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'The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners' is more than dead on arrival

by Nick Black Remember when the Wii U came out and Ubisoft made a big deal out of its exclusive game, ZOMBIU? The game was remembered fondly for its death system, environment, and even characters and story… but also made fun of and torn apart by critics because of how bad the forced Wii U motion control and menu system interface was. It hosted systems that screwed with gameplay and the ability to make quick decisions. Now, also remember that this game, 4 years ago, was remastered for both Xbox systems and Steam and re-titled ZOMBI. It took all of those garbage motion controls out for a smoother, simpler first-person survival horror game. Remember all that? Probably not, no one bought a Wii U anyway.  Now, imagine that a game came along on another new generation’s form of interactive gameplay, that not only is zombie-survival-based, but is almost completely the same game as beforehand but with less creativity, and attached to a franchise who refused to stay dead after jumping the shark. Well, imagine no more my friends, for it exists. And its name is The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners.

New Orleans, Same Dated Problems

Image from Steam
The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners is a virtual reality (VR) title developed by Skydance Interactive and published by Skydance Entertainment. You play as “The Couri-” I mean “The Tourist,” who’s tasked with traveling through New Orleans to find a place called “The Reserve,” a haven from the Zombie apocalypse. While on your journey, you will be attacked by zombies from all sides, depleting your resources and time. You will have to determine friends from foes in towns and outposts guarded by armed human survivors. Along the way of your travels, these survivors may force you to make moral choices between helping them, leaving them, sacrificing them, befriending them, or in some cases, just ignoring them all together. I think the best term to describe this game is frustrating; frustrating because on paper it sounds like a great VR game. It runs fine, and only in one or two areas (mainly the opening cinematic), did I see a noticeable slow down. Other than wonky physics, which is what you’d expect from a lot of these VR titles, the game never really glitched out on me or crashed. It has all the gameplay tropes of the genre of horror, which has worked really well in a VR environment. So why am I not satisfied with the end product? The answer can be boiled down to a few things: Its story is generic, its environments are boring and static, and the gameplay is not intuitive or well thought out.

A story as hopeless, isolated, and dead as its world

Image from Steam
As I mentioned beforehand, a lot of ideas and gameplay elements are similar to Ubisoft’s title, ZOMBI.  Both games have players scavenge resources in which they can bring back to their Hub; going further, both games also hold a penalty for dying. In Saints and Sinners, it has you go back to your previous death spot to retrieve your inventory, while ZOMBI has you respawn as a different character and kill your old one, who is where you last died. Not only that, both games host a variety of weapons, morality choices, and crafting. But once again, the devil is in the details. Both games' story and plot are pretty generic, although in Saints and Sinners' case it may prefer the term forgettable, as it mainly involves fetch quests that other more interesting characters give you in order to progress. And both games' mission structures have you sent on those quests in a boxed environment, usually a street filled with boarded up small corner stores and abandoned vehicles. Unlike ZOMBI, where the game offers a variety of locations, Saints and Sinners' continuous use of the broken-down city or abandoned urban environment causes the world (and thus the atmosphere) to feel stale. Yes, most of ZOMBI’s missions were set in an urban environment, but those locations didn’t just include stores, houses, or hotels. It included: sewers, museums, laboratories, and even a child’s day care center (A level which still haunts me to this day). There are only so many times you can make the same location scary; if you repeat the same monster in the narrative, it needs a new environment to keep the player on their toes. Hence why every season of Walking Dead, in its golden age on television, changed locations so much. That isn’t to say locations aren’t beautiful, because they are… at night. Due to the VR hardware, the game runs with some pretty low-res graphics. The walkers and humans in particular don't look the best, looking like the zombies from The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct back in 2013. In fact even the quests, locations, and NPC quests are very similar to Survival Instinct. The only difference is, once again, some additions they took from ZOMBI, in this case a faction system. You can have different standings with groups of survivors that can determine not so much the ending, but how much you want to be around them. For the most part, dialogue choices don’t impact the ending, or at least they didn’t for me. It was really just deciding how much time I wanted to spend in one area, before leaving to the next level.
Image from Steam
While I’m on the topic of zombies, I’d like to quickly mention the shot in the foot that this game takes by being part of the Walking Dead franchise. By being a part of that world, it can’t have any other form of zombie. It has to be the standard Walkers who, despite being brainless mongoloids, seem to have taken a class from Dark Souls. They always seem to know where to hide when I pass through a corridor or open a door. Despite the annoyance that is jumpscares, the real problem comes from the fact that the only enemies you will fight are walkers and humans, nothing else. So, for the first 3 hours of the game you will fight the same monsters that you will see in the last 3 hours. No surprises, no special enemies or bosses, nothing to shake you off-guard. And this isn’t even a ZOMBI thing, no, this is just standard in zombie survival horror game rule. Left 4 Dead, Dying Light, Dead Island, even Dead Rising who only have standard zombies knew that zombies in general are more of a roadblock then an actual threat. Getting back on the environment, here is a tasty nugget that I haven’t brought up: Physics. The beautiful thing about VR is that it gives the user a lot of versatility and freedom not available to players with a simpler controller. So then why, why on God's earth would you make so many things in this world non-movable props. Everything that the developers didn’t want you to pick up can’t be touched. Cars that are abandoned, you can't open them. Zombie coming after ya, that thick book is glued to the shelf. That store is boarded up, probably because it’s hollow inside and hosts the grey void that is under the map. This may sound weird, because I don’t ask this in other games, but this game is VR. If I am supposed to immerse myself in a world surrounded by zombies, why can’t I pick up a traffic cone to throw at a zombie when I run out of ammo, buying me some time as I speed walk away, as that is the game’s fastest walk speed. Kind of ruins the immersion when I can’t do simple things like picking up a bag that isn’t highlighted.

