By Nick Whitcroft
Rick Grimes has never looked more adorable. Welcome once again to the zombie apocalypse – a
little less scary – but no less deadly – than we’re used to.
Team17’s 8-bit indie favourite The Escapists has had a bit of a face lift; by which I mean something appears to have gnawed its face off and left it with a mild case of zombie fever in the form of a standalone tie up with The Walking Dead.Not wanting to miss on the Z bandwagon, this license pairing seems at first an unusual one, though, on examination the two titles come together well (though clearly no one was willing to back down on who’d drop the extra ‘the’ in the title).
For those amongst you who have played The Escapists, the formula in The Escapists: The Walking Dead is fairly clear, as the core mechanics remain relatively unchanged. The game plays out in
sprawling levels, each centred around surviving and eventually escaping your initial base. You’ll want to level up your strength, speed and intelligence, equip yourself and your fellow survivors with the best gear possible and gradually work out how to make your escape and move on to the next holdfast, spanning across five levels, from Harrison Memorial Hospital on to Greene Family Farm, Meriwether Correctional Facility, Woodbury and finally Alexandria. The levels themselves provide a nice coverage of the plot and range of environments, albeit the rapid jumps between them are fairly jarring given the breadth of time elapsed in the story.
The tutorial wakes you up in a familiar setting, with Rick unknowingly awakening from his bullet wound to find the hospital’s a little quieter (and bloodier) than usual. It’s a short and sweet introduction to gameplay, guiding you through a short linear environment, from crafting your first cosh (soap in a pillow-case is surprisingly deadly) to digging a tunnel to freedom. The problem is, it really doesn’t apply this all that coherently to the sprawling sandbox environments that follow. Moments after escaping the hospital, you find yourself holed up at the farm with health, energy, chores, companions and a scowly little threat meter to worry about and, whilst the hand-holding does continue to some extent – particularly in the form of Hershel’s little tour – some will definitely find it overwhelming.
You kick off each day by attending the morning headcount, a rousing speech from Rick rallying his pixelated pals for the day. After a hasty breakfast it’s off to do some washing- “Wait,” I hear you implore. “I thought we were here for The Walking Dead?” You see, that’s the thing about TE:TWD; it manages to fall a little far of the mark at times. The fact that it’s not all glorious zombie slaying is actually applaudable – The Walking Dead has always been more about the people, relationships and aftermath than it has action and popping undead heads. Unfortunately, the people are perhaps the thing the game does worst – if you aren’t already familiar with the franchise don’t expect to be forming any emotion bonds to your fellow meatsacks, unless perhaps you just spent the last four hours kitting them out with armour and weapons and now don’t particularly want to see their reanimated corpse going for a midnight stroll.
The chores themselves do serve a purpose: clean washing keeps the threat meter down, reducing the likelihood of zombies breaching the perimeter (because reasons). Similarly, attending mealtimes keeps your companions’ morale up, encouraging them to join you on excursions beyond the base walls for supplies. The frustrating thing, however, is how often these calls to action pull you back from precisely these trips you’ve been building up for – not with the urgency of “oh no, I’d better get back in the yard so the guards don’t notice I’m missing!” of The Escapists, but “oh god, if I’m not back for evening headcount, Lori’ll be giving me evils at dinner again” (though I guess we don’t want to encourage Shane...).
In your spare time, you’ll also need to build Rick up to increase his survivability as well as unlocking more complex crafting recipes, though the fact that this can only be achieved by exercising and reading rather than other tasks you carry out leaves somewhat to be desired – there’s only so much pressing Q and R repeatedly that I can take, even if I do like this keyboard. Crafting itself is a mixed bag. The versatility of it is wonderful, with your motley crew eventually ambling into battle with an array of garden hoes and pillow armour through to bladed whips and metal breastplates that started life as part of a family’s bathroom. However, the game could really benefit from a proper crafting menu, with references of saved recipes. Even the screen that shows you the stats of weapons is easy to miss which could lead to crucial errors in equipping your team. Far too often you’ll find yourself not just struggling to find the ingredient you need but more often than not at a loss as to what you need or even what it is you’re hoping to craft. Zombie land staples such as the nailed bat are fairly self-explanatory, though even that leaves us with the question of just exactly what we need the barbed wire for. It all adds to a healthy challenge, but can often stray into frustration.
