A gamer makes choices to help an eclectic band of humans survive a famed zombie apocalypse in The Walking Dead: 400 Days (Telltale Games, Rated Mature and Macabre, reviewed on Xbox 360, 400 Microsoft Points or $5).
For fans of Robert Kirkman's award-winning comic series, and die-hards hungrily awaiting the return of the AMC television series, this animated, interactive story offers a terrifying glimpse into the lives of five characters trying to exist in a world ruled by fear, greed, horrific violence and those flesh-eating ghouls.
Taking place around a Georgia truck stop, the adventure plays out through a series of five short stories plucked from a time frame encompassing the first 400 days of the zombie outbreak.
I strongly recommend a player not start with this story but appreciate Telltale Games' first five episodes of its award-winning epic exploring the harrowing life of Lee Everett and his young orphaned friend Clementine.
However, for those who have completed the previous episodic arc, they might be disappointed that Clementine's story still remains in limbo here, but this special tale acts as an appetizer and bridge for a new series of episodes coming in the fall.
To get into the action, a player looks at a memorial wall of pictures of missing humans and zeroes in on choosing images of the characters — Bonnie, Vince, Wyatt, Russell and Shel — each leading to part of an intertwined story.
For approximately 90 minutes, a player takes part in often frantic and heated strings of dialogue (using the controller's buttons to choose an answer or pose a question in a time limit) with other characters. The prose is loaded with emotion and drama, while exploring the human condition rather than simply always involving fighting off grotesque creatures.
Remember, this is not some third-person shooter with points and power ups awarded for pulling off headshots. Although, some elements of movement and using objects exists, the game often consists of more psychological than physical attacks.
What a player gets is a staggering example of interactive storytelling where decisions must be made that impact a character's future fate and relationships with others. For example, a woman named Bonnie must decide on whether to tell the truth about the demise of one of her female companions to the woman's husband or Shel must decide to murder or run.
A player will find numerous atmospheric elements ripe within The Walking Dead mythos. For example, a character may walk down a deserted road littered with corpses, run into a misty forest, find him or herself stalked in a moonlit cornfield or come face-to-face with walker when least expected. This evolving exposé often offers the worst of humanity where shooting off a limb to stay alive or killing the elderly for food become reasonable choices for survival.
As always, the cell-shaded animation style is brought to life in a mooted color palette that looks near three-dimensional. It is a stunning, tribute to The Walking Dead artwork of Charles Adlard and his contributions to the black-and-white comic books series.
I'll mention it's a good idea to kill all zombies when possible, as they will show up in another character's story thread to cause trouble.
For those uninitiated, take the plunge into the horror of The Walking Dead: 400 Days. Telltale Games ties all five short stories together with the near compact cohesiveness of Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" while adding the creepiness of a "Tales from the Crypt" episode.
Note: A player must have at least one episode of Telltale Games' The Walking Dead series ($5 each) installed to take part in the morbid action of 400 Days. This is not a stand-alone game.
Parental advice: The ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board), after watching a player stomp on the head of a zombie until it makes a squishy noise or use a shotgun to blast off a foot, decided to label this game "M" and that stands for mature — gamers only 17 years and older need be a part of The Walking Dead: 400 Days. So don't let your 14-year-old convince you that "It's just an interactive book, Dad, and reads just like the comic." These stories revel in emotional and actual violence within mature situations not built for the younger gamer.
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