The Walking Dead: 400 Days is Telltale Games excelling within a restraint.
In roughly an hour and a half, Telltale creates five distinct characters in its existing Walking Dead fiction. Each short story builds to a moment as impactful as the choices in a single episode of season one, where you have to make a horrible decision out of horrible choices in a horrible situation.
Telltale plays to its strength again, writing damaged characters you’ll root for, however many terrible decisions they’ve made or make. It’s the zombie apocalypse after all, morales are open to interpretation. Do you kill a man or let him free with enough supplies to last a day before he’s back to sneaking into survivor camps to steal food? He’s trying to survive, what are you doing?
400 Days finds several ways to ask similar questions, all worth pausing and thinking about, but its haste barely allows it. Each of its five character vignettes (playable in any order) move at an unrelenting pace, full of shorthand and a limited use of zombies. Players who have already lived through season one will appreciate how trusting it is, but for those who have bought at least episode one and haven’t played the rest of the season, 400 Days’ momentum and impact could be overwhelming without time to explore the complexities of the world.
That said, 400 Days creates five distinct characters to return to in season two with more baggage and nuance than games ten times the length. We learn about its characters just by their body language and their cadence. And Telltale doesn’t stop at its main characters. One example, because it’s not worth revealing the other weirdos you’ll meet, is a rock-and-roll loving, truck-driving, sexist who is also probably an alcoholic. Telltale asks you to trust him with your life for five minutes. He may have turned out to be a cold-hearted murderer, but I kind of liked him.
When the characters finally stop talking, and 400 Days remembers it’s an adventure game, it loses the quality the crafted scenes bring by introducing more interactivity. New mechanics like stealth and body dragging must be taught to you in the moment. Not only is it intrusive to have text and button prompts on top of a dramatic camera angle, it’s ruins the scene if you screw it up, breaking the character’s animation, and revealing the artificiality of the whole thing. It’s an incredibly tough problem to solve, but it’s jarring when the rest of the game feels so precise.
That’s why on paper, 400 Days sounds near impossible, especially for games. It’s quick and punchy when so many games take hours to build to moments with the same impact. It’s more akin to Blendo Games’ Thirty Flights of Loving, which communicates everything it needs to in a succession of scenes in and out of chronological order, and nothing more. Telltale doesn’t go as far, but it also takes full advantage of the medium to refine a set of characters into their necessary parts. If you thought it was amazing how good of a story Telltale told in five, hour long episodes, you’ll watch your words the next time you praise a game after you see what it does in one.
Final Score 4.5 out of 5