400 Days is a standalone DLC entry in Telltale's highly regarded Walking Dead games, based on the popular comics. While it occasionally nods to the journey of Lee and Clementine from earlier games, the focus is on five new characters trying to survive the zombie plague in a small town in Georgia. The choices made in 400 Days will impact Season 2, although how much remains to be seen.
Players of the original series will be accustomed to the excellent dialogue, realistic voice acting and comic-art visuals that are a staple of Telltale's take on The Walking Dead. Happily, none of that has changed in 400 Days. Dialogue is still very well written, voice acting is right on the money, and the visuals are reminiscent of a graphic novel.
Much of what made the first series great is still present in this DLC, although the poignant emotional turmoil created by its predecessor is lacking. Because of the short narrative split between five characters, there's very little time for players to feel invested in the events that unfold. The twenty or so minutes spent with each cast member aren't really enough.
Players decide the order in which to experience each of the stories. Though this option is welcome, I recommend going from left to right as some decisions can impact the later content. Despite the way the narratives bleed into each other being fairly minor, it's a decent feature so worth playing content in order to notice.
Like the best zombie-fare the real threat isn't the flesh munching nasties, but other survivors. Vince, Shel, Russel, Wyatt and Bonnie share the narrative, each coping with the strains of a lawless world. Vince is aboard a prison bus when the zombie plague hits and must find a way to escape. Shel is part of a survivor community and must balance what's best for her sister and the demands of the community. Russel has broken away from a group and is trying to find his family when he comes across a dangerous new accomplice. Wyatt and his friend Eddie are in a car chase, pursued by a violent mob. Bonnie, a former addict, is trapped in a love triangle and forced to scramble through a corn field to survive when a mysterious gang start shooting at them.
Just like the main series, 400 Days relies on traditional adventure game mechanics. Moving around a small area or contained path while interacting with the world is the core gameplay mechanic. There are some nice inclusions in how the game is interacted with. It's not all conversation and looking at things. A game of cards or high-stakes rock, paper, scissors break from the typical 'look at' and 'talk to' actions. Tension and challenge is manufactured through quick-time events. A stand-out moment involves being alone on a fog-blanketed road and under a lot of pressure. This sequence highlights how the controls can drive experiences beyond conversation options.
The stories are solid. Each has enough intrigue and diversity to be entertaining in its own right. Problems arise given how little reason players have to feel invested. The small amount of time players have with each character makes it difficult to form an attachment to them. Only initial impressions reveal an NPCs personality. The scripting and settings are excellent, but even the most accomplished writers can't force an emotional connection given so little time. I can think of one character I formed strong opinions about. That was because he's so horribly unpleasant that it's impossible to feel anything but hatred toward him.
Because of its short running time players are thrown into the action. The result is that characters feel underdeveloped. In season one, character development is a huge draw. It was admirable how the game allowed judgements to be made and altered. When I first encountered Clementine I thought she was annoying and kept trying to unload her, but by the end I was felt protective of her. I didn't trