whose relationship grew and evolved over the course of five episodes in The Walking Dead proper. No, this downloadable content is something altogether different: a brief collection of snapshots portraying characters who experience very different, very harrowing stories within the zombie-infested American South. At 20 or so minutes per character, these vignettes are lean endeavors that attempt to find a harmony between implied subtext and quick, punchy action. While I wish I could say that each of these stories succeeds at that task--two of them fall a bit flat--the best ones carry the slack with aplomb, making 400 Days a worthwhile experience for any fan of The Walking Dead.
400 Days opens with a bulletin board overrun with notes and photographs, desperate pleas from those who've been separated from their loved ones amid the zombie apocalypse. More than just a means to pull at your heartstrings right from the get-go, this board is also the interface that allows you to choose whose story you play next. It's a clever system: 400 Days allows you to determine the order in which these vignettes play out, letting you feel like you've taken an active role in the storytelling process before a story even begins.
It helps that each character's vignette is a standalone story; there are hints and nods toward events from the full game, but they're hardly intertwined as a whole. The best of the bunch belongs to a woman named Shel, part of a group of survivors living life one day at a time within the walls of a well-maintained truck stop. Shel spends her days trying to shelter her younger sister Becca from the harsh realities of the outside world, but it all goes to hell when a stranger is caught stealing supplies and it's left to Shel whether to kill or release the man. That's not the only tough decision Shel faces in her chapter, creating a brief but powerful glimpse into the life of a woman who's forced to deal with very real threats while attempting to serve as a role model to her sister.
Not far behind is the terrific story of Bonnie, a recovered drug addict caught in a love triangle with a married man. The affair is all but out in the open, each member resigned to the fact that there are far worse things in this devastated world than a little infidelity. But what begins as an awkward conversation between the three characters turns into something much worse when they're sent running through a dark corn field, shots firing at them from unseen strangers in the distance. The chapter ends with a heartbreaking tragedy and the need for you to choose your words very carefully in the wake of this event. To say any more would spoil things, but suffice it to say Bonnie's story is an excellent one.
The quality of storytelling in 400 Days begins to taper off a bit from there, but Vince's story is still an interesting one. He's a convict shackled to his seat in a prison bus, engaged in the sort of idle trash talk you might expect among prisoners left with time to kill. When the bus hits a traffic jam, things go south in a hurry. Zombies make their way onto the bus, and Vince is left to make a tough decision over which of his not-quite-friends escapes and which is left behind. It's a tense situation, but one that doesn't reach its full potential given the fact that Vince is a dull character.
Then you've got the other two stories, those of Randall and Wyatt. Randall is a young kid walking the deserted highways when he winds up getting picked up by an unhinged lunatic driving a truck. But nothing much happens other than awkward chatter; you don't learn much about Randall and the story just sort of fizzles out at the end. Wyatt's story follows a similar path. While there's some nice tension in the way Wyatt and a friend are sent driving through a foggy backroad trying to escape a maniacal driver, the exchanges between these two characters just kind of spiral around without going anywhere. It ends with one of the few action scenes in the entire DLC--Wyatt firing shots during a full-on chase scene--but the story rings hollow by the end, much like the limp epilogue that ties these vignettes together.
Yet the best stories in 400 Days are so good they're able to carry the DLC as a whole. Like The Walking Dead proper, this is an experience that makes for a powerful glimpse into the zombie apocalypse--not through gory action scenes but through the strained and heartbreaking interactions between characters caught in a terrible situation.