If you’ve never experienced a zombie drama before, The Walking Dead: Michonne is an excellent place to start. That’s not really a compliment. Riddled with familiar story elements and cliches, the first episode of Telltale’s new zombie adventure, wherein The Walking Dead’s katana-wielding hardass Michonne has fallen in with a group of nice survivors aboard a sailboat and must contend with a collection of not-nice survivors in a harbor town, feels almost as tired as the zombie genre itself.
“Some days I envy the dead,” Michonne thinks as she holds a loaded revolver to her own head, as many have before. She’s haunted by recurring visions of those she couldn’t help, and these shadowy figures sometimes intrude upon reality, as they so often do.
Wondering if there’s a large community run efficiently yet mercilessly by a violent overseer? There is, because there always is. At one point, a character named Pete argues that if they don’t help other survivors “we’re no better than the damn walkers!” That’s true, Pete! It’s also an observation that has taken place in pretty every zombie thriller ever made.
Luckily, inhabiting Michonne is interesting because she’s an interesting character. She’s tough, she’s capable, and best of all she’s a leader who doesn’t make a production out of it. If something needs to get done, Michonne’s gonna do it without making a big, bland, inspirational speech first. On a personal level I want nothing more than for her to open up to others, to let people in, to share in a joke or let down her guard or, I don’t know, maybe just experience a single goddamn moment of comfort and happiness. At the same time, I feel like she needs her armor, she needs to keep people at a distance, and sharing a laugh with a boring-ass nice guy like Pete or any of the other stock characters feels like betraying her.
Conversations work as they have in past Telltale games. The rapidly diminishing response bar while you try to make a difficult choice or pick a line of dialogue is still effective as a way to apply pressure. Plus, with Michonne, it feels completely natural to simply let time expire, whereupon she will typically affix someone with a frosty glare. Michonne’s frosty glares are pretty much the best. There’s one dude in the game who has never gotten a word out of me, only glares. Frosty ones. Screw that guy.
Peppered into the conversational drama are bits of action, typically involving the killing of zombies with quick-time events. Full disclosure: I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a single quick-time event in any game ever, but Telltale has done what they can to make reading letters on the screen and pressing them in the correct order as interesting as possible. Sometimes the prompts have been worked into the scenery or angled to match the camera’s position. It’s stylish, but at the same time you’re still ultimately just hammering Q or pressing D and that can’t stay interesting for long. Lifting the cash register for the third time to smash it onto the zombie’s head for the third time by pressing E for the third time? It’s just not engaging.
Then there’s the adventure game portion, where you make Michonne walk around woodenly to inspect or activate items or bits of scenery. There are little shreds of story or information to be gleaned from your examinations, but the general feeling is “Okay, now I have to click on the six objects on this screen before the story continues.” Sometimes it just feels like straight-up busywork. You haven’t done anything in a while, why not move your mouse back and forth for 15 seconds to help Michonne sharpen her machete?
There are a couple good moments of tension and surprise. One scene has Michonne (or, if you choose, someone else) slowly reaching through a window to unlock a door from the inside, an effective breath-holder. Another scene, where zombies interrupt a quiet conversation, startled me so much I barked “Jesus fuck!” Later, my power briefly flickered and my PC switched off, and I had to load an earlier save to continue playing. When that scene came along again I yelled “Jesus fuck!” again. True story.
A few good moments aren’t enough to make this a good episode, unfortunately. I liked Michonne on the television show (though I stopped watching after season three because I didn’t really like the show itself), and I like her here too despite the off-the-shelf visions of her past. I’m happy she’s got her own game, it’s just a shame the first episode doesn’t live up to her. Hopefully, that’ll change in the next two.