We've all seen our fair share of zombie games in the past few years. The setup differs here and there, but the goal of survival against a brainless but unflinching horde of the undead is always at the core of the experience. Whether you're on foot or in a car, the games are about blasting away at zombies with extreme prejudice. What none of the games ever do, however, is give you much of a story. The characters in every zombie game feel soulless, so the player doesn't have much of a reason to care. Telltale's latest episodic adventure game, The Walking Dead: Episode 1 - A New Day, thrusts you into a zombie-filled environment, but their approach to storytelling makes this worthwhile even if you're burned out on the zombie trend.
Unlike most licensed titles, A New Day serves as a prequel to the comics. You play Lee Everett, a convicted murderer whose guilt or innocence is ambiguous. As the game begins, you're on your way to prison in a police car, which inadvertently hits one of the undead and sends you tumbling off the road and into a ditch. You awaken to find that you have a broken leg and the officer has turned. After you meet a little girl named Clementine, you find other survivors and try to make it out alive.
Like the main character, the cast thus far is mostly comprised of new faces. You'll get a few cameos, but everyone else in this first episode has been created specifically for the game. However, you'll see some environments from the comic, such as Hershel's farm, so some of the territory will be familiar for series fans.
For the most part, the game follows the formula set by some of Telltale's recent adventure games. Your character can move around freely through the level areas, though they tend to be constrained to a few screens instead of the big, expansive areas you'd expect from more action-based titles. Cursor movement is independent of your character movement, but clicking on an object to inspect or interact with it automatically brings you toward it. Environmental hotspots show what you can interact with; the feature is helpful for those who are new to the genre, but it can be turned off for those who prefer a more traditional style.
From there, A New Day moves away from some of the genre traditions. There's something of a battle system for the few times you're attacked by zombies. It's nothing more than some button-mashing and timed hunts for hotspots on zombies followed by button execution. Your first zombie kill gets you up to speed very quickly on how the system works, but later fights, which are few and far between, are easily dealt with via this system. Puzzles are also very light for this episode, with no real fetch quests so you can combine items. With everything so straightforward, it may turn off those looking for a brain-teasing challenge. Luckily, everything else about the game drives it forward.
The title seems content to utilize character interaction and consequence to propel the story. Similar to how Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit did things, most of your time is spent interacting with the remaining survivors and engaging in conversations that, in theory, steer the course for the story in the remaining episodes. Your responses to questions influence how the other characters react to you. This is demonstrated during your ride to prison, where you can respond to the officer's questions with a negative attitude, a reassuring response, or indifference. Even though there are some texts prompts, there's nothing indicating whether you're doing the right thing, so your moral compass is fairly ambiguous. Interestingly, silence is also an option, but it still has some bearing on whether people trust you. There are also a few points in this episode where some hard choices have to be made, and they not only affect character trust but also change the course of the story. There are big decisions such as which person needs ammo first or who should be saved from an attack, but the results remain uncertain until the rest of the chapters are released. That second-guessing gives the title its legs, and the short time it takes to complete the episode certainly encourages replay for those who want to see all possible outcomes.
Part of the reason for the vagueness comes from the deep characters. You control how Lee acts, but his choices don't classify him as being purely good or purely evil. Likewise, everyone you meet is just as diverse. Aside from the zombies, there's no clear hero or villain. You have is a bunch of people who want to survive but go about it in conflicting ways. The gameplay mechanics add to the realism by giving you a timer for most responses, and that solves a fault in adventure games where no one acts or does anything until you've given your blessing. This approach feels more natural and fosters the feeling that you're just another survivor instead of the group's last hope.
Graphically, A New Day looks great. The basic look of the game is reminiscent of the style that Telltale has employed in its past few titles like Back to the Future and Jurassic Park. The characters are drawn in a cartoon-like fashion, and while the animations don't follow this style, their facial expressions dismiss subtlety. The colors are much darker than the developer's previous titles, but it mimics a graphic novel quite well. The only technical issue some stutters in the frame rate, which is a common problem from the developer. There are times when the player walks into an area and the frame rate is erratic with no one else in sight. The effect never occurs during more strenuous scenes, such as zombie fights or timed conversations.
From a sound perspective, the game does well. The voices aren't done by the same cast as the TV show, but they sound natural in their roles and utilize the right amount of gravitas for the situation. No one sounds out of place or sounds like they're overplaying their roles. The effects are appropriate while the music isn't overbearing. Most of the time, you're treated to sound effects punctuating the background, but anytime the music plays, it is a treat for the ears.
The Walking Dead: Episode 1 - A New Day is a fine example for what can be accomplished in the adventure genre. The story provides a great introduction to the world and merges well with both the comic and TV show. Characters are believable and intriguing to the point that you'll want to see what makes everyone tick. More importantly, the game plays around with morality in a way that keeps you constantly guessing about the story's preferred path. It could use some tweaking in the graphical performance portion, and the lack of puzzles will disappoint adventure game enthusiasts, but overall, A New Day does a great job of getting you hooked into what could potentially be a fascinating story. Here's hoping that the second episode continues to provide this level of quality gameplay.
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