When you question if the developers know how VR works

Image from Steam
Also, if you get vertigo when you play VR, you can skip this game. This game is free roam, so your body can feel that lovely sensation of jerking awake when you dream about hitting the ground. To be fair it isn’t that bad, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel good after playing for more than 20-30 minutes, where other VR games I can last at least an hour before I need a break. Honestly, if playing through Five Nights at Freddy’s VR: Help Wanted taught me anything, the perfect horror game in VR embraces the freedom, but restricts the environment. You can move your body and arms all you want, but you are still restricted into confined spaces. Control is being taken away from you, that little kink in the gameplay causes you to be more engaged in the moment and immerse you far better than this quasi-open world they are trying to pull. And as an added bonus, you don’t feel sick from the movement. To be honest, vertigo isn’t the main problem. The entire headset is the problem. The game being VR hurts the gameplay more than it improves it. Things like crafting, menus, inventory, and even dialogue choices take longer than necessary. It is commendable on how hard they try to make it intuitive, such as how the inventory system (your backpack) is built to grab something fast and then get back in the action. “Helped” by the fact that it doesn’t pause the game, because as we all know gamers love being vulnerable and punished by the equivalent of pressing the pause button. This mechanic in horror games that pressing pause or looking at your inventory makes you vulnerable has never been terrifying, it has always been a killjoy annoyance to the overall experience. This was in Dark Souls as well, a good game, and I hated it there. And it’s worse in VR; if you thought ZOMBI was bad in having you squat down in a defenseless position for simply looking at your inventory, how about a giant bag in front of the thing trying to kill you, which is a clear improvement! Not only that, the games setup also has a problem with traveling, mainly using the map. You always hold out this pamphlet map to figure out where you need to go, like a tourist in New York. This is a minor problem, but one that highlights a key issue with the game that I couldn’t shake. A question that I just kept asking myself as I played: “Would this game be better if it wasn’t in VR?” Things like a mini-map or pause menu to a map would make it easier to navigate. Being able to organize inventory and craft faster with simple button presses on a menu would be more manageable. 
Image from Steam
At the same time, VR is what they wanted to make a game out of, so I can’t hold that against them. Clear thought was placed in some areas to optimize the VR experience, such as how weapons have to be used logically to damage zombies. Knives have to be turned to their side if you want to cut the neck, or flat if you want to stab a walker in the head. Now I wish these objects didn’t feel as floaty or lightweight as they should be, barbed wire baseball bats apparently weigh the same as tennis racket in this world. But it’s clear that the direction of VR wasn’t going to total waste, it just wasn’t used to its full potential. They clearly wanted the game to make you feel like you are in a zombie wasteland where the odds can change in a moment's notice. Things like being attacked by a herd or losing a weapon from durability (another “beloved” game mechanic returns) shows how they wanted you to feel small and immerse you by scavenging and surviving through a realistic VR lens. But maybe it’s a bit too realistic. Humans with guns are absolutely frustrating to fight against, never do it, you will always lose. And even if you win, your rewards are usually just a return on the investment of fighting their settlements in the first place, leaving you frustrated that you wasted your time. But that is the consistent feedback the game gives you: frustration. The game’s design was already shown in other, better games, without the VR handicap. The story is bland and forgettable with only a few characters I can remember. And even then, I remember their missions more than their personalities. Combat can be hit or miss, and with humans it’s always a miss, and things like durability only adding on to the annoyance. You will be in so many menus and you will just wish you could just pause the game to press a button to get through it faster. As for the world, what world? This place is not memorable nor is it worth exploring in the first place.
Images: Steam Featured Image: Steam

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