The Walking Dead as a brand has already spread from comics to a whole load of other mediums. Fans previously pummelled walkers aplenty in Telltale's series of games, so why is this famous zombie-stuffed franchise returning to the realm of interactive entertainment now? When Den of Geek attended a preview event for The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners, an upcoming VR game set in a flooded New Orleans, this is the first thing we asked.
Guy Costantini, who is VP of Global Interactive Marketing for the developers at Skydance Interactive, was on hand to furnish us with an answer: "We didn't really feel that anyone had made a Walking Dead game where you could step through the screen, and actually, like, live The Walking Dead. And so that was the primary motivator when we first approached [Robert Kirkman's company] Skybound and discussed this idea. We also thought that we were really passionate about New Orleans: we felt that an urban environment could be really exciting, and that it hadn't been explored before. And, as gamers, we wanted a really deep choice-based adventure."
There's no shortage of big ideas here, then, and you can really feel that ambition when you put on a VR headset and jump into Saints & Sinners for the first time. Far from a short-sighted or on-rails experience, this feels like a significantly sizable world where the player can go off in a variety of directions at any given point.
"We felt VR was at a point where it needed to leapfrog forward, if it was to demonstrate that a proper game can exist in it," Costantini says of the game's size. "This was about two years ago, when we started, and so we feel that we finally have something that's really special."
The game has a comic-book-ish "not trying to be photorealistic" art style, which isn't a million miles away from the aesthetic of the Telltale games, but even from this brief demo, it feels like the world of Saints & Sinners is larger and offers more possibilities than the Telltale interpretation of the brand. The "sunken city" of New Orleans looks great, and there seems to be a decent amount of freedom on offer to players. You can wander off, get on a boat to a different part of town, pick up side quests, and tackle most tasks in a number of ways. There are also meaningful dialogue decisions to be made at various points. And, as the game's title suggests, you can choose whether to play as a saint or a sinner.
The overall story seems interesting enough, with the player taking control of a man or woman that has just arrived in New Orleans. Costantini promises that "it's at least 15 hours, the campaign. And on top of it, it's a pretty programmatic world. So every time you go out, things change, people are fighting people, people are fighting walkers, resources are dwindling. There's different opportunities that present themselves when you visit a different part of the world. And we felt that having something like a proper, pretty large, experience was paramount to our objectives."
There are some tutorials at the start that explain all the essentials, and the first person you interact with is a wise-seeming man by a campfire. He gives you an objective that sends you into a cemetery that has a significant zombie population, and there is certainly fun to be had in trying to fight your way through them.
As is often the case in The Walking Dead, there seems to be a focus on helping people, finding safety and trying to establish communications. There was one mission we played where we were looking for a microphone for a radio, so we had to venture into a big house and fight our way through zombies to get the mic.
It's not just the dead you have to worry about, though. The living segment of the city is split into two factions: there's an authoritarian group known as The Tower and a freedom-obsessed gang called The Reclaimed. Both teams sound like they have upsides and downsides, and it'll be up to the player to decide which path they want to follow. We didn't really get to interact with either faction during our demo time, but we did see some violent acts being carried out by people on other people. From what we've seen, this feels like a lived-in world with lots of dangerous inhabitants.
Interestingly, as Costantini explains to us, there are a few things you can and can't do when you step into The Walking Dead universe: "There's a couple of thematic limitations. I think that they're actually quite... they force you to make really important and intelligent decisions with what you're doing. Obviously, The Walking Dead started in 2003, that's when the actual timeline starts. So you don't have cell phones. A lot of the new technology doesn't exist. I think that there's a lot of themes around walkers and around the way the walkers behave. They're more of kind of like the weather - they're not the main threat. I mean, obviously the combat is super visceral, and [when there is] more than one or two walkers, it seems like they're not threatening, but you can easily get so overwhelmed. And the people, and the dynamics between people, are where the real magic of the story is at. But we feel that those choices that Kirkman made, when he started the universe, really create an ample playground for us to tell stories in."
So how did Kirkman's vision inspire the team at Skydance while developing Saints & Sinners? For one thing, the emphasis on people is very prevalent: for example, we did one side quest for a young woman who asked us to track down her zombified husband, put him out of his misery, and bring back his wedding ring as a memento. There's a sense of depth, character, and human emotion running through this brief plotline, and we're hoping these grown-up themes and storylines are peppered liberally throughout the whole game.
That sense of easily getting overwhelmed is definitely present in Saints & Sinners, too. When a zombie grabs onto your arm, you have to shake your limb in real-life to try and get them off. Doing this takes a few seconds, during which time another zombie may have approached you from behind. It can be quite stressful, not least because the penalty for dying is being sent all the way back to where you started the mission at hand. You also lose all your items when you die, so you have to retrace your steps in order to pick up your backpack again and regain all the goodies inside. But when that bag is in a room stuffed with hungry zombies that just killed you, you might just choose to leave it there and start your inventory again from scratch.
Resource management seems to be a massive part of this game, and the developers have come up with a really cool way of stashing various items around your character's body. Your backpack is over your left shoulder, your notepad with all your quests is in your breast pocket, your torch is on your left hip (and requires a shake to charge it up), and you can choose a small weapon for your right hip (like a handgun or a shiv) and a big weapon to put over your right shoulder (like an ax or a shotgun). Managing these items during gameplay takes a bit of getting used to, but you'll feel like a total badass once you've got the hang of it. Zombie approaching? Grab your ax and whack it. Taken some damage yourself? Whip open your bag and pull out a bandage. Once you're in that flow, you feel like you can take the whole world on. We can see what they meant about s"tepping into The Walking Dead."
The combat will also take a bit of getting used to, with different weapons requiring you to do different things with your hands. You need to hold your ax with two hands, for example, or its swings will be very unwieldy. And each gun has its own motion for reloading. You'll want to be picking up ammo whenever you can, too, and slotting it into the relevant pouch on your belt. It's a lot to learn, but mastering these systems feels rewarding.
Speaking of weapons, to give us a sense of what it's like trying to survive at a later stage in the game, the devs chucked us into a wide-open area and loaded up a horde of zombies to try and kill us. They also spawned a bunch of different weapons for us to choose from, including a very Negan-like baseball bat with metal upgrades. We didn't last all that long against this challenge, but it's nice to know that there will be an uptick in difficulty to push players to get better as zombie-killers. You'll be able to customize your weapons, too.
Having felt emboldened by spotting the bat that seemed like a Negan nod, just as our time with Saints & Sinners was coming to an end, we asked Costantini if there are many references in the game pertaining to the wider Walking Dead world. His answer, much like our overall very positive experience with the demo, hit all the right notes: "One thing that we wanted to make sure there was in this game was some pretty neat easter eggs hidden away that you can discover that complete a thread that sort of connects the world together. It's all one world and one universe. So, you know, go out there, explore, and find what's hidden."
The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners launches on January 23 for PSVR and PC VR platforms.