Who doesn’t love a good zombie apocalypse? Personally I long to board up my apartment from the inside and live off Spam and 7-up. I wouldn’t want to do it forever, mind, but perhaps for a week or so just to see what it’s like. What a great idea for a holiday camp. Anyway, zombies have been gracing our TVs, cinemas, consoles and computers for decades and no franchise has been more successful than The Walking Dead. Originally a hugely successful comic book series, The Walking Dead has spawned a household love for anything dead and hungry. If we’re not watching the TV show we’re playing the Monopoly game, drinking out of the special edition Daryl mug and binging on the Telltale video games. If that’s not enough, we now have a brand new Walking Dead video game to lose countless hours to courtesy of Team17. Behold The Escapists: The Walking Dead.
Anyone who played the original Escapists game released last year will recognise the pixelated delights of this new game. The Escapists was a sandbox prison sim with players tasked with finding a means of escape. Despite the visual similarities, The Walking Dead is a completely different fish. While prison life had you identifying different means of escape and had a focus on stealth (fitting into prison life while digging your way under the floorboards), The Walking Dead is much more overt in its puzzling elements. The characters immediately around you are your friends and you’re not going to get told off for making a hole in the wall or rummaging through someone’s desk. The developer has taken their prison game and, whilst keeping the visuals, mechanics and functions essentially the same, have created something completely different.
You are Rick Grimes, a slightly on-the-edge but weirdly sexy ex-sheriff. You’re the leader of a group of survivors including your annoying son and your extremely unlikable cow of a wife (whoops sorry, this is based on the comic books not the TV show). You’re the leader of a group of survivors including your son and your wife. You are responsible for their safety. You must arm them and use them to help you achieve various tasks at various locations. Prepare to do some exploring.
The Walking Dead is more focused on exploration than its predecessor. Without prison officers breathing down your neck and confiscating your stuff, you have a lot more scope for going AWOL after hours, digging holes in the ground and scurrying through the ventilation systems. No one is going to tell you off for carrying a desk on your head at the Greene Family Farm. Due to the much more forgiving nature of exploration versus stealth, The Escapists: The Walking Dead is, in some respects, a slightly easier game than the original prison sim. While completion of your objectives is shrouded in glorious puzzling and figuring it all out is likely to take a while, execution of your activities is blessed with much more freedom. Dig yourself as many holes as you want. No one cares. Just make sure you’re digging in the right place.
You will be given different objectives throughout the game, but in order to achieve these tasks you have to do some serious searching. You may need to find a key to find an object that can be put with another object from a different location and crafted into something new. This new object can then be used to find another… you get the picture. You’ll need to do a thorough search of every location including underground, on the roofs and in the walls. You’ll need to scour Walker-infested rooms, buildings and car parks searching for backpacks and holdalls, crafting instructions, ammunition and better weapons. There’s no direct route to your objective, only pieces of a puzzle that you must fit together to progress, and don’t expect this to happen overnight.
Just like The Escapists, some of the levels will present you with a daily routine, including a morning and evening headcount, breakfast and dinner and a set of daily jobs such as supply runs and cleaning guts off the floor. Blowing off these activities can lead to very serious consequences. Attending to daily duties keeps your morale high and prevents Walkers from spawning. You might not fancy your eggs one morning but you’ll fancy your face bitten off even less. Having to attend to these duties effectively slows you down and forces you to balance the sim aspect of the game with the puzzling and exploration. You also have strength, speed and intelligence stats that, if you’re going to craft complicated items and fend off vicious Walkers, you need to work on. This is especially true once you get to Woodbury where strength and endurance are needed if you’re going to navigate a very hostile environment. The point is not to rush through the solution to each level, but to make sure you survive while you’re scratching through your scalp trying to figure it out. What you end up with is a very well balanced experience that feels comfortably paced.
Crafting is one of the game’s many pleasures. Combine up to three objects to make something new. Players of the original game will recognise many of the items and will have a head start, but there’s lots of new stuff to discover, and half the fun is tracking it all down and discovering the crafting notes. Of course you could just cheat and find a crafting list online. Whichever way you decided to tackle the crafting, it’s a lot of fun and looking up a recipe for a modified shotgun doesn’t spoil the enjoyment at all.
Talking of weapons, there’s a good range to choose from with some old favourites plus a few swords and machetes. Personally I’m not a fan of the melee combat. The Walkers seem determined to mistake my face for a kebab. I’ve found it easier to let my friends do the scrapping for me. People who really like you will follow you if you ask them and will target any walker you point out to them. Alternatively just start a fight and your mates will finish it for you just like any normal Saturday night at The Dog and Duck. The best weapons are the guns, and there are several varieties of these with pistols, rifles and shotguns. For a pixel game, the shotguns pack a surprisingly beefy punch, and are definitely the weapon of choice if you can locate enough ammunition.
Replayability comes in the form of collectables. Each level has several comic books to collect and unless you’re using a guide, you’re not going to find them first time around. This is a game that if you enjoyed your first run at it, you will go back. Personally I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t find the red key at Meriwether and resorted to unscrewing vents and fighting Walkers on my own. Plus there was that huge mysterious holdall behind the wheelie bin that I just can’t stop thinking about. Well, I guess I’d better oil my shotgun and give my hat to my ungrateful son once again…
The focus on puzzling and the more forgiving difficulty mean that, for me, The Escapists: The Walking Dead, has eclipsed its already fantastic predecessor. The developer has taken everything that was wonderful about the original game and created something more open and with a much greater freedom for exploration. Dead good.
S J Hollis Rating – 9/10