How is it that some licensed games capture the magic of the source material, while others make you wish a hundred mosquito bites upon developers responsible for soiling your favorite property? Sure, game play has something to do with it, but good controls and level design alone do not a great game make. For interactive versions of our favorite comics, television shows and movies to truly succeed, they must capture the spirit without retreading tired ground. They must be loyal to the universe, but still provide something new. They must encourage players to invest as a meaningful part of the world while meeting them half way. There is no formula, for it is art as much as science.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the marriage of the rich psychological drama of The Walking Dead and the masterful crafting of adventure champions Telltale Games is everything fans of the franchise and the genre have been waiting for. When Telltale first announced they were taking on Robert Kirkman’s tale of a world devoured by the undead, there was near-universal approval. Trepidation only set in after the unremarkable Jurassic Park was released into the wild. Thankfully, this zombie tale is return to form for the company. Put your mind at ease, sit back and prepare to make some of the hardest decisions you have ever been faced with.

As stated in our review of the PC version of the game, The Walking Dead follows the story of Lee Everett, a convicted murderer who, following a car crash, finds himself in a world overrun by parasitic corpses. Early on, he meets a young girl, Clementine, who he must protect in a world gone sideways. If you aren’t familiar with the comic and television show, and don’t know where to start in order to get your grounding in the story, for the sake of expediency, choose the graphic novel. The two versions diverge significantly, with the game adhering to the story as told in print.

While The Walking Dead is set during the zombie apocalypse, the true stars are the living characters and, more importantly, the portrayal of human relationships in the midst of catastrophe. Remember that magic I mentioned earlier? Telltale casts its spell by authentically recreating the types of decisions that people in the comics have had to make since it first went into print in October 2003. Throughout the story, original personalities are introduced as the narrative intertwines with the lives already recorded in the graphic novels. More importantly, Telltale manages to recreate the types of relationships that readers have seen play out. Look closely, and you’ll be able to pick out analogs through the chaos.

Telltale must also be commended for finding a way to introduce replay value into a genre in which it is rare. Most adventure games are criticized for being one-time affairs with little incentive to return soon after completion. The Walking Dead branches with nearly every conversation, not to mention the gut-wrenching moments when you’ll be forced into life-or-death decisions. Not terribly unlike the Mass Effect trilogy, I expect that players will have a “canon” play through, but will venture in to see how making different choices impacts the narrative. At the end of the chapter, you’ll even receive stats for all the major points of divergence. It was fascinating to see how I stacked up against the rest of the community.

The controls for the console versions rely on movement with the left thumbstick and a reticule manipulated by the right. There are exploration scenes within small environments, and hot spots (which can be made overt or discreet based on a choice at the beginning) can be examined or interacted with using the face buttons. It’s a bit jarring, and it’s easy to forget that your reticule also causes the camera to pan at the edges in the thick of a tense moment. For the most part, though, I found it easy to move Lee around, even in tight spaces. There are occasional button-hammering QTEs, but they are few enough as to avoid fatigue. They are also appropriately placed in the proceedings, managing to feel more natural than one might expect.

The visual style of the game is loyal to the pages of the comics. It’s not photorealistic, but that doesn’t diminish the impact of jabbing a screwdriver into a clawing, moaning monster. The game is bloody, raw and brutal. Anything less would have been dishonest. The facial expressions provide subtle cues to the emotional state of your fellow survivors. I felt their sadness, terror and despair. As future episodes are released, I expect cracks in relationships formed in this first outing to widen into unbridgeable chasms. Alliances will be formed, and we may be forced to forcibly deal with growing threats from the living.

The sound is equally masterful. The music is subtle and haunting, with the appropriate horror film stingers to keep the blood pumping. Telltale usually manages to provide quality voice acting, but The Walking Dead is a triumph, even for them. In a game so reliant on believable characters, I can’t imagine how poor voice acting would have tarnished the experience.

My one gripe about the game is, thankfully, something that can be fixed via a patch. You may be aware that notification placement is something that can be manipulated by developers. The default location is at the bottom-center of the screen… exactly where dialog options appear. I received a poorly-timed pop-up as the game was expecting a timed response. Should this happen to you, quickly press the Start button to pause. The alert will obscure that vital part of the screen for far too long.  This should never have been an issue, and Telltale would be wise to address it.

As a fan of both the comic and the television show, this adaptation of The Walking Dead fulfills every hope I had for an interactive experience. I look forward to meeting more familiar characters in future episodes and getting to know those that were introduced to me in this chapter. If you have any interest in psychological drama, even if zombies aren’t your thing, you owe it to yourself to play this game.

Here’s the Rundown:

+ Faithful adaptation of the comic
+ Maintains the focus on relationships that makes The Walking Dead so profound
+ Gorgeous style that will be familiar to fans of the comic
+ Fantastic voice acting that completes the immersion
+ Branching storyline gives reason to go back and experiment
- Please, Telltale, move the notifications 

9 and 9.5 represent the pinnacle of the genre, a game that defines what that genre should be about. These scores are for games that you not only feel would be worth your purchase, but you would actually try to convince your friends to buy them as well.

The Walking Dead: Episode 1 was developed and published by Telltale Games. It was released for 400 points on April 27, 2012. A copy was provided by the publisher to RipTen for the purposes of review.

 

Michael Futter is the Managing Editor of @RipTen. You can follow him on Twitter (@mmmfutter).