Platforms: PC | PSN | XBLA (reviewed) | iOS
Developers: Telltale Games
Publishers: Telltale Games
The Walking Dead captivated us last year, laying the burden of choice squarely at our feet, and twisting and turning the narrative depending on the decisions we made. It proved to be a true gaming event, exploring an episodic model to great effect, leaving us on the edges of our seats, nervously twitching with overflowing shock and emotion, and hungering for the next episode. Now, of course, Lee and Clementine's adventure has run its course, and we're left craving a mysterious second season.
It strikes me that 400 Days is essentially the gaming equivalent of an extended series of webisodes for a returning TV series. This short little collection of narrative tidbits introduces a new group of survivors, each with their own backstories and baggage, the nuances and natures of which are once again determined by the player. It's the shortest piece of Walking Dead content yet -- we finished our first playthrough in an hour -- but you'll want to play it through at least a couple of times just to see what happens if you play about with narrative causality.
There are five characters -- each of whom gets somewhere between ten and twenty minutes in the limelight -- a genders, ethnicities, ages, and backgrounds. Even more so here than in the first season, the Walkers themselves are almost just part of the scenery -- the ever-present threat that forms the backdrop to many scenes, or the catalysts for a swift change in tempo. By and large, however, it's the human drama once more that drives things forward.
The chapters play around with chronology, with no real set order to things, and there are little overlapping details here and there that dish out intriguing snippets of context the more that you play. Moreover, a second run through reveals little nods here and there to the first season that'll surely delight fans of the series.
The difficult decisions come thick and fast (I won't spoil any of them here) but with less narrative context to go on -- season one was typified by characters revealing themselves over time, a triumph of subtlety of immediate gratification, and immensely effective because of it -- 400 Days has to rely a little more on the visceral side of things to get results. So it is that physical violence plays a larger part in proceedings, and we see a lot more of the grotesque side of things in the space of an hour than we might have done under the same circumstances in the longer format.
But it's a question of necessity, really. Shorn of a five-episode arc, Telltale are forced to get players' attentions rather quickly, and they certainly succeed in that regard. We're able to connect with most of the five protagonists thanks to some excellent writing that makes the most of short, snappy exchanges with others to deliver characterisation and some semblance of context without resorting to heavy-handed exposition. Telltale's gift for delivering lots of information naturally in a short space of time is helped once again by their expressive visual engine, and some typically impressive vocal work.
There are parallels to season one that help, for better or worse. The opening of Vince's chapter, with him sat in chains on a prison bus is reminiscent of Lee's opening scenes in a way. The chapter involving Shel looking out for her younger sister Becca, and trying to shield her from the harsh realities of this post-apocalyptic existence whilst striving to find a balance between survival and morality amongst their group, is directly reminiscent of Lee and Clem's relationship, albeit with a slight twist.
Unfortunately, though, there's an unshakeable feeling of dissatisfaction that comes with 400 Days. It's brevity is such that you understand that you'll have to wait months to see the consequences of many of the Big Decisions made here, but it's unsatisfying nonetheless. Moreover, it's to be hoped that the multiple perspectives, though worked well here, are only used as a background-developing device, to help us better understand the characters when it comes to season 2. The focus of the story on a single character in the first season meant that we had to carry all of our choices at all times. We weren't just following Lee on his journey, we were actively shaping it.
400 Days serves as a reminder of how even the slightest bit of player agency can make a setting such as this become immediately impactful on a personal level, but this slice of DLC has a camera and focus lacking in attention span, and bereft of a larger personal arc the emotional impacts are nowhere near as significant as those found in season one. 400 Days succeeds in reminding us why Kirkman and Telltale's world is so utterly compelling, but it bolts before anything truly affecting can be wrought. There are some fantastically written confrontations, arguments, and agonising dilemmas, but little evidence of much consequence, and as such 400 Days is really just a glorified interactive trailer of sorts: very well put together, and very intriguing indeed, but with not enough substance or context to stand up on its own two feet really. It's a stop-gap at best, though one that's well-worth the asking pirce, even if Telltale have provided us with significantly more bang for our buck in the past.
- Some fantastic dialogue
- Plenty of agonising decisions to mull over
- Narrative aspects and characterisation are as strong as ever
- Seemed less buggy than previous instalments
- But we're not given enough time for any of it to really prove satisfying
- There are some large gaps and plot-holes at work (possibly to be filled later on, but still frustrating)
- Multiple perspectives mean it's difficult to care beyond the very short term for any of the characters
The Short Version: It's Telltale's own fault that 400 Days is a little disappointing, given the treats that they bestowed on us for a measly 400 Microsoft Points before. There are plenty of moral quandaries to be had across the five little backstories we get here, but few of them have any kind of lasting emotional impact. This is the chapter with the most ambitious scale in terms of narrative yet, but it's also the shortest, which leaves us hanging before we've really had time to latch onto anything. 400 Days is killer filler, but it's still filler.