(this review is for the entire first season)
Chances are you either grinned or you groaned upon reading the word. Ever since they've put their undead jaws around pop culture it has become a polarised term with proponents rooting for more rotten-cadaver-infused gore and gags, and opponents who've had their fill of the shambling hordes. After all, you can only hammer-end a zombie so many times before it becomes dull, and with everyone seeking a crumb of the meat pie, their constant appearances in unexpected properties have inset a fatigue.
Developer Telltale had bigger fish to fry than people being sick of those sickly beings however. The prolific adventure game developer is known more for episodic quirk rather than mature content, and with the massive success of The Walking Dead's comic book and television show, the pressure to meet the same quality standard must've put an Atlas burden on their shoulders.
The good news is that they do the spirit of the source material justice: it's still about surviving insurmountable odds rather than jerking around the living dead with showerheads and hedgetrimmers. The bad news is that this comes at a price: in service of moving the story forward, most of the game is on autoplay, a bunch of quick-time-eventful cutscenes laced together with insultingly easy puzzles and a pinch of exploration. As such, the twelve hours or so it takes you to complete this first season will not come from figuring out brainbenders but from sloth - like most Telltale protagonists, Lee cannot run during gameplay - and chatting up other characters.
The story pits you as Lee Everett, a convicted murderer who's incidentally freed from custody during the undead invasion. While looking for help, he finds nine-year-old Clementine holed up in her treehouse. With her parents presumed dead, Lee decides to take Clementine along for safeguarding.
The bond between the two forms one of the most impressive parts of the game. Clementine is one of the few child characters in all of media that's not overly naive or annoyingly helpless, and you'll grow fond of her as you mentor her through Lee; you try to help her make sense of the nightmare she has landed in, you teach her how to defend herself and you explain why your hand is forced in grim situations.
And believe you me, there are plenty of these grim situations to get through. It's rare for a game to pull as many "They wouldn't... Oh God, they did!"-moments as The Walking Dead does, and it keeps you perched on the edge of your seat throughout. Survivors are rife with paranoia and mistrust so that meeting new people puts you on guard more than a street full of zombies and you'll be shocked to see just how perfidious these people can become when their own lives are on the line. This story isn't just determined by your own choices, but by choices of every character, and your personal affinity for other survivors will be based on their actions, be they laborious or impulsive, as much as their affinity for you will be based on yours.
Will you steal food for your own group out of an abandoned car of a family of three when there are no signs of struggle? Who is more beneficial to your group if you can only save one; a marksman or a craftsman? How will you divide four snacks when there are eight hungry mouths to feed? Whatever choice you make, you will pick sides and you will be judged for it.
Yet, for a game that's high on choices, we're once again facing the fact that none of them matter in the grand scheme of things. Letting someone live is just postponing death, if not by your hand then by the will of the game's writers, and there are parts where characters contradict themselves, ignoring choices made for the sake of drama. In the case of the food division, I presented a snack to someone who declined it, and later he was bummed that I didn't give him something to eat. Soon thereafter, one of my friends argued that I wasn't on his side despite standing up for him moments before. Everything about the story is set in stone. Nothing you do changes that.
That's not to say your choices don't have impact, of course. At one point during a food scavenge, a young woman is chased out of a building by a group of zombies. Her fearful screams draw the attention of every zombie around and soon enough she gets bitten. She's done for but still alive, and as the zombies start tearing down on her you're given an option: you shoot her to end her suffering but draw the attention of the zombies, or you ignore her and let her be the decoy so that you have more time to round up supplies. I chose the latter, and even though the extra time allowed me to collect a bigger amount of food, hearing her scream throughout my scavenge cut through my bones, up to the point where I felt like maybe I made the wrong choice.
There isn't much to say when it comes to gameplay. You walk around, you click on things and you press the buttons that the game prompts. Skimming an entire store for three separate batteries to make a radio work or having to march up and down a stationed train because you need to detach a compartment but can only carry one tool at a time, aren't my idea of good puzzles. The lack of any real inventory means you're rarely carrying more than three items, and the game's tendency to automatically show you which of your inventory items you can use on a highlighted object comes across as more handholding in an already constrained and guided game. Dialogue in cutscenes gets a speedy timer so that you can't think your responses through, which is a neat addition, but not being able to change the key bindings forced me to swap my azerty-keyboard for an Xbox360-controller to get by the many quick-time events.
Your search for safety spans five episodes, some being more self-contained than others. They all end on a cliffhanger followed by a chart that shows the divide between the players in each of the fundamental choices, although a bug prevented me from seeing these statistics in half of the episodes. The distribution of these episodes has been handled differently from prior Telltale projects in that each episode is now marked as DLC for the first one. It's a better system than having them appear as separate games in your library. Save data can be copied across three save slots, which is necessary if you want to replay an episode since it overwrites all of your progress.
The art style is a devious marvel. Effects, environments, facial animations and character models are nicely rendered in a sharp, inked-in comic book-inspired look and because of this artistic style you wouldn't expect to see so much grime and gore up close, but rest assured that there is plenty of that. Voice and sound is excellent as well even though I found Dave Fennoy, who voices Lee, to be a little too subdued in parts where I felt like he needed to be louder. Almost as if he was too shy to really let loose.
Given a few glaring plot holes, The Walking Dead nails the story and presentation. It has the audacity to go further than you'd expect a game to go, making it easy to recommend a trip to this dangerous and morose world. When it tries to be a game however, it sputters too much to be exciting which, considering Telltale's pedigree, left me wanting way more.