What an amazing game. I suppose you’d call it a gruelling point-and-click struggle for survival set in the milieu of the zombified graphic novels of the same name. It’s actually in very similar territory to Beyond: Two Souls, which I played a couple of weeks back – an interactive drama, you might say – but I think overall it’s a good deal more successful, because although it lacks the visual bells and whistles it scores huge on the human interaction, imagination, narrative drive and drama.
They make a neat decision not to repeat the story of the graphic novels, telling instead a parallel one of their own devising with a few nods to the original material and a couple of characters in common. Lee, a college history teacher, is on his way to jail for murder when the world ends, and he soon finds himself surrogate father to a little girl called Clem, struggling desperately to survive against the predatory dead and the even worse living as one of a group of mismatched companions. Like all the best zombies, it creeps up on you. Initially you’re interested, a little baffled, perhaps somewhat turned off by the rough and ready looks of the thing, but quickly the characters, and the spiky interactions between them, the desperate need to survive against the odds in a world gone to hell, start to pull you in. There’s a ruthless realism to the way characters career into and out of the fast-moving narrative, a genuine sense that death could come for anyone at any moment. It’s arranged into five episodes and the second is certainly the weakest, both visually and in terms of plot, but the drama builds bit by bit, until by the fourth episode, if you’re anything like me, you’re absolutely gripped, totally bound up in the people and their fraught relationships, and that continues right to a wonderfully tough, haunting, uncompromising end.
The visual style is, well, kinda basic, I suppose you could say, very much taking graphic novel as the cue, and in the first couple of episodes it can look pretty clunky at times, but it gets better with each instalment, they use angles and events cleverly and by the brilliant last couple of episodes it’s suiting the material down to the ground and by no means getting in the way of the drama. The individuality and expressiveness they get out of the characters is impressive, even if their expressions are generally some combination of shock, agony, rage or horror. I guess those are the times.
There are shocks a-plenty, some slightly arcade-ish sequences, a fair bit of hunting down object x to do thing y, some occasionally rather frustrating gameplay as you struggle to move the cumbersome cursor over an attacking zombie and cleaver its head in half, but the heart of the game is in talking to other characters, trying to manage the relationships between them, making tough decisions when there’s often no clear right call, and trying, and failing, to keep everyone alive. And it’s just very well written and acted, both in terms of the dialogue itself and the way it creates drama and gobsmacking moments. Sometimes things go wrong. Shockingly and spectacularly, leaving you thinking, could I have done something differently? In that I think it really does get to the heart of the graphic novels and the tv adaptation – it’s not so much about the zombies, as the way the people react to the unbelievable pressure of a constant fight for survival. A fight they often lose. If you like things simple, heroic, and optimistic, this may not be for you. Everyone else should play it NOW.