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Light on the Content, Heavy on the Substance

 

The Walking Dead: 400 Days is the latest installment in Telltale's critically-acclaimed adaptation of the The Walking Dead series, a comic that has redefined the survival horror drama with its riveting characters and tragic portrayal of Humanity in the midst of the growing zombie apocalypse. Most of us however, are more familiar with the misadventures of Lee Everett during his struggle to protect the young girl Clementine, in addition to the tough choices and precarious bonds established throughout the first season of the videogame iteration that struck many emotional chords in their authenticity.

Choices that carried over in the first season also gave the overarching narrative lasting depth, although not as grand in scope as initially imagined. Its resolution and fascinating characters, however, raised many questions and possibilities, and with the latest episode, a "bridge" of sorts between the first and upcoming second season, new questions are posed while placating us with more of the refined storytelling and dark journey into human nature that the first introduced us to. How does it hold up? While 400 Days is hardly as substantial as its moniker alludes, it does have the narrative intensity to make up for it, even amidst a few persistent tech problems.

The premise of 400 Days is perhaps its most attractive and somewhat underwhelming aspect: you assume the role of five different characters in this followup to the first season of the game series, each with their own storylines that intersect at the end. While not done as gracefully as one would expect, they each are nonetheless entertaining in their own ways. Each story - moreso a vignette than anything else - is only about twenty or so minutes long, so the episode passes much quicker than one would expect and it almost seems like they end just when they're beginning to pick up steam.

Each character, from the loner Russell to the convict Vince,  each have their own unique personality traits that distinguish them from each other. There's a lot of tension in some scenes as well, especially conveyed through dialogue, that can dramatically change otherwise ordinary moments, especially in Wyatt's story. Of course, dialogue has always been the series' strongest feature, which invests the player in an otherwise bland experience gameplay-wise, although there have been improvements.

Telltale's adaptations of the graphic novel haven't been gameplay-focused in any sense of the word, more akin to point-and-click adventures of old that occasionally offer the player a challenge with light puzzles and a few action scenes, most of which were composed of quicktime events. There's a subtle evolution in 400 Days with characters doing things from repeatedly firing guns to offer friends cover to hiding from mysterious pursuers at night. I won't spoil any more of them, but as usual the episode's gameplay is minimal. The stories unfolding however, should be enough to sate your interest, no matter how short they seem, thanks to their mostly exceptional execution. There's an improved cinematic quality to 400 Days as well, with scenes filled with subtle foreshadowing based on the ways characters interact with each other. Some of them leave more questions to be answered based on their ambiguity in some instances, while others provide a welcome of dosage of the tragicomic. That essentially, in spite of its bleakness, has been one of the most appealing traits of the series in spite of its unequivocally dark and visceral premise. 

 

 

In terms of subject matter, 400 Days feels rushed in some cases, with issues like race relations receiving only superficial treatment that otherwise falls flat and holds no true relevance to the plot whatsoever, to a potentially questionable relationship between two characters in a possible love triangle. The episode alludes but never explicitly elaborates on its themes apart from establishing a general tone for players to follow, probably to lay the groundwork for the next season. Of course in these cases, the subjects, whether they deal in complex moral, ethical, or extreme spur-of-the-moment decisions in conflict, have more of an impact due to the situations players are placed in while making them. Overall, the depravity that humanity has begun to sink to in order to survive in the wake of the zombie outbreak is conveyed effectively, as expected. In Kirkman's world, you can at least be guaranteed that few if any choices in a life as bleak are going to be easy to make.

While consequence isn't as overt (yet) in this episode, there are very subtle echoes of the choices you made during the events of the previous season and veterans will be pleased to see a few familiar faces from earlier episodes appear in this one, including an old friend (with the appropriate choice, that is). Anything else reflected from the previous season however is hardly shown in 400 Days, although these minor appearances and allusions are nonetheless proof that in the universe Telltale has adapted from Kirkman's graphic novel, the choices you make and the people you encounter, no matter how insignificant they seem initially, are all interconnected somehow. It's only frustrating that with material as ripe as that in 400 Days that it never feels like it reaches it's full potential.

Some choices you end up making feel forced - in the worst way possible - and remarkably hollow in some cases, especially seeing how they have little if any importance or resonance in the long run. Only a few of these moments actually seem to matter, such as in Vince or Shel's storyline. The way these stories supposedly tie together is also poorly elaborated on and left entirely to the player's imagination, especially in a rushed and poorly-written resolution. The first season at least dealt with the illusion that choices brought to the narrative by adding the necessary emotional resonance and player investment. Such, unfortunately just isn't the case in 400 Days. How your choices in each story affect the characters themselves later on is a nice touch that does provide these moments with some modicum of redemption, and gives players the necessary optimism for the upcoming season. As usual though, Telltale's episode doesn't come without its occasional technical hiccups, some minor, and in my case and a growing number of other players, some serious.

A few visual glitches, such as poorly-synching animations and other things, are the usual culprit. However, in my case, installing 400 Days has practically corrupted all of my saves and deleted some of them. Given that this is a game that incorporates save transfers to record your choices, it's not only an annoying problem, it's a serious one that can invalidate hours of gameplay players have invested. While I'm sure this isn't an epidemic, it's something players should be concerned about and persistent issues like these - something Telltale has unfortunately been known for with this franchise- are naturally a turn-off to an otherwise stellar gaming experience. I'd recommend backing up any saves you have before playing this episode on any of them. Nonetheless, at a measly five bucks, this episode - clocking in at just over an hour or so of gameplay - has the substance to make up for its shortcomings. 

In conclusion, 400 Days isn't exactly "400 Days" of the gaming content we got with the episodes in the first season, but it is a satisfying gaming experience rich with vibrant snapshots of the characters we can look forward to seeing in the next episode. In fact, despite some narrative downfalls, it's a relatively complete experience that succeeds in capturing these moments in each character's life. Those expecting more time with Clementine will have to wait, but there's plenty of new conflicts to be had, questions to be answered, and relationships to be explored, based on what they've teased us with in this entry. 

7.75 out of 10

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