There is the saying, “too big to fail,” and then there is just too big. The Walking Dead franchise flirts with both. The comic book ran seemingly forever, spanning from 2003-2019. The television show kicked off in 2010, and persists even beyond mediocre reviews. In sudden and duplicitous fashion, Telltale Games terminated operations in 2018, abandoning The Walking Dead: The Final Season after only two episodes.
TWD creator, Robert Kirkman, would come to Telltale Games’ rescue, bearing the might of his very own Skybound Entertainment, the company he started to secure TWD as an intellectual property, and launch the TV show. Seeking to dip his toe into the video game industry, Skybound Interactive was born, and The Walking Dead: The Telltale Definitive Series would come into fruition (I recommend reading this, this, and this as an allegory for how to shave vaporware). But finishing Clementine’s saga is not all that Kirkman’s gaming division had in mind! Behold, they have blessed the gaming industry with a VR entry, The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners.
Violence: While not as macabre as the comic book series, The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners allows the player to decide how ruthless they can be. During my playthrough, I at first strove to avoid murdering humans, but this becomes increasingly difficult over time. Therefore, I became incorrigibly ruthless, ameliorating my objectives by shooting or stabbing unsuspecting individuals in their heads. The game inevitably presents several kill-or-be-killed scenarios, where every additional, seemingly needless human death pulled on my conscience. Physically performing murder (er, “self-defense”) in VR feels different than controlling a disembodied avatar.
Alternatively, I view killing zombies as an act of mercy for accursed or trapped souls. At the very least, I imagine ending a zombie’s un-life as a favor to his or her surviving loved ones.
Spirituality: Religion plays a passive role in TWD: S&S. While no character speaks about faith directly, Skydance Interactive juxtaposes Voodoo altars and dolls with Holy Bibles and Churches. In other words, they have accurately recreated the peculiarities that is spirituality in New Orleans.
Crude Language & Humor: The profanity is so plentiful in this game that its presence reminds me of when kids in middle school learn that God will not strike them down with lightning if they cuss. Expect to hear plenty four-letter swears during even the most harmless gameplay interactions. For example, the description for a specific high-tier melee weapon reads “F***k. Yes.”
I must confess, though, that the description is accurate.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Consuming medicine is a core gameplay mechanic. Alcohol bottles and cigarettes are common scrap materials. It is possible to place a cigarette into the player character’s mouth, but I have been unsuccessful in lighting it. Rumor has it that Skydance Interactive patched out the ability to smoke.
Sexuality: Who has time for sex during a zombie apocalypse? Apparently, men do. In an optional side-mission, I served as a liaison between two male lovers on opposite sides of rival factions as they planned to elope.
Racism and Bigotry: I maintain a love/hate relationship with Kirkman specifically because of what happens between the Governor and Michonne in the comics. Nevertheless, I appreciate the fact that he has never been shy to indicate that doomsday scenarios will not miraculously solve ongoing social problems in the present. Therefore, xenophobes and racists persist in TWD universe. Those kinds of people are absent in TWD: S&S, however, Skydance Interactive’s portrayal of Georgia is too stereotypical for comfort. Between characters like the Governor and Negan, unscrupulousness is not foreign, but at least I can understand their misguided motivations for evil. I think the developers could have used more guidance concerning how to portray a proper villainous black woman. She comes off as unjustifiably one-dimensionally angry. She makes me cringe for the wrong reasons.
The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners begins with the zombie apocalypse well underway. After selecting a skin tone and gender, players will take on the persona of the Tourist, who…tours…down to New Orleans while in search of a mythical cache called the Reserve, a supposedly massive vault of weapons, food, and medicine. The Tourist’s contact dies before I can arrive because Skydance Interactive always intended for the player to take the lead. After looting the contact’s journal, the Tourist pieces together a radio used to communicate with a man who is on the inside of the Reserve. The Tourist will then spend his or her time alternating between fetch quests between Radio Guy and a mysterious woman named May, whose name is being slandered on propaganda on the city streets everywhere.
