With the new Walking Dead season underway, it only seems natural that I’d review some zombie games in order to celebrate its return, including one that shares the same name and source material.
I’m not really what you’d call a zombie fan. The original Dawn of the Dead may be my favorite horror movie of all-time and Night is also a classic, but I never got into Romero’s other zombie flicks, I hate those Resident Evil games, and none of the zombie comedies that are oh-so-popular these days from Shaun of the Dead to Planet Terror have really made me laugh let alone were all that enjoyable. I think it’s mostly because when you get down to it, zombies just aren’t scary by nature. They move incredibly slow, have only one thought, and every attempt to give them intelligence has just turned out laughable. I mean zombies that ride motorcycles? Topless women risking severe road rash have more credibility in regards to those vehicles, and not just for the obvious reasons.
As such, there’s a limit to what kind of stories you can tell with the creatures in a way that’s compelling. In fact, let’s not beat around the bush. There is only one way to tell a compelling zombie story, and that’s by using the zombie threat as a crutch whilst focusing the real story and conflict on the characters and the struggles/social satire they come across – unless you’re Resident Evil 4 in which case you say the zombies exist and then focus on a completely unrelated threat with a story that’s hilariously camp. Thing is, there’s only so many ways you can do that before it gets old, like how every JRPG in the world ends with a bunch of teenagers killing God after discovering he’s best buds with Satan. If anything, I’m surprised The Walking Dead TV show is still running strong after five seasons with that significant handicap. Just how much material is in those comics anyways?
Now don’t get me wrong. Despite spending those first two paragraphs complaining about the genre, I like both the zombie games I’m reviewing. But don’t think for a second I’m going to praise them for originality, because there is none to be had in regards to either The Last of Us or Telltale’s The Walking Dead. In fact, I’m not sure how much I’d enjoy these products if I wasn’t actually playing them. I know execution can go a long way in regards to a quality product, but calling The Last of Us one of the greatest games of all-time? Naughty Dog is a great AAA gaming company with some of the best storytelling in the medium, but I have a limited supply of crafting tools and I don’t exactly feel like going to the nearest hardware store in order to craft a shrine.
If anything, attaching “greatest anything of all-time” is an automatic detriment when it comes to what I review because unless I jump on the bandwagon really early, there’s little I can talk about that hasn’t already been said. The Last of Us has been out for two years now and has already been remastered to boot, and even if you don’t own a Playstation console or have little interest in video games, you’d have to live in a very deep cave to not know the plot is about an older man (Joel) and a teenage girl (Ellie) trying to make it through a zombie apocalypse whilst forming a sort-of father/daughter relationship in the process. The story is told on a grand scale, taking place over the span of about a year, but if you can’t call out the twists and turns before they happen, then you’ve obviously never been exposed to any zombie-related fiction ever. And if you’re a gamer, that sounds very unlikely since virtually every single video game is trying to cram them in wherever they can nowadays.
So how exactly does The Last of Us stand-out amongst the crowd, you may ask? Well like I said, I’m not sure how much I’d enjoy the game if it was a movie rather than an interactive story. However, I can definitely say that when it comes to the latter, Naughty Dog has it down to a science. Similar to Uncharted, the story-important bits are done in cutscenes whilst the character interactions and minor plot turns are done whilst you’re playing the game, running away from tanks and hiding from bad guys. True, a bunch of said gameplay mostly consists of you keeping up with a walking/running character whilst they spout exposition, but it’s a huge step-up from quick-time events and dialogue trees that RPGs seem to be in love with. And the walking/running never lasts too long, forcing you to partake in puzzles or hiding from super zombies within a minute or so in order to remind you that you’re playing a game whilst not sacrificing the pacing. This is the standard for what all gameplay in visual novels and walking simulators should be like, and yet they’d rather ignore it entirely in favor of making the player do tedious antics only a four-year old would consider gameplay whilst trying to find the story.
Unlike Uncharted, The Last of Us gives the player more freedom to explore their surroundings and whilst it’s nowhere near sandbox level, it’s not quite as linear as the former was. Also unlike Uncharted, it’s in your best interest to favor stealth over being Arnold Schwarzenegger, because ammo is limited in the apocalypse and health doesn’t automatically regenerate here. You’ll craft stronger weapons and items in order to increase your chances of getting through an area, but supplies for that are limited too, so you better make your choices carefully, lest you want manage to get through an area only for a much harder area full of super zombies with one-hit KO attacks to appear out of nowhere. It’s great for building tension and a good way to challenge the player. Kind of like Resident Evil if it didn’t control like ass to the point of being unplayable.
