The Walking Dead is one of those franchises that seems to be everywhere. From television to every other type of merchandise, Robert Kirkman's comic series has become a global phenomenon and the video game industry has more than taken note, with mobile iterations and story-telling masters Telltale Games giving the zombie epic a highly acclaimed episodic makeover. Now, another franchise takes the reins in telling the story of stalwart sheriff Rick Grimes, delivering the franchise in a more "classic" video game style.
The Escapists: The Walking Dead sees the player taking control of an 8-bit pixel Rick as he attempts to lead a group of human survivors out of a series of deadly locations, ripped directly from the story arcs featured within Kirkman's comic universe. Starting off in the Harrison Memorial Hospital, which serves as a tutorial stage, Rick awakens after being shot in the line of duty and must - in true The Escapists style - search the area for items which can be combined in order to escape. Items are sparsely littered around at first with the game showing you what to collect and how to combine things to create tools. The introduction is well-suited for players who did not play The Escapists, generously explaining the mechanics and pointing players in the right direction, so we suspect that veteran Escapists players will find it a stroll in the park. Or through the corpse-laden, grimy hospital, as the case may be.
The plot beats of the game play out in comic book fashion, with the the undead being introduced in a cut away, comic-esque scene before the game reverts back and has the player escaping from the horde for the first time. Dodging flesh-eating zombies and generally trying to stay alive makes the stakes much higher than that of the base game, where a dust-up might see you back in the infirmary rather than the bellies of the shambling undead. But the game is forgiving, reverting the player to before the cut scene when the inevitable happens and the ensuing moment of panic sees pixel-Rick backed into a corner, prime bait for the monsters that can and will quickly swarm him.
Moving on from the tutorial, the game gets much more complex and it is here where the depth of The Escapists: The Walking Dead can be truly tapped into. Gone are the hand-holding hints and tips and what is delivered in their place is a world that is filled with layer upon layer of possibilities. The world is a lot less populated than the setting of the original Escapists which is in keeping with the survival horror theme, favouring the eerie atmosphere of isolation to the bustle of everyday prison life. Aside from Rick, there are secondary characters, including some familiar faces from the series, that form his band of survivors. At the Greene Farm, Rick meets Hershel and Maggie and thus the motley crew of survivors begins to form and the game becomes not just about scavenging and combining items, but about finding that elusive way out and surviving the undead horde. The player is tasked with carrying out certain tasks and jobs while they plot out the escape that will ensure the strength and security of the compound. It's a bit of a tricky balance to manage, trying to find ways to break out while stopping the undead from getting in but the effort is ultimately worth it. The Escapists is not intended to be a game that you can simply blaze through, since it favours cautious planning over a full-frontal assault. Sure, there are weapons such as a shotgun available to the player but the risk of attracting a greater number of zombies often outweighs the urge to blow through them. Ammo is also scarce, making combat an aspect of the game that should be considered and avoided if possible.
Secondary tasks can take up a lot of time, leaving less time than is often needed to search the area and progress with the escape plan which can sometimes be frustrating when you are in the middle of what could be a very important job. Roll call makes a return from the base game, with a twice daily head-count of survivors that ensures that everybody is safe and accounted for. Rick must also sit down for meals and interact with his fellow survivors to ensure that they all have what they need. Tasks performed for another member of the team will grant you cash which can be traded for items with vendors who occasionally visit the area, which is much more complicated than it sounds because said salesmen appears at night when the dead are most restless and there is a risk in leaving the safety of the compound to deal with them. Like so many other instances, players need to weigh up and decided if the potential rewards will be worth the danger. This risk/reward aspect is threaded throughout the entirety of the game. Items are scattered around the world and many will require some risk to obtain and of course, it's all up to the player to decide how they wish to proceed. The world is a true "play it your way" sandbox, allowing for most, if not all, different types of play styles. Strategic players will find a whole host innovative ways to complete given tasks while there are also paths that are more accessible and require less puzzling, making it a game that should appeal to most.
The Escapists: The Walking Dead utilizes its source material in a realistic yet creative manner, staying faithful to the world created in the comic series through the characterisation of the protagonists and the charming 8-bit, top-down locations that our band of survivors travel through. If you're looking for story however, you might find yourself a little bit disappointed as the focus of the game is firmly rooted in strategy. There is the odd bit of exposition here and there to breathe life into the characters that roam around the world but this is in no way a re-telling of The Walking Dead story, nor does it ever claim to be. It does, however, give a great introduction to the franchise for those who have yet to delve into the series and will also surely please the fans.
The Escapists: The Walking Dead gives what was already a great game a culturally relative coat of paint and does so with an ease that should make other video game tie-ins sit up and take notice. Staying true to both franchises, this standalone game offers enough of a variety of options to cater to most players without becoming too frustrating, while posing puzzles that are in-depth and complex enough to appeal to more serious strategy fans. A great introduction to either series and well worth the asking price.