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The Walking Dead: Episode 1 – A New Day

When a game is rated M for Mature, one expects it to follow that logic.  Some games do so with great aplomb, others go to excessive levels to meet this standard (or don’t go far enough, for others still).  One thing that can be said for certain is this: Telltale’s take on The Walking Dead is most definitely a worthy member of this elite group of games, setting a new standard for storytelling in the industry while managing to be a fine product in its own right.

Hearing that Telltale Games, a developer known for more family-friendly titles such as the recent Sam & Max and Monkey Island games, is involved in such a mature, adult-oriented franchise as The Walking Dead will come as a shock to certain fans, but they should be comforted with the fact that these brilliant developers have shown their mastery of the graphic adventure genre once again.

A New Day is set in the continuity of the comic books (not the TV show, though that is great in its own right), taking place before the events involving Rick Grimes and the Atlanta survivors.  The player takes on the role of Lee Everett, a former convict who, through a series of increasingly desperate sequences, finds his way to Clementine, a seemingly orphaned 8-year old girl who he takes custody of as they make their way to safety.

Rest assured, all of the themes and tension present in the comic books and in the show are accounted for. Every new addition, be it a character or a piece of information, fleshes out this world and adds to the depth of the experience.  The cast of characters, including guest appearances by familiar faces, are interesting and complex, not all of whom adhere to black-and-white morality, and the story is appropriately gut-wrenching, with thought-provoking moments, strong horror elements and an appropriately bleak cliffhanger (hint: really bad timing).

The gameplay ties into the narrative well, almost being inseparable.  As it stands, this is very much a Telltale game, so expect the same point n’ click mechanics from their other graphic adventures…but with a clear twist: several scenes, usually involving close calls with zombies, have a time limit in which the player can use a object before they are gruesomely killed.  If the plot itself didn’t increase the tension, then these life-and-death moments certainly do the trick.  It doesn’t hurt that the controls for these, on PC at least, work well, though there may be issues with inaccuracy when these timed scenes require precision.

The dialog system has also been altered, with certain discussions with characters facing a similar time-limit and holding consequences on the story.  In fact, Telltale has added such strong choice-based mechanics to this installment, from picking phrases in these discussions to choosing to save certain people, that the experience becomes very much specific to the individual.  Everything you do, Telltale says, will affect how you are viewed by your fellow survivors and will influence the events of future episodes, a la Mass Effect.

This all makes for an experience that truly shows how games can be as much about narrative as it is about gameplay, as everything has been streamlined or altered to fit the context of the tale.  The interface for using and carrying items has been simplified to an on-screen bar that is context-sensitive, fitting the idea of practicality meeting adaptability.  Similarly, to fit the ‘realistic’  values on display, there are fewer interactive puzzles than other adventure games, which may disappoint some fans, though the puzzles present do have interesting mechanics and require the use of critical thinking (in addition, the fair difficulty is aided by the lack of a hint system).

In terms of presentation, Telltale has outdone themselves here for certain.  While not perfect and  probably not the best example of graphical prowess in 2012, the engine used here is impressive, giving the game a comic-book-esque look that suits the story well.  The art design is disturbing in a familiar way, with good lighting and nice, if somewhat static, backgrounds.

Another noteworthy element is the sound design, which is top notch.  The soundtrack blends in with the on-screen action, yet it is distinctive and suspenseful when listened to carefully.  The voice acting is also noteworthy, with every actor and actress performing admirably, particularly Dave Fennoy as the internally tortured Lee Everett and Melissa Hutchinson as the innocent, lovable Clementine.    Their chemistry is undeniable, and it adds to the dynamic of their relationship.

All in all, Telltale has shown their skill in taking beloved properties and turning them into something far more.  It never should have been in doubt, but this is certainly their greatest effort yet.  Even with minor flaws, A New Day  has set the bar for what we should expect from Telltale;  here’s hoping they can see it through to season’s end.

Score: 9/10

Author’s Opinion: This is a high-quality purchase, without a doubt.  If you are interested in The Walking Dead, or zombies, or Telltale, or narrative-gameplay hybrid experiences, or if you are just open-minded, this is worth purchasing.  For everyone else, try it anyway and I guarantee you will find something to enjoy in this truly mature, n0n-linear experience.  

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