Combat has had an overhaul since the original game. Where The Escapists saw you enter an automated brawl, TE:TWD has opened up engagements to the real time click and kill variety. It’s fairly clunky, and could certainly benefit from more hit feedback, but does allow you the crucial ability to easily dip in and out of groups, chip away at their health and, most importantly, flee. Speaking of which, the zombies themselves, adorable little sprites that they are, do carry a real sense of threat. One on one with a decent weapon you have relatively little to worry about; find yourself outnumbered, however, and it’s an easy death if you allow yourself to get backed into a corner. For your ventures outside your base for the rarer supplies, you’ll want to make use of the basic stealth mechanics, doing your best to stay out of walkers’ lines of sight and attracting as little attention as possible.
The main thing you’ll notice is missing from these encounters is infection. At first, given no other explanation, I had my eye on the threat meter (which is marked by a zombie face icon), convinced something very odd was happening in at least someone in my camp’s bloodstream. Instead, scratches and bites are just an excuse for a nice meal and a quick go on the treadmill, though if you allow a friend to be knocked down to zero health and don’t help them up within a time limit they’ll be back on their feet to haunt you with their newfound terrible posture and awful hygiene in no time. If Rick himself falls prey to the horde, on the other hand, you’ll wake up in bed the next morning with a heightened threat level and no chance to save the level (which can only be done by choosing to head to bed in the evening). For many players, it will be a refreshingly less harsh treatment that the original game, which saw your progress entirely reset, though, personally, I felt it detracted somewhat from the tension and immersion the first time it happened. This first death came after hopping out of a roof vent to find myself in a room with five hungry looking chaps where all exits required a red key… a red key I didn’t have and a vent that was now distinctly out of reach. Come on, give me some options here? At times, The Escapists: The Walking Dead feels like one of those puzzle games that hasn’t quite figured out what it’s doing with the puzzle yet, so it just builds a fence in the way and thinks “don’t worry, soon he’ll just build a pair of pliers from two nail files and some duct tape and cut his way through; it’s the only logical thing to do”.
That’s not to say it doesn’t do a lot of things right. First and foremost, it’s building on a strong foundation in The Escapists, which grabbed fans with its quirky take on the prison breakout and gave a real sense of satisfaction from gradually working your way from underdog to escapee. The art style and light-hearted soundtrack are a huge part of the game’s charm, which comes in buckets and if you come away from it with one thing it’ll certainly be an appreciation for how the designers have brought to life both worlds. The issue for me comes from how some of the previous game’s features translate to the new IP. For example, cool, scavenged weapons like comb shivs feel a tad redundant when you spawn to find a sword and a couple of baseball bats in your desk – ok, the guys with screwdrivers can wait back at base, we got this…
There’s plenty of depth in each of the levels, with the deceptively large environments offering up masses of looting opportunities, secrets and new approaches to be discovered through focusing your crafting efforts on a different area. Classic fetch-and-retrieve missions for disgruntled survivors garner cash to be spent with the vendors who appear in the wilderness at night for rarer items. Collectable comics can be found scattered in discarded rucksacks, along with crafting recipes – all of which are excluded from the randomisation of the spawn process to fairness (though that does lead to some choice moments, such as my son Carl informing me how desperate he was for a battery, only for me to find the darned thing his own desk – an early lesson in parenting perhaps?).
There’s a lot of fun to be had with The Escapists: The Walking Dead. Some will find it in the satisfaction of the end results of several days spent building up their survivors and crafting their way to freedom. In my instance, my mind plays back repeatedly to one particular interaction with Hershel. Having been introduced to the barn where they keep their “Dead Ones”, which no one should enter (but through which the only escape from the level is located), I clicked on him to try and bring up the equipment menu and hand the man a trusty garden hoe in thanks. Unfortunately for me, it turns out clicking on him a second time sends him into a state of confusion, where he’s convinced he’s been given an attack order (yet hasn’t been specified a target), so I then watched as he plunged headlong into the barn and was torn to shreds. I saved him before he could bleed out, but we were now left with the (for no explicable reason) un-closable doors wide open and the zombies free to attend our morning head count (which they chose to treat as breakfast). Not my finest hour, but a swift route through the level when I turned the remains of my troops on them and battled our way through to the RV for a B rating completion after one night’s very dangerous sleep.
The dilemma I face? Following on from my mess-up I told myself I’d go back and replay the level, but I felt little draw. In fact, the ‘right’ approach I took on the next level felt, whilst more gratifying, less immediately enjoyable; it just couldn’t match the laugh out loud moments of before – which left me with the question of whether the grind was really as fun as I remember from the first Escapists. I tried really hard to love The Escapists: The Walking Dead, and many will for both its charms and its well fleshed out crafting and the end results that come from mastering it. However, unless you’re a big The Walking Dead or zombie fan, you’re probably better off getting your fix from the original (unless, that is, you’re back for more).