Fight the dead and the living as The Walking Dead’s most capable hero.
PC Release: February 23, 2016
By Ian Coppock
Typically, the review schedule on Art as Games comprises a review of a new game on Wednesday, and an older one on Sunday, but this month’s schedule is different. With a few major releases set to hit shelves this fall, it’s time to take a look at a few series’ most recent installments, to give everyone a good idea of what games might be worth it or not. Sure, a new game doesn’t necessitate playing the one that came before it, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t hidden gems and interesting backstories to equip oneself with beforehand. The Walking Dead: Michonne is one such example.
The Walking Dead: Michonne is the latest installment in Telltale’s venerable The Walking Dead series of episodic adventure games. The series’ The Walking Dead debut is widely regarded as one of the greatest adventure games ever made. The game helped establish Telltale as one of gaming’s strongest storytellers, and sparked the revival of the episodic format in video game development. The idea is simple; pay for a season of 2-hour-long episodes of game, and they’ll be delivered to your digital doorstep over the course of, say, six months. The strategy has certainly worked well for Telltale, and has since been adopted by other studios.
The Walking Dead: Michonne is a miniseries comprising three episodes. The game was originally meant to be a DLC for The Walking Dead: Season Two, but was eventually expanded into a standalone title and project. The story’s protagonist and titular character is Michonne, the one and same katana-wielding, zombie-decapitating warrior featured in The Walking Dead graphic novel and in AMC’s hit TV show. With season three of Telltale’s The Walking Dead series due to debut this fall, the time is right to see if Michonne’s adventure will help tide fans and adventure gamers over for the next few months.
Like Telltale’s previous The Walking Dead games, The Walking Dead: Michonne takes place in the universe of the graphic novel, which stands apart from the TV adaptation. In the comic books, Michonne decides to take a break from hanging out with Rick Grimes and his group of survivors, and takes a job aboard a cargo vessel ferrying supplies between coastal survivors’ colonies. Michonne takes this respite to collect herself after a few very hard months, and to deal with the loss of her two little girls to the zombie apocalypse. The details of this hiatus are not portrayed in the comic books, so Telltale took it upon themselves to see what Michonne was up to during her time away from the group.
Michonne settles into a life at sea readily enough, acquainting herself with the ship’s friendly crew, and helping to move cargo between settlements all over the Chesapeake. She hopes that the experience will prove a good change of scenery, and enjoys being on a boat away from the zombie-infested mainland. She can’t seem to catch a break, though; her crew realizes that the other boats usually traversing these waters have vanished, and that they’re suddenly the only boat sailing around in Chesapeake Bay. When Michonne’s captain picks up a faint distress call on the radio, she and her team decide to investigate the disappearances of the other ships.
Michonne’s detective work takes her to a shipwreck that wasn’t there a week ago, and into contact with a mysterious group of survivors from across the bay. The meeting isn’t exactly peaceful, especially since it turns out that zombies can swim, and Michonne is suddenly beset on all sides by enemy forces. Though her circumstances and choice of friends are different, her skill with a blade is not, and she soon wonders if that’s all she can trust in this terrible, terrible world.
It is thus that The Walking Dead‘s fiercest, bravest character is thrust into a long-overdue video game spotlight. Despite her near-universal popularity with fans and critics, Michonne has never featured in a video game adaptation of either the graphic novel or the television show. Picking Michonne to be in a game should’ve been a no-brainer; not just because female black protagonists are rarer than gold dust in the world of video games, but because she’s arguably The Walking Dead‘s most acclaimed character. This is also the first time a Telltale game has starred a character from the original graphic novel (although Glen make a brief appearance in the first season).
As with all of Telltale’s adventure games, The Walking Dead: Michonne is played in third-person. The game emphasizes narrative and puzzles over action, though as a game full of zombies, it can’t not feature a little fun. The game is advanced by a combination of dialogue choices and puzzle-solving. Although solving puzzles is also necessary to move the storyline, the dialogue will ultimately determine how that storyline will end. Telltale is one of the few developers out there whose games sustain massive changes due to dialogue. Even Mass Effect‘s choice-based system pales in comparison to how many outcomes there can be with The Walking Dead.
This substantive philosophy is no less applied in The Walking Dead: Michonne, even though the game is a great deal shorter than most Telltale adventures. As Michonne, players have an opportunity to shape the legendary character’s personality, outlook, and relationships with other survivors. Players are also given fleeting glimpses into Michonne’s life pre-apocalypse, back when she defended her fellow man with the law instead of with swords. And as everyone knows, swords are much more interesting than courtrooms.
Because the meat of Telltale’s effort was put into the narrative, that’s obviously where the game shines brightest. Throughout The Walking Dead: Michonne‘s three-episode arc, Michonne undergoes a believable progression of character development. Michonne starts out as the fierce yet reserved warrior everyone knows from the comic books, but players can fill the rest of the blanks through conversations with other members of the crew. Because of this dialogue input, Michonne can be impatient and bloodthirsty, brave and compassionate, or any other of multiple choices. Of course, picking one way or the other will influence Michonne’s relationships with other survivors. Some might appreciate a callous approach to the apocalypse, while others crave mercy. Players can decide whether to survive the zombie onslaught by friendship, or by the sword.
