It’s difficult to define quite how much of an impact Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead series has had on the gaming industry, but given the universal acclaim it has received it’s fair to say that its effect will be felt for some time to come. The original five episodes, based more closely on the comic book Robert Kirkman created than the TV series of the same name, was a huge success. Not only did it reinvigorate the point-and-click genre (take a look at the number of episodic indie games released since) but it brought much-needed emotional impact back into gaming, courtesy of strong writing, excellent voice acting and an interesting story. Whilst other series such as Mass Effect provided both choices and relationships, nothing has come close to the heart-wrenching decisions you have to make in Telltale’s world. So while we wait in earnest for season two to begin, the developers have kindly offered us a DLC stopgap in the form of The Walking Dead: 400 Days.
Ostensibly a series of short vignettes rather than a full-blown episode, you nevertheless get a remarkable amount of story and characterisation bundled into the hour-long running time. The game is split into five segments playable in any order, each set a different number of days after the apocalypse struck. Each gives you a different controllable character and offers a variety of decisions to make. You’ll play as big sister Shel in the longest section, trying to protect your increasingly sociopathic sibling in an increasingly hostile group. In other stories, redneck Wyatt provides some brief comic relief which soon turns sour, teenager Russell’s trust in a new friend may not be justified, convict Vince is on a path to redemption, and the weakest (and shortest) slot is occupied by ex-drug addict Bonnie.
Telltale know how to ratchet up the tension. As with the first season, your character will be provided with a number of choices to make which will have an effect on both the responses given and actions carried out by NPCs. These choices - usually in the form of dialogue but sometimes far more brutal, as in Vince’s case - will be difficult, if not impossible to make. Not only are most of them timed in order to make you think fast, but you will be left with conflicted emotions after each outcome. Should I have let that guy live? Should I scarper to safety and leave a friend behind? It’s testament to the quality of the writing that you’ll feel genuinely troubled with the some of your decisions you make. This is the hook of the series - there are no easy answers. Very few games challenge your conscience like The Walking Dead (one notable exception being The Last of Us) and fewer are set in a world where personalities, not monsters, come to the fore. Zombies are extraneous here, a bit-part player in a world where the rules have changed. They are merely something to avoid whilst concentrating on the bigger picture: how do people cope when everything they know and all of the structure they are used to crumbles into chaos? It’s a survival story then, but one which reveals the dark underbelly of civilisation and - if the events hinted at here are to be believed - one which suggests that humans may be more dangerous than the monsters themselves.
To discuss the story would be to spoil the experience. It’s enough to say that each individual instalment offers a compact glimpse into the world of each character and there are some nice cross-overs and callbacks to the first game which highlight the attention to detail. Gameplay has been significantly scaled back for the DLC. There is no inventory and no puzzles other than the decisions you make. Pointing and clicking is reserved solely for examining the environment and building up the atmosphere of each piece. Quick time events have returned, and the button-mashing remains a clunky but suitably frenetic way of highlighting the urgency of certain situations you’ll end up in. Otherwise the game is pure interactive story, which will doubtless delight fans of the first series. The biggest compliment that we can pay Telltale is that all five characters and scenarios feel different. Whether you’re hurtling through cornfields, chained inside a convict bus, or watching a friend stumbling through thick fog, the atmosphere is arresting.
Not of all it is great. Bonnie’s story is little more than a mini-soap opera mixed with a chase, whilst Wyatt’s is enjoyable but inconsequential. Graphically, the stylised ink and cel-shaded environments and models are as good as the previous episodes, but the same stuttering effect when transitioning between some scenes is present, as is the moonwalking animation of any character you move to an environment’s boundary. This is a shame, and we would hope that these issues are ironed out before the second full season starts.
None of this is enough to stop us recommending the game. A lot of love and care has clearly been put into 400 Days. The voice acting is top notch, the decisions you’re forced to make are haunting, and the finale wraps up each character’s storyline with a tantalising suggestion that the second season could incorporate one or more of these characters. 400 Microsoft points for an hour’s play might seem steep but is fully justified when the product is this good; a promising indication of Telltale’s increasing confidence in the genre and an assurance that we can look forward to season 2 with genuine relish.