Eventually, players will have to choose sides between factions warring on the streets, though it is a choice reminiscent of the paragon or renegade options in the first Mass Effect are “choices.” One faction is so ridiculously authoritarian, that I would question the sanity of anyone who did not choose the alternative, nascent anarchist faction as the de facto selection. Not to be confused with writing savants, Skydance Interactive funnels players into an inevitably fixed conclusion. Luckily, the story is a mere diversion for folks like myself who like to have a reason to explore fictional worlds like TWD: S&S, and I am pleased to report that this is a world worth thriving in.
VR has come a long way over the past two years since I was blessed with an Oculus Rift, and TWD: S&S is exceptional in regards to how it takes advantage of the format. That is because this game is exceedingly tactile. Grab corners or simply lean forward to look around them. Open doors with one hand and pistol pointing at the ready with the other. Bypass main entrances by using the crevices inside of walls to climb upward to a higher alcove. Dumbfound the undead with the dexterous display of climbing up and over cars to gain elevation and distance from the hordes. Overwhelm zombies with non-decaying muscles by holding them by their heads before inserting the barrel of a handgun into their mouths before pulling the trigger, or testing to see if that screwdriver is long enough to reach from one end of its ear canal to the other.
Cock open the cylinder of a revolver, dump the bullets out by shaking it upside down, load bullets individually, and flick the wrist to pop the cylinder back in place. Eject the clip of a pistol and load from the bottom; cock the chamber of a worn pistol when it jams. With another wrist flick, open the double-barrels of a shotgun and manually load each cartridge before flicking the wrist again to arm the weapon. I can even pull off the Terminator 2 Sarah Conor-style one-handed shotgun pump.
Pull arms from the left hip, right hip, and over the right shoulder; store items over the left shoulder. Pull ammunition from the center waist. Grab the flashlight from the left chest and the journal from the right chest. Skydance Interactive brilliantly allocates the interactive points on the body.
All weapons can be held with two hands for increased stability—in fact, one must hold a weapon like the bolt-action rifle with the left hand on the stock so that the bolt can be cocked with the right hand. Of course, this goes double for melee weapons like crowbars and baseball bats. One can wield knife-like weapons in one hand or both, and upside-down for back-handed backstabbing or right-side-up for thrusting right into the temples of living and dead flesh alike.
In other words, the gameplay in TWD: S&S does not merely shine; it radiates! While fighting against humans is annoying because of their impeccable aim and tendency to drop broken weapons upon death, I never grew tired of slaying the undead, not even when armored or poison zombies began to show up. The combination of satisfying weapons and plenty of fodder weapons testing makes for an exhilarating experience, especially when considering that over time, weapons wear out, supplies become more scarce, and enemies increase in number.
Thus, when the Tourist grows tired and has less energy for running, I have to consume food to restore stamina (calories). Oftentimes, that food is more than slightly ripe, and will do health damage while restoring stamina, requiring me to consume medicine, a rare resource. Without restoring stamina, the Tourist will be unable to outrun zombies, or anything for that matter; without medicine, the Tourist will fall sick, coughing and alerting nearby enemies, and become more susceptible to damage.
I generally dislike crafting, but TWD: S&S streamlines the mechanic such that all I have to do during missions is toss everything that is not nailed down into my bookbag before returning to my cemetery home base to craft whatever is next on one of the three workbench tech trees. Even if one decided to abandon any pretense of following the story, the game still provides solid gameplay as a survival-horror, with an emphasis on survival—in several missions once the number of days that I had survived hit the teens, I failed to find any meaningful scrap that I did not take from a human carcass of my own creation.
Even though I have completed the main part of the game, at the time of this writing, I have yet to unlock and collect everything. During the early game, Skydance Interactive made it easy for me to find materials to make Lucile, the bat that Negan uses in TWD comic/TV show to…well, fans know. I also enjoyed using Rick’s Grimes’ revolver, called “The Sheriff.” As I have found other Easter eggs, I suspect that the final weapon at the melee crafting bench will be Michonne’s katana. Given that The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners is an outstanding VR game, I will most certainly return to New Orleans and finish maxing out my crafts, searching for the clues that the green pages provide for the best gear, and finding all the angel statues just because I love thriving in this virtual world.
Review copy generously provided by Forty Seven Communications
The Bottom Line
The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners is a paradigm-shifting game both in the genre of survival horror, and also in the realm of VR.