The Walking Dead has become a genuine cross-media phenomenon, gaining both critical and financial acclaim with its long-running Image Comics series as well as the AMC television series. It was only a matter of time before the dark, emotional tale of the zombie apocalypse lurched its way into the realm of video games. Thankfully, in a market already bloated with more action-oriented zombie titles, The Walking Dead decided to stay true to its more cerebral roots by sticking with a traditional adventure game format under the watchful eyes of Telltale Games. Telltale Games has basically been the last mainstream company keeping the all-but-dead adventure genre on life support with games like Jurassic Park: The Video Game and Sam and Max, so their handling of the Romero-esque Walking Dead is a boon to say the least.
However, there is still the problem of any adaptation of an already established work: how do you tell a story that's been told twice already without becoming a retread? Telltale smartly skirted this issue by forgoing the adventures of Rick Grimes and his motley crew, instead following the misadventures of a new character named Lee Everett. When the game opens, we meet Lee as he is en route to prison for an unknown crime, and the game gently eases us into its unique conversation-based gameplay. Those who have played Jurassic Park are already familiar with the style, which sees you pressing face buttons to execute a series of canned responses. However, Walking Dead raises the stakes by offering a timer at certain points, adding a surprising amount of stress to a simple gameplay trope. This timer, a diminishing white bar, indicates crucial moments in the game's story, which promises a sort of butterfly effect for later points in the game. Certain responses and actions give you a simple warning in the upper left of the screen, letting you know that actions will be remembered. While these repercussions are rarely felt in the first episode of the game, the few times they do kick back at you is a fascinating model of what the rest of the episodes will bring.
These sorts of rapid-fire choices are presented elsewhere in the game, particularly when you are forced to choose a party member to save. Episode 1 gives you this choice twice, and while these choices weren't exactly difficult logically—rescue the reporter who is a crack shot or the relatively useless AV geek—they're still harrowing, deciding who lives and who dies.
These decisions are made difficult because the characters are incredibly well written. In fact, I would go so far as to say that The Walking Dead has some of the best writing in a video game that I've ever encountered, giving weight to your decisions involving these characters. Lee may be a murderer—his crime is hinted at in the first episode—but he quickly becomes a sympathetic character as soon as he runs in with Clementine, the young girl who is left alone after her babysitter is turned and her parents are MIA after the initial outbreak. Clementine is easily one of the most well-constructed children I've seen in any form of media, offering painfully innocent insight to the events as they transpire and understanding the importance of the tiny tasks she takes on. Everyone, good or bad, is subject to the same careful construction, and the results are engrossing. The game even manages to work in series regulars like Glen and Herschel in a way that feels neither forced or pandering, but cements these characters' place in the ravaged slice of Georgia that the comics and TV series inhabit.
Tying all of this wonderful writing and tense gameplay together is a gorgeous art style that apes the comic book (the world that, I believe, the game takes place in) while filling the world with beautiful strokes of oversaturated color. It's a bold departure from both the black-and-white comic and the muted tones of the TV series that sets itself apart from the source material while still somehow feeling faithful.
While the game is incredibly short—I clocked in around 2 hours of playtime—the $5 price tag and episodic nature of the title make it a pretty easy pill to swallow. The beautiful art style and phenomenal writing are the additional spoonful of sugar to make it go down even easier.
The Walking Dead Episode 1 – A New Day is available now on Xbox 360 for 400 MSP ($5) and Playstation 3 and PC for $4.99.