The release of Team 17’s top-down RPG, The Escapists: The Walking Dead comes hot on the heels of the hit show returning to our screens. The game is the latest iteration of the popular, cutesy 8-bit pixel art puzzler The Escapists, with the obvious zombie apocalypse twist.
The Walking Dead’s creator Robert Kirkman is super protective of his gruesome baby, and so he should be after a certain video game blunder in the past. Luckily, Kirkman has learnt from this mistake and now makes wiser choices in terms of who he licences his biggest franchise to – The Escapists: The Walking Dead is another example of his good decision-making.
The union makes complete sense. A lot of comparisons can be drawn between prison life and Team Grimes’ situation. The group have been penned into one location or another – making the best of their current situation and settling into daily routine, which helps to take everyone’s mind off of what’s occurring on the other side of the wall. Sooner or later, the group either decides (or is forced) to move on, and must come up with a worthy exit plan.
You take control of an 8-bit pixelised version of former Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Grimes, who must lead and protect a band of survivors featuring many familiar faces from The Walking Dead franchise. Rick and the survivors must secure, survive and escape a number of dangerous environments which faithfully follows the timeline of the hit comics and TV show.
I was a little disappointed to learn that although you can get other characters to follow you, and direct them in battles, you’re unable to control them fully. I was looking forward to switching to my namesake, everyone’s favourite crossbow-wielding redneck Daryl Dixon. Only a minor niggle, and it doesn’t truly matter in the grand scheme of things.
The game begins with a brief cut scene – rendered in static 8-bit comic book panels with text and sound effects; showing how Rick was shot in the line of duty and taken to Harrison Memorial Hospital. This location becomes the first level, and also acts as your tutorial. The tutorial helps you get to grips with the basics that you’ll need in the later levels – scavenging, crafting, combat and figuring out that all important escape plan.
Once you made good your escape from the hospital, you get to take in each of the major locations of the five past seasons – Hershel Greene’s Farmstead, Meriwether Correctional Facility, Woodbury and Alexandria. You’ll need to complete one level to unlock the next, forcing you to play chronologically.
Daily life consists of head counts every morning and evening, with Rick calling the group to order and motivating everyone with his impassioned speeches. Meal times are big group events (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and chores need to be undertaken. Chores have a job quota status bar to fill, which pops up in the bottom left hand corner of the screen; as soon as you fill the bar, you’re free to do what you want.
An ever present timer at the top of the screen shows the current time and a digital watch chime signals that you need to be somewhere. An arrow appears on screen to direct you to that particular location. A day is roughly fifteen minutes real time. Save points come at the end of each day, shut down before the day ends however, and you’ll be forced to replay it, Groundhog Day style.
I did find that the mandatory events were a little annoying – I’d be in the middle of looking for a certain component I needed to finish crafting an item, only for my quest to be dashed by the chime of a watch, and dinner time.
In between the mandatory events, you’re free to explore your environment. Rummaging through drawers, desks and other furniture yields their contents – weapons, tools and components which can be crafted to create better objects. Rucksacks found around the area also provide various items and, more often than not, the games version of Easter Eggs – Walking Dead comic books.
The crafting system is simple and easy to use. One button will take you into the crafting menu, select the components you want and highlight the craft tab. There’s no crafting time to worry about, and notes dotted around the area tell you what parts are needed to make a particular object.
You may notice green exclamation marks over members of the group from time to time. The exclamation mark signifies that they have a task for you to undertake – generally fetching this item or that and bringing it back to them in exchange for coins. These coins can then be used to buy the experience to craft better items.
Inevitably you’ll need to arm yourself and the group to take on herds of walkers. There’s a whole range of weapons available – from firearms and knives, to screwdrivers and makeshift clubs with nails driven through them. Again, it’s simple to use these weapons. Firing a gun for example, is a case of pressing and holding L2 to bring up a crosshair, aiming with the right thumbstick to select your target, and firing by pressing R2.
The Escapists visual USP, its stylised 8-bit graphics, works really well. It’s easy to distinguish one location from another. The same can be said of each character – if you are having trouble telling who’s who, move close to the character and their name will appear in a bubble over their head.
My only gripe with the graphics is that the in-game dialogue – text speech bubbles – are minute. Having pressed my nose up to the screen, I can confirm that the speech bubbles are dialogue lifted from the series (such as Rick’s rallying speeches), so you won’t lose any major plot points by not being able to read them. Sadly, there’s no option in the pause menu to increase the size of these text bubbles.
Music also takes its cue from the 8-bit era, with background music that wouldn’t feel out of place in a NES game. The music does get a bit repetitive, but can be turned down or off in the pause menu. Sound effects are mostly bleeps and chirps, although modern sound effects do play during cut scenes. I’m happy to report that the iconic walker rasp can be heard too.
Again sound effects can be adjusted to the desired volume in the same menu as the music.
All said, The Escapists: The Walking Dead is an enjoyable game. I was hooked instantly, even though I’m not really an RPG kinda guy and generally shy away from the genre. As the game’s days are short, it’s easy to lose hours to it. Due to the combat and crafting ease of use, the game is sure to appeal to more than just hardcore RPG fans. Minor grumbles aside, if you’re a fan of The Walking Dead and want an alternative to TellTale’s take on the franchise, give The Escapists a whirl, you won’t be disappointed.