Admittedly, this mechanic sort of falls apart in the last level, which has you shooting up an entire complex with a machine gun that you’ll never run out of ammo for because enemies drop ‘em very liberally. However, the preceding level REALLY makes you consider your choices carefully because you switch to playing as Ellie for a good chunk of it and obviously she isn’t going to have the same stats, weapons, and overall effort you put into making Joel tougher. So it all evens out in the end, especially considering how much I died in the final level anyways because I had been using the simple, but functional weapons for the majority of the game and hadn’t gotten a handle on how to use my flamethrower.
As for the story, gameplay or no, the characters are very well-written and their struggles are very real and affecting, if a little Oscar-baity. Whilst the constant oppression becomes wearily predictable at times, there are two acts in particular that really change the formula up. One was the act when Joel meets his brother and it ends on a semi-hopeful note that I was glad occurred because I really thought it would have been unnecessarily cruel to aim for a low ending after everything that had come before. The second is the finale, which does the opposite and ends on a note so low that it’s become controversial amongst players. I personally enjoyed it because I like those sorts of endings as long as they aren’t exploitative, but I can see how it’ll cause people to stop sympathizing with everything that’s gone on prior. Whilst it has its moments of hope, The Last of Us is a grim game with a grim story and characters I really grew to care about and were sad when life just isn’t fair to them.
Is it a masterpiece? No. Is it Naughty Dog’s best game? Um…let’s wait till I play Jak and Daxter first.
Now onto The Walking Dead aka Telltale’s most critically acclaimed game (or at the least the only one I see getting large recognition). More specifically its first season, because I’ve yet to play the second one and critical reception for it hasn’t been as favorable. Based on a comic/TV series that I know nothing about, The Walking Dead video game is entirely separate from either iteration aside from the basic premise and tone due to the fact that it’s focused on a completely original cast going through their own separate zombie-related problems with a few continuity callbacks along the way.
You play as Lee, a convicted murderer who has escaped jail on account of his police escort losing his brains once zombies have made the law all but obsolete, and guide him through five episodes of tough decisions and simplistic puzzles as he does his best to survive the apocalypse whilst taking care of a little girl named Clementine and keeping order within the community of survivors he meets along the way. And trust me when I say that’s a lot harder than it sounds, because bad shit will always happen no matter what you do and the game can be a little too railroad-y about it.
One time, I didn’t help a guy kill somebody and he NEVER let it go throughout the rest of the game no matter how nice I was to him before or afterwards. And you know what the kicker is? I didn’t even like the old man I was trying to save because he’s a bigoted ungrateful asshole no matter what you do. The reason he was dying in the first place was his own damn fault. And he gets killed all the same regardless of your choice to participate or not, with the only difference being that a woman won’t hold much of a grudge against you. That’s pretty bad, but not as bad as the reveal that whether or not the woman holds a grudge against you, she’ll kill off your favorite female character and then abandon you in the middle of nowhere shortly afterwards. So in short, I turned my best supporter against me for no good reason whatsoever.
In fact, The Walking Dead reminded me a lot more of Infinite Ryvius as I was playing it rather than the usual zombie story. Although the characters in the former are mostly adults and the ending is nowhere near as clean as the latter’s was, it still holds a lot of the same appeal in terms of survival stories – mainly how you’ll grow to hate a majority of the characters because of decisions having awkward transitions to some devastating consequences, and any hope spots you see will most likely get squashed before too long. They even take about the same amount of time to finish. 10-12 hours over the course of five days for me, personally.
Gameplay is your standard point-and-click adventure with the occasional moments of shooter action and quick-time events that involve mashing the “Q” key so hard that it nearly breaks. And whilst the simplicity of it compared to the genre in the 90s is undeniable, Walking Dead manages to alleviate the problem by keeping the episodes short, the environments tight, and the decisions you make very sweat-inducing. Like The Last of Us, the story is nothing original, but the execution more than makes up for it despite the characterization being a little too artificially grating at times. I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find a player who doesn’t like Lee, mostly because you’re in control of how much of a nice guy he’s allowed to be despite the fact that he’ll always have that persona because the game depends on Clementine liking him and there’s no way an eight-year old girl is going to like a total asshole. And those player punches can really sting, especially when part of the reason for why they occurred is your fault.
I should point out that despite the advertising, not every single one of your decisions will have real consequences. There’s this old man you meet in the third episode who dies real quickly, so any choices you make with him have no time to pay off. And no matter what you do, the game has to end a certain way (it’d make direct sequels a lot harder to create otherwise), so there are quite a few mandatory events and character deaths that you just have to suck up no matter how hard you try to avoid them.
But whilst there’s nothing astounding about it in terms of story and gameplay, The Walking Dead is still an absorbing game that I’d recommend playing at least once for its well-executed narrative chops within the zombie genre, especially if you’re a fan of the other adaptations. Good pacing, coherent character arcs driving the story, and the ability to play as a black guy in a video game (that really shouldn’t be rare, but I can think of very few games that do this unless you want to bring up 50 Cent’s awful schlock). What more could you possibly want?