The Walking Dead: 400 Days DLC Review: Four Stories Too Many
Choice is still a huge part of The Walking Dead, and each of the five scenarios includes big moments in which players will make watershed decisions that have major affects on how things progress. As Telltale mentioned when I saw the game at E3 2013, all your choices are being factored into Season Two, and it seems that some or all of the characters you encounter in 400 Days will be present in The Walking Dead’s next chapter. Determining what kind of character each of these people is through your choices has what feels like a far-reaching affect — without spoiling anything, it’s easy to see how what you decide in the heat of the moment will change what happens to each of these people in Season Two.
And like Season One, to 400 Days’ credit, none of the choices are easy. You accidentally kill a member of your group — do you lie to your remaining friend or own up to what you did? When you capture someone who tried to rob you of your supplies, do you put them down or let them go? How important is your humanity to you, the player, or to any of the characters in the various scenarios? It’s these kinds of storytelling moments that made The Walking Dead so remarkable, and 400 Days doesn’t skimp on them.
Probably the biggest trouble with the DLC, though, is the fact that these questions carry a lot less weight than they did in Season One. Putting players in control of five different characters, each with a scenario lasting about 15 minutes, means that when the inevitable big questions come, it’s hard to really give them context. When you have to choose between two survivors after a short dialog with each of them, the choice feels less meaningful because you’re piloting a third character you know almost nothing about. And that means those gut-wrenching moments are a whole lot less gut-wrenching.
Season One excelled not only because Telltale was constantly asking players how they would react in a given situation, faced with two bad options, but because those choices were cumulative. You built Lee Everett into a very specific person, as a player, and whether he reflected your values or didn’t, those choices still added up. What’s more, other characters remembered them, and that all affected the narrative going forward.
And despite the important choices being more about how you felt about the story than actually creating branching paths, The Walking Dead masterfully hid that fact in a single playthrough. Things are less well-hidden in 400 Days; each story exists to put you to an important choice, and you can almost always feel it coming; what’s more, those choices aren’t quite so effective storytelling moments, because you know they’re supposed to be important, but it doesn’t always feel like the choice is all that far-reaching. When you choose to walk away from two attackers rather than let your “friend” goad you in opting to kill them, and what follows are a couple of gun shots, it’s not apparent that there was really any other way things could have gone — unlike in The Walking Dead, you’re not left standing there, wondering if you could have saved the victims. Season One was great at not only forcing you into hard choices, but making you wonder what might have been. With 400 Days, the choices rarely feel like you’re abandoning one potential story for another.
That might be a result of the big choices always coming at the end of each story segment. Knowing you won’t have to really live with the consequences of your choices means the choices have less weight. Or maybe it’s a matter of context — you know that when you side with Kenny over Lilly in Season One, you’re going to have to deal with the fallout later, but 400 Days has no such repercussions. Whatever the case, it means that 400 Days becomes a series of good stories, but they’re not as affecting as the larger season.
So in many ways, 400 Days is an experiment that’s both a success and something of a failure. Telltale proves that it can handle telling stories in The Walking Dead universe, even short ones, that aren’t tied to the dynamic of characters like Lee and Clementine. It also shows ways the existing Walking Dead formula can expand and contract to accommodate some different ideas, and it finds that various short fiction works in this context — which is actually kind of great. More short stories-as-Telltale games is an idea that I’d love to see explored further.
But the power of The Walking Dead, of developing real, relatable characters and pushing players into tough decisions about how to treat and how to interact with them, is lost to a degree in 400 Days. Without more time spent with each of these characters, and without more context for the decisions players are asked to make, the experience becomes less emotional and more mechanical and cold. The DLC bodes well for Season Two, but it’s long-form storytelling in which the best parts of The Walking Dead really shine.
- Great writing and dialog, as we’ve come to expect from the series
- Manages to tell five short stories effectively and in an engaging way
- Subtle callbacks to Season One are fun but not overpowering
- More of the same great post-apocalyptic awfulness that made Season One so great; lots of tough choices, gore, etc.
- Five stories show different, widely varying aspects of the zombie apocalypse, and all are interesting in different ways
- Almost nothing in the way of puzzles or even real gameplay
- Stories are too short and too lacking in context to really connect with characters
- Big “choices,” a hallmark of the series, are weakened by clearly seeing them coming and seeing how the story MUST play out
Final Score: 80/100
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