The Walking Dead: 400 Days DLC review
Bonnie. Russell. Shel. Wyatt. Vince. Five survivors, five stories set in the ongoing zombie apocalypse. And, I suspect, a bit of a trap; a clever title so that if I say "400 Days isn't very long," Telltale's writers can instantly snap back "Are you kidding? It's a year and a bit!" and dance the winner dance all the way back to San Rafael.
Luckily, while it only works out as an hour or so of The Walking Dead goodness, it feels longer - five fifteen-ish minute vignettes that hit the ground running and waste little time from there. The disadvantage of this is exactly what you'd expect, that dipping so briefly into these lives doesn't allow for the same connection as hanging out with the same survivors for several months. By cutting right to the point though, Telltale gets to explore a much wider range of stories - and more importantly, characters - than Lee and friends, whose dilemmas had to be designed to last and ripple over a whole series.
Of the five stories, I really enjoyed three, didn't like one, and was neutral about another - not a bad ratio, and even the duff one had a couple of atmospheric and interesting moments to call its own. All focus on suitably different characters and journeys, with the zombies even more pushed to the background than in the original series. They're there, they're a threat, and sometimes they jump out and yell "GARRRGH!" (which is zombie for "BOO!"), but the actual drama comes from the survivors and their growing realisation of just how screwed they are.
By far my favourite of the set was Shel's chapter, which explores a protector relationship from a different angle to Lee and Clementine's. She's a big sister trying to do the best she can, struggling with the fact that little sister Becca isn't so little any more. The two live with a group of other survivors in a small commune where things are actually going pretty well. Even so, Shel is painfully aware that there's only so much longer she can shield Becca from the harshest realities of their new lives, and that's only made tougher by the fact that Becca doesn't actually want to be treated with those kid gloves.
I'm being intentionally vague because these stories are short enough that any real details are a bit of a spoiler, but this one works so well because Becca is a much more realistic character than the honestly too-adult Clem and, being The Walking Dead, there are no good choices on the table. The Walking Dead is at its best not when simply cynically portraying humanity as the monsters, but when forcing its characters to make the choices that lead down that road despite their good intentions. This is easily the series' best attempt at that. It elegantly but quickly establishes everything it needs, serving up a satisfying, thematically complete, potentially moving (depending on your choices) story in less time than it takes most games to explain how to open doors. It's fine, fine work, and a great example of how much Telltale's storytelling skills have have improved since the face-full of gigantosaurus snot that was Jurassic Park: The Game.
The other two stories I really enjoyed, Wyatt's and Russell's, are simpler, and built on excellent character writing. Wyatt and a friend are fleeing some mysterious assailants in their car, but really their story is all about the bromance. It's fun to have a pair of TWD characters who genuinely like each other, rather than one simply feeling responsible or them having no choice but to stick together. Their mild bickering and obvious camaraderie is refreshing. Russell's section works in a similar way, except that it's a getting-to-know-you affair about him, a kid on his own, simply being given a lift by a creepy and mildly crazy driver who'd likely be found hanging out with Tallahassee at the Zombieland bar.
Of the remaining stories, I didn't care much for Vince's, purely because it felt more like a short movie that occasionally remembered to stop for button presses than an adventure with choices to make, not least because as a prisoner on a transport bus, he literally spends most of it chained up at the back. The final one, Bonnie, I didn't like at all. It's built around what for now at least is nothing but a MacGuffin, is mostly an extended chase sequence about someone we barely know running from someone we don't know at all, and with a really clumsy use of what I normally refer to as "Schrödinger's Cock-up" - actively changing something crucial in the world to screw the player over an action. That's a dangerous trick, because if a game gets caught pulling it, all player investment is instantly severed. It got caught. All player investment was severed. Even if it hadn't though, this was a seriously dull story.
But like I said, one dud out of five isn't bad, and the others more than made up for it.
The events of 400 Days will have some impact on the upcoming Series 2, but take place long before the present day, so these specific stories may or may not play a direct part in it. (There's at least one moment that briefly continues a thread from Series 1, so it's best to play from a save if you have one, but it's far from essential - you will need to own at least episode one of the first season to download 400 Days, however) There's also a hint about what might be next, albeit it's so vague as to just be a teaser, unless it relates to something sinister that I don't know about in the comics.
Preview or not though, this is DLC well worth picking up. The new stories are a great way to slip back into this world, and very entertaining in their own right too. My only big disappointment was that I wanted/expected them to combine more directly, rather than being linked primarily by geography. There are definite linking points, some overt, others hinted at, but this is firmly an anthology rather than a multiple perspective story where everyone keeps crossing paths to uncover one big thing.
For The Walking Dead, of course, that's absolutely fine. 400 Days fits what came before, while also feeling like its own thing - exactly as DLC should - with Telltale taking full advantage of being able to do five different stories instead of picking just one. At £4/$5, it's also surprisingly good value. True, it's over quickly, but there's lot of content here - even if it is compressed and occasionally shows the limits of its scope with a missing option or two. If anything, it's surprising how much pathing there actually is, with decisions managing to have an impressive amount of weight in even the short time we spend with these characters. Series 2 may return to their stories, it may just put these survivors in the background for the next set to have a quick chat with and never think about again. In the here and now though, they feel like they matter, and that's what counts - even in a world with nothing left to lose.
A fantastic return of The Walking Dead, letting Telltale experiment with form without losing any of the magic.