The Walking Dead, Episode 1: A new day for Telltale

May 11, 2012

Telltale Games has had a lot of success in the past creating memorable adventure games based on existing franchises. Its once-popular formula began to grow a bit stale, and when it attempted to mix things up with Jurassic Park: The Game,  it was met with very little fanfare. Now it’s back with The Walking Dead, a five-episode adventure series that attempts to try something a little different once again, while staying true to the company’s winning adventure game formula.

The story follows Lee Everett, who is being driven in a police car out of the city of Atlanta. It’s not long before he runs head-first into danger, when they crash into the woods and Lee is left to fend for himself in a terrifying, zombie-filled world. Lee’s back story is slowly explored throughout the first episode, including his crime, which is one of the best parts about this debut. The way the game slowly introduces the many characters and gives you a sense of their personality right away is well-executed, allowing you to slowly learn more about Lee and the other survivors. The writing in general is some of the best Telltale has done.

Right from the start, you are introduced to the game’s choice system. Throughout the first episode, you are presented with a series of dialogue options that shape how characters react to you and how Lee’s personality develops. It’s hard to say just how many of the basic choices will carry over or impact later episodes, but it seems they are off to a good start. I already noticed certain characters behaving differently around me based on my choices during certain scenes.

And then there are more specific choices that change the story in major ways, such as choosing between two different characters to save. These choices are time-based, forcing you to act fast, which add to the tense atmosphere. These choices allow the player to shape Lee’s character despite his predetermined back story, focusing more on the character dynamics and less on the zombies, which is what both the television series and comics do so well.

Don’t take that to mean there aren’t plenty of zombies though. They always seem to strike when you least expect it, setting up the idea that you and the other survivors are never truly safe and that anyone can die at any time. It creates a real tension that is missing from a lot of horror (or horror-themed) games these days. It’s not a particularly scary game, but it’s a tense one, absolutely drenched in an atmosphere that never fails to surprise.

Outside of the choice system, the game functions as a familiar adventure game. You almost always have control over an on-screen cursor that allows you to examine the environment around you, similar to a traditional adventure game, but you also have full control over the character, which allows you to wander around the different environments. During specific action sequences, you’ll find yourself needing to move both to perform specific actions. It’s not as fleshed-out as a real action game would be, but it does a good job of keeping you on your toes and making sure you feel in control during those key action sequences. Similar to a lot of the dialogue options and major choices, all of these action sequences are timed, making sure you are kept on your guard at all times.

Visually, The Walking Dead maintains a style very similar to the comics, and it works well. It’s not the best-looking game around, but it stays consistent and remains true to the source material. There are a lot of weird technical problems, including random texture pop-in and lip-syncing issues, as well as some buggy animations that really hold the game back. There were a couple of great scenes that were almost ruined due to characters talking without even moving their mouths. For a game as reliant as story and atmosphere, you can be taken out of those moments very easily.

The Walking Dead: Episode One is a very strong start to what could be Telltale’s best work yet. The writing is top-notch, the presentation is gorgeous despite the technical problems, and the game remains entertaining from start to finish. We just have to hope that this level of quality remains consistent for the rest of the episodes.

Pros: Fantastic writing, solid blend of new and old school adventure elements, great atmosphere throughout
Cons: Technical problems inhibit the tension and impact at times

Score: 5/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.