In recent years, we've had an astonishing volume of narrative-heavy games that threw out mechanical difficulty and exchanged it for pure storytelling where players have a light to medium amount of agency in how the different branches of story are delivered to them. Character development and careful observation of dialogue are the meat and bones of these games, and while the concept of these types of games have their origin in the point and click games of old, its modern incarnation bears the mark of Telltale games. This little studio quite literally sweeped the digital nation when they released the first season of their adaptation of the popular The Walking Dead franchise and have since become a staple of what most of us now call the "Telltale Style" of game design and has inspired other titles like Life is Strange (which I loved) and D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die. Fast forward a couple of years and Telltale has released a veritable smorgasbord of story-driven games based on a multitude of popular franchises like Gearbox's Borderlands and George R.R. Martin's and HBO's Game of Thrones. With the third season of Telltale's The Walking Dead on the horizon, it's time to take a look at the interim trilogy based around one of the most popular characters in the game world: The Walking Dead: Michonne. Light spoilers may follow!
I already reviewed the first episode of this trilogy before, which you can read here, but I'll do a little recap to get you up to speed. When we first meet Michonne, voiced by Orange is the New Black actress Samira Wiley and not by Danai Gurira who portrays her on the TV show by AMC, she is ready to give up on the world she's been forced to live in. The loss of her kids and the unending misery that make up every day in a world infested by the undead has proved too much to bear, and Michonne decides that suicide is the proper course of action since all that has kept her alive has been taken from her. She is saved from this fate by Pete, a man who randomly stumbled upon her and he convinces her to join his group of merry men aboard his ship "Companion". An undisclosed time later, Michonne and her new friends respond to a call for help over the radio, which leads them to a banked ship and right into the hands of some unsavory types that will force her to do things she doesn't want for people she doesn't really know in an effort to return to relative safety. What follows is a wild goose chase featuring a cast of colorful characters being thrust in situations that are less than agreeable, and even less safe. This plot is sometimes put on hold to deal with Michonne's own past that led her to the attempted suicide in the very first scene of the game. Piece by piece you learn the uncomfortable and depressing truth behind Michonne's shellshock and this subplot does a fantastic job at explaining Michonne's character by showing you her biggest regrets leading up to the events in the game.
The gameplay is exactly what you would expect from a Telltale game at this point. Conversations that need you to respond with choices that influence other people, combat and action sections with quick-time events that go for style over substance, and some walking around in small areas for some light puzzling.
The gameplay has got some slight upgrades over the past Telltale games, but those are cosmetic more than they are anything of any tangible worth to the player. One of these changes is the way combat is presented at you. The game signifies Michonne's PTSD by placing black cinematic bars on the top and bottom of the screen as soon as she enters combat. This allows for a very stylized combat sequence that looks very cinematic and is presented to you way better than past games from the Telltale stable. Quick camera cuts, intermittent slow-motion to highlight a particularly brutal takedown, and a focus on close-ups give all the combat sequences a heavier and more visceral feel, as if you're doing a lot more than just ramming buttons in response to button prompts. It's constructed pretty expertly, and great to look at.
Do your actions dramatically change the outcome of the situations you're placed in? No. Not really. But this is to be expected with most games since there is only so much agency you can give to the player before you're compromising the story you want to tell. This has been the case for eons, and while some games do have a larger degree of player agency within them, this is certainly not one of those. Yes, you have the power to influence how conversations will go and people will change their actions and opinions on certain things depending on what they think about you, but in the end you're following a largely set in stone path to a conclusion that is equally set in stone. The fact that Michonne is a character that features prominently as a main character in the show and the visual novel also means that any danger you are in isn't very dangerous to begin with. This trilogy is set before the events in the comics, and since Michonne is supposed to show up there, her survival is pretty much guaranteed. This means that you can put yourself in dangerous situations because Michonne has that all too powerful plot armor that will shield her from serious harm. A convenient crutch for the writers of the script, but a less impressive position for the player to be in.
One thing that Telltale has always been good at with their The Walking Dead games is that they put you in incredibly uncomfortable situations and, usually, these situations take way longer to resolve than you'd want. Remember you had to shoot that kid in the house in season 1? Or that you had to stitch Clementine's arm in season 2? Situations like this are back in force and have you click and press your way through them with all the disgusting sound effects that come with the territory. These moments lead to some genuine human drama that give some of the side characters and their relationships some much needed time in the limelight and evoked in me some genuine empathy for a Telltale character, something I haven't really felt since the ending of the second season. It really helps that the voice acting of all the major characters is convincing and does its best to draw you in for the biggest part of the, somewhat short, story. Samira Wiley does have a tendency to mumble when she's talking softly, though.
Graphically speaking, the game isn't impressive in the slightest. It has that same smudged texture look as all the other Telltale games, and the animations, while perfectly serviceable, are stiff and puppet-like. The engine is definitely showing its age, and while I don't really mind any of it because of the comic book look it's going for, I, too, am starting to think that they should really up their game in the animation department or be left behind as other similar games pass them by in the future. This, however, may be a moot point to anyone who doesn't mind the look since it doesn't really detract much from the overall quality of the game and the facial animations don't detract all that much from the tone of the conversations either. It's something you either like, or don't.
All in all, The Walking Dead: Michonne is a successful entry in Telltale's The Walking Dead franchise. The three episodes have decent pacing, enough character development to make you care about the characters just in time for the ending, and writing that's firmly in the territory of "good" bordering on "really good".
The Walking Dead: Michonne is out now for PC, Mac, Android, iOS, PlayStation 3 and 4, and Xbox 360 and One.
The PC version of The Walking Dead: Michonne used for this review was provided to the writer for the purpose of this review.
The Walking Dead: Michonne is an entertaining return to the post-zombie wasteland and manages to cram quite a lot of well-written story in a relatively small amount of time.