Back in 2012, after several successes with classic adventure games, Telltale Games decided to try their hand at the up and coming Interactive Movie genre. Their episodic take on Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic series, or rather the world contained within, was a breakout hit. This was, in part due to the popularity of the AMC TV series by the same name, but mostly due to the well-written characters and how easy it was for the player to become emotionally involved. After the staggering success many thought Telltale would try their hand at doing something with original IP but they preferred to ride the comfortable wave of licensed properties with varying degrees of success. And while their adaptation of Fables going by The Wolf Among Us and Tales From The Borderlands received universal acclaim, some of their titles left people a bit lukewarm, among them The Walking Dead Season 2. I don’t know what happened between the first season and the second, but aside from a small handful of characters the world seemed to be populated by useless blundering idiots. And it’s hard to be invested in that.
The Walking Dead Michonne miniseries is a return to the source material, covering the exploits of the katana-wielding badass title character, who is part of the main cast in both the comic series and the TV show. It promises a shorter, more contained experience counting just three episodes rather than the requisite five we’re used to. I recently had the chance to play the first released episode titled In Too Deep.
The Walking Dead: Michonne. Episode 1: Windows PC [Reviewed], Mac OS X, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Android, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, iOS
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Release Date: 23 February 2016
Price: 14,99€ [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Developer/Publisher]
The Walking Dead: Michonne. In Too Deep
The series covers a rather long time skip late in the comic books and has Michonne away from the main cast on something of a self-discovery redemption journey. It offers some insight into her background, including some aspects that were only lightly touched on or not at all in the other two mediums. While I love the comic series and how well constructed its characters are, I’ve come to only begrudgingly follow the TV show due to its frequent schizophrenia regarding tone, character development and overall coherence (though it does seem to be picking up again now that it’s slowly inching back to being faithful to the source material). Michonne is definitely one of the more iconic and well-represented characters across the franchise which is in no small part due to her choice of a katana as a weapon and my generation’s fascination with Japanese swords. Regretfully, during this time span in the story, Michonne has temporarily left her katana back home, so you’ll just have to settle for a machete. Sorry.
The story has her and the crew of a fishing ship investigating a radio signal from a derelict ferry somewhere in the Chesapeake Bay on the American East Coast. They encounter another group of survivors shortly thereafter and, naturally, there are some tensions and mistrust among the two groups. I won’t go into any more detail, as every single scene is a potential spoiler given the short time span of Telltale episodes, but I must say that unlike in previous The Walking Dead installments there isn’t a very clear black and white morality as to who the heroes and who the villains are. At least not by the end of the first episode.
There are still choices to be made in dialogue and actions but there isn’t any one choice that I considered to be important to the main character. Most Telltale series try to do this at least once per episode. There are, however, a handful of smaller more subtle choices to be made especially during one tense interrogation scene which I would definitely say is the high point of the episode.
As per usual, the dialogue scenes are interspersed with some bare-bones environmental interaction and quick-time combat scenes. These play the same way we’re already used to, except that Michonne being a far more experienced fighter than previous protagonists, they turned out much more brutal and visceral. At odd times Michonne also has several flashbacks and hallucinations of her past mistakes and regrets and these are very efficiently woven into the rest of the gameplay sequences, making for some creative scenes.
The Walking Dead Horse
I’m not a stickler for technical innovation in video games. If a formula works and ages well I’m all for using it. Hell, I’m a self-professed sucker for pixel art and a Minecraft player of six years now. However, The Walking Dead, or better yet, The Telltale Engine is in dire need of an update. Cel-shading can only get you so far and don’t get me wrong, the game looks as decent as any other of their titles did, but I think it’s safe to say that we’re all growing a bit sick of it. It was fine back in 2012 and it worked well for The Wolf Among Us and Tales From The Borderlands, mostly due to matching their sources’ style, sure. But the animation and model quality has not improved one bit over the years. There are also performance issues and I don’t think that long loading times or framerate drops are acceptable on an engine older than my PC. And this is to say nothing about the gameplay formula not only missing any enhancements but having been watered down since previous installments. The first season of The Walking Dead had some actual inventory and logic puzzles. Not brain-wracking, by a long-shot, but they were there. By this point in time I don’t even know why we even have an inventory anymore since the most it does is remind us of what we’re going to use automatically during one of the following cutscenes.
The combat has largely remained unchanged as well: button prompts, button mashing and the occasional directional movement. The freshest element I’ve seen was when at one point I was prompted to press three buttons in sequence. Exactly once. And while the effects of the button presses are Michonne doing spectacular finesse strikes against her opponents, the fact that it’s exactly as difficult (or easy) to fight as her as it was to fight as Lee or Clementine in previous titles is a bit noticeable. That The Wolf Among Us did far more impressive things with the limited quicktime system is not a point in The Walking Dead: Michonne‘s favor either.
The game is not without its good parts, however, and thankfully they’re exactly the ones they should be. Even as soon as the first chapter there are strong characters, most of them complex and not one or two-dimensional and well-executed dialogue scenes. I still think, however, we should be past the whole “interactive cutscene” model by now, as Until Dawn or Oxenfree have provided good examples of alternatives that allow you to move and do things while talking. Samira Wiley, of Orange is the New Black fame does a fantastic job as Michonne and all of the other characters exhibit the same level of voice-acting skill. The soundtrack is in the same melancholic style as we’ve come to expect and it still fits the bleak atmosphere of a dead but once prosperous civilization. And the opening credits are some of the best in recent memory.
The Telltale formula is aging and it’s not doing so with a lot of grace. Given that this is the third The Walking Dead title under their belt it’s more egregious here than in other places. While their formula and business model are definitely working, it may be time to go and rework a bit of the foundations before they’re past the point where they’re just resting on their laurels. As a game, The Walking Dead Michonne is solid. Not terrible, not amazing, but solid. Decent. Serviceable. It does a competent job of building some interesting characters and delivering on a strong and I’d say compelling narrative, but falls short in terms of gameplay, simply because of how overused the formula is. A definite recommendation for Walking Dead fans hungry for more of the same, but maybe one of the surest signs in years that the time for Telltale Games to do something fresh is drawing close.