It's been quite some time since Telltale Games brought us the excellent video game adaptation of the popular The Walking Dead comic. While the first season set the tone for narrative experiences and started a trend of episodic games, Telltale has been unable to recreate the breakout success of the first season (arguably rivaled only by The Wolf Among Us and Tales from the Borderlands). Now they've released the first episode of a miniseries based on Michonne, the katana-wielding badass that will be familiar to anyone who has read the comics or seen the show. Let's see if the first (of three) episode manages to grab us like the first season has, or if it hangs closer to the decent but ultimately lackluster second season.
We meet Michonne, voiced by Samira Wiley (known for her role as Poussey Washington in the Netflix Original Orange if the new Black), as she makes her way through the zombie-infested wilderness of the Eastern US. Weighed down by memories of her lost kids, she desperately fights for a place in this new and unforgiving world. A suicide attempt on her part is thwarted by Pete, who takes the near-psychotic Michonne in as part of his group of survivors. This is definitely The Walking Dead through and through, and if the past has shown us anything it'll only get worse for the cast from here on out. There is one little problem with picking an established character as your protagonist: Michonne has plot armor. Any danger she'll be in will feel less threatening because she is supposed to survive. I don't foresee a Lee-type situation at the end of the third episode unless Telltale is willing (and able) to deviate from the canon of the comics. Of course, this doesn't mean that everyone around her isn't in danger of getting killed by a zombie, but Michonne's assured survival makes it hard to fear for her.
That group of survivors you become a part of (who have thus far survived by living on a boat) has all the archetypes you would expect. There is a man who has seen too much, a man who doesn't want to see more, a hopeful optimist and the token reasonable man. The group is at odds with each other. Resources are thinning by the day, and the people they depend on are no longer reachable. When the boat breaks down, Michonne and Pete set out to scavenge for parts to repair the boat and look for Pete's missing contacts on the shore. While investigating a banked ship, you meet Randall, a badly mannered cynical psychopath whose sister leads a nearby community. A whole bunch of stuff unfolds after that which successfully sets up the board and puts the pieces in place.
Gameplay wise, it's standard Telltale. You move along a set path as you interact with a colorful cast of sometimes nice, but sometimes decidedly less nice, characters and objects as you unfold the plot. You get to pick your reactions during conversations, which influences other characters and the plot in both big and small ways. The game still has a problem with dialogue, with what Michonne says not always completely corresponding with your dialogue choice. It's impossible to throw in a rewind feature like the one is Life is Strange due to narrative purposes, but they really could be more clear about what Michonne is going to say before you make her say it.
There's nothing here you haven't seen in their previous games, but if you don't care about any of that then you can take this point as moot. I, personally, have been on board with this style of game design since The Walking Dead Season 1, but I can understand how some people would like Telltale to innovate rather than stagnate. The game's graphics are also extremely familiar, with little to no upgrades to the engine since season one. Again, I don't really mind this since it's clearly mimicking the comic book style, but I wouldn't have complained if Telltale did some tweaking and upgrading to the engine to make it look more like a game that was released this side of 2012.
The fight scenes are way cooler than before. Every time a combat situation presents itself, black bars will appear on the top and bottom of the screen. You still use the quick time events to execute your moves, but the way those moves are presented to you are a lot slicker and better looking. Slow motion head-chopping, cool camera angles and a higher tempo make for a more streamlined and well paced experience that makes up for the dull quick time stuff by looking really great.
In the end, the stage is set. The players have taken center stage. The folks at Telltale have a solid basis for a story, all they need to do is knock it out of the park now. Even though I think they could've done some innovating here and there, that doesn't take away from the fact that they've written a compelling start to what I hope is going to be a compelling story and I'm definitely looking forward to the next episodes. It's good, now all that remains is to see if it's going to be great.
The Walking Dead: Michonne was reviewed on Steam with a key provided by the developer.
Telltale have a written a compelling start of a trilogy that manages to immerse you without tweaking the formula.