As you’ll no doubt remember, Chooch handed our 2015 Game of the Year award to Telltale’s spectacular Tales from the Borderlands, a game which I myself also slotted in as my personal Number One. We’re fans of what they do over at Telltale, and when they’re rolling at their best, as they did with Tales, they’re capable of making some really amazing stuff. Of course, Tales isn’t the only great work they’ve done – the first season of The Walking Dead was phenomenal, and that momentum carried into the second season, even if it didn’t quite stick the landing in way that you maybe would’ve liked. Both TWD and Tales gave us stories and characters who felt real, who grabbed us and pulled us in, never to let go until the end. Now, after playing through the first episode of The Walking Dead: Michonne, I get the distinct feeling that they may be setting themselves up for a big fall.
Since the original Walking Dead game came out back in 2012, Telltale have propped their games up on the back of excellent writing, strong characters, and emotionally engaging storytelling, as opposed to complex or innovative gameplay. Naturally then, it stands to reason that when they stumble on the writing front, the curtain gets peeled back a little bit, and the less-than-stellar innards of their games are exposed, and that’s the case here.
It’s not all bad, though, so let’s start with what’s good. Again drawing on Tales, Telltale have really mastered their musical intros, and Michonne’s opening cinematic is no different. The tone, music and overall presentation of the opening sequence is excellent, and it’s really getting to the point that you feel Telltale could probably make bank just directing intros for other studios. There’s also some really nice zombie kills, including a particularly brutal head-smashing. In every other way, though, Michonne feels like a real “B Team” game – which it probably is, given that they’ve got Batman on the way – and that’s a shame.
I’m a somewhat begrudging fan of The Walking Dead as a franchise, and Michonne is one of the few characters that I have genuine affinity for. I think the TV series is pretty awful – however huge a crush I have on Lauren Cohan, who plays Maggie – but the comic books and games (not including the woeful Survival Instinct, naturally) have always kept me engaged from the minute I sat down with them. Michonne’s arc is a genuinely fascinating one, and with this mini-series taking place between an arc of the comics, I was very interested in seeing what they could do with it.
Unfortunately, they haven’t done that much. Perhaps it’s because Telltale are a little hamstrung knowing that they have to, eventually, connect the dots between two arcs of the comic series, but nothing about the story in this initial episode grabbed me. In fact, I’d say it might just be the single weakest episode of a Telltale game I’ve played yet, with the possible exception of the opening to Minecraft: Story Mode. None of the peripheral and supporting casts did anything for me, and I saw every little twist and turn coming a mile away. What’s worse, is that I never felt like I was making decisions that were going to really shape the direction of the story, which means that moments such as the big climax of the episode feel lifeless, not that it mattered of course, considering just about every character that isn’t Michonne may as well have “DEAD MEAT” tattooed on their foreheads. The voice acting isn’t great either. There’s some real poor performances in here, and some really jarring shifts in delivery midway through conversations that immediately strip you of any sense of immersion. It would’ve been nice to see Telltale go out and get Danai Gurira, who plays Michonne in the TV series, but unfortunately, she’s nowhere to be found among the cast.
If Telltale’s games have always felt a little barebones to you from a gameplay perspective, then Michonne isn’t exactly going to win you around. In many ways, it feels stripped down, as there’s essentially no exploration and very little to do in terms of interacting with the environment. This is a major point of contention for me; it feels as if Telltale are regressing further and further into a comfort zone, when they should really be doing the opposite.
It doesn’t run brilliantly, either. I was playing on PC, with a fairly powerful system, and still found the game to chug awkwardly between shot transitions, with some bizarrely long load times, which really, is unacceptable. Telltale have been using the same engine for years now, and that they still can’t deliver a smooth experience is telling, as is the continuing plague of some really, really bad animation, although I do appreciate the comic book style visuals they’ve previously used both on TWD and Tales when it does work.
I don’t think Michonne is without hope, however. Tales took some time to find it’s feet too – and look where that wound up. My concern though, is that Telltale’s tried-and-trusted formula has begun to well and truly run its course. While other story-focused episodic games, such as Dreamfall Chapters, Blues and Bullets and the peerless Kentucky Route Zero are all innovating in different and unique ways, it’s time for Telltale to take a risk and make the next step themselves, rather than retreat into their shells.
Good writing will only take you so far, and at some point, if things don’t change, I worry that one of my favourite developers could be left in the dust. Maybe Michonne will recover to stick the landing. Perhaps Batman will afford them the creative freedom to take that next step. Whatever it is, though, it needs to be soon.