Anyhoo, not long after catching the distress signal, Michonne and her captain are taken to a waterborne settlement full of ruthless survivors. Though players should take care in how they shape relationships with Michonne’s allies, it’s just as critical how she interacts with her enemies. A good rule of thumb in The Walking Dead games is, just like in the show, finding a path that results in saving the most lives. At least, if those lives are on Michonne’s side.
Players are given a limited amount of time in The Walking Dead: Michonne to pick their dialogue responses, though letting time run out and remaining silent is also a viable option. Again unlike Mass Effect, The Walking Dead: Michonne is far more than a choice between two relatively simplistic paths. Players will have to juggle between being hostile and friendly to make the best of Michonne’s many tough situations. It’s a great way to keep players guessing as to the plot, and it keeps the game feeling fresh. It’s a technique that Telltale has already mastered in its other adventure games, and no less so here.
That said, though, the narrative is not without a few issues. For one thing, The Walking Dead: Michonne is short. Even though three episodes isn’t much less than Telltale’s usual five-episode full season of content, each individual episode can easily be completed in about forty-five minutes to an hour, significantly less than the 2-3 hours of playtime each mainline The Walking Dead episode can rack up. The Walking Dead: Michonne never claims to be a full-length game (the word “miniseries” is in the subtitle) but the narrative is ultimately not given the room it needs to grow.
Although Michonne is a fascinating character and it’s a lot of fun to play as her, the other characters in this production aren’t given enough screen time to care about them. Some characters will dip in and out for entire episodes, which, for a three-episode series, is really not ideal if Telltale wants gamers to care for them. They have their little arcs, their little backstories, but the game is too short for players to care about them the same way as Clementine, or Kenny, or other characters from the full-length games. Ultimately, it’s more a drawback of the short format than of Telltale’s writing, but it’s a drawback all the same.
In that same vein, one of the main means by which The Walking Dead exudes its horror is the deaths of longtime characters that everyone loves. It’s a powerful way to evolve the remaining survivors, and it gives the series the addictive emotional exhaustion that has made it such a hit. In The Walking Dead: Michonne, the only characters that die are ones that were introduced to Michonne about two minutes before their demise. The game’s emotional brevity is thus neutered, because Michonne’s only barely known the dude’s name before he’s in the ground. It goes without saying that people care more for the deaths of loved ones than the deaths of strangers, and in The Walking Dead: Michonne, it’s really only the latter that happens. It’s very uncharacteristic of a series that’s unafraid to suddenly kill series regulars.
As for the core narrative itself, it’s certainly suspenseful, though not particularly innovative. It’s nothing that inveterate The Walking Dead fans haven’t seen before: a group of survivors comes into conflict with another group of survivors, with a ton of zombies strewn between the two sides. Each side has its upstanding heroes and its shockingly depraved villains, but none of them occupy a new niche in The Walking Dead mythology. Gamers and fans well-acquainted with the source material will enjoy this game’s story, but it won’t carry any themes or character archetypes they haven’t seen before.
Despite these problems, though, Telltale still succeeds in honing its aforementioned character relationship mechanic. Players are given a lot of freedom in determining relationships with other survivors, and those can create genuinely, starkly different endings between playthroughs. This won’t come as anything new to Telltale fans, but it’s nice to see that this mechanic doesn’t suffer for The Walking Dead: Michonne‘s shorter length as everything else about the plot does. Even the tantalizing glimpses into Michonne’s former life start to feel a bit tired.
When players aren’t busy chatting up survivors, they’re looking for supplies and solving puzzles around the environment. Nothing that this game throws at players will break their brains; Telltale stopped focusing on puzzles long ago, and the conundrums it throws out these days are usually just a matter of button-pushing. Though puzzle fans might be a bit down over this, these simple conundrums do nothing to detract from the game’s sense of tension. One door-opening puzzle that Michonne completes is hard to do not because of its logical difficulty, but because of the undead hand chained to the other side of the door. The challenges in this game are a hybrid of puzzle and story, and narrative fans will be suited by these just fine.
Despite the focus on narrative, The Walking Dead does feature some combat. The only problem is that it’s almost exclusively played out as a series of quick time events, with a gruesome death scene promised for anyone who doesn’t mash the “W” key fast enough. Quick-time events are annoying, needless to say, and the combat is made unintentionally humorous by The Walking Dead: Michonne‘s dramatic slow-motion kills. Just like when Gerard Butler slays Persians in the film 300, The Walking Dead: Michonne enters a dramatic slow-mo sequence every time she kills a zombie. These sequences aren’t a deal-breaker, primarily because Michonne has a sword, but they do come off as a bit garish.
The Walking Dead: Michonne is a decent game, but not innovative. It’s a narrative that would be for naught if not for the presence of Michonne. Though her dialogue is well-written and her character arc is compelling, everything else about this game’s story treads a safe, well-explored path.
It also doesn’t help that the game has more than a few bugs, from lip syncing gone awry to terrible loading screen lag. Telltale and adventure game fans will want to play the first two, full-length seasons of The Walking Dead game before embarking upon this adventure. It’s fun enough, it’s well enough written, and it’s the most visually impressive Telltale The Walking Dead game yet, but don’t expect the narrative to stick around long after the game’s conclusion.
You can buy The Walking Dead: Michonne here.
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