Here’s the deal: 400 Days is not as good as Season 1, but it’s worth playing on its own merits. Telltale Games put a lot of faith in experimentation and variety this time around and it paid off. This is a strong encapsulation of everything good and powerful about The Walking Dead, and it’s easily a highlight of 2013. Don’t cheap out on this – it’ll be worth the money in the long run.
The Long Version
I never thought I’d live to see the day an adventure game like The Walking Dead receive a Game of The Year award – and from the Spike VGAs, no less. ‘Tis the truth behind Telltale’s success: the company took an existing franchise, and spun it into a massively player-oriented, emotionally-harrowing interactive narrative. They got right what countless developers have spent years getting wrong – players like choice, players like emotional connections, and players most definitely like both intertwined into one.
So the follow-up to that success, 400 Days, has a lot to live up to. It’s been promoted as gap-bridging DLC to tide us over until Season 2 (speaking of which: HURRAY!), so it has the feeling of a cash-grab right off the bat. It also doesn’t help that it’s one episode released in the middle of the year, designed to experiment with traditional narrative scenarios; historically-speaking, experimental DLC can go either way.
With all that said, though, the end result is a tightly packed experience that never overstays its welcome. The Walking Dead: 400 Days doesn’t last long, and there isn’t much meat to it, but what is there is both interesting and intense.
The setup of this little bite-sized adventure is unusual, but quite interesting. The game opens with an interactive bulletin board sporting the pictures of five specific survivors. From here, the player can select each individual photo and begin playing through each character’s unique tale.
What sets this episode – or loose web of stories, depending on your perspective – apart from, say, Season 1 is that it’s not focused so much on character building as it is on rapid-fire tension and intense player choices. The scenarios range from a few minutes to about 10 minutes in length, presenting you with tough choice after tough choice. Do you kill the hostile old couple, or do you simply walk away while you still can? Do you sacrifice one prisoner’s life for another? Would you kill a friend and fellow survivor on principle, or flee for safety?
It’s also distinctive in how varied the scenarios get. The first I tried was set entirely aboard a prison bus, followed by another segment that saw a character flee recklessly from mysterious assailants. 400 Days is masterfully paced in that it doesn’t stick to one set of characters, or one situation, too long for its own good. Events move along at a nice rate, though not without sacrificing believable dialogue and character interactions along the way (Rock-Paper-Scissors and Would You Rather? Well, in the apocalypse…)
Sadly, given how integral the story is to the gameplay, I can’t say much more about it. All I will say is that, despite how affective the ending is and how relevant the theme of trust becomes, I did feel that the episode’s hour-ish length put constraints on how developed and relateable the characters came off. I never felt quite as endeared to this cast as I was to Lee, or Clementine, or Kenny; there just wasn’t enough time or powerful moments this go around.
Still, I’m thankful that the humanity and character dynamics that make this a popular franchise have remained as important here. I just wish that the episode did slow down in some cases, especially in the Shel segment, just to really form a bond with people and to illustrate the sheer horrors of this world. It has one of those moments that could have used a bit more time to really sink in emotionally.
The presentation, for the most part, remains a reliable aid to the overall experience. Barring some visual bugs and the rare bit of lag, the Telltale Tool engine remains a sturdy and visual pleasing element of the experience. The soundtrack, while generally downplayed this time around, did resonate with me towards the end and it’s supported by continually talented voice actors.
To summarize, 400 Days is a more-than-solid, quite good experience that plays out as an experience should: short, but impressive. Telltale played around with what they knew, tried out new things, and otherwise refined what was already a damn good series. While not perfect, this episode certainly fits the bill of a nice light appetizer to the upcoming main course.
Season 2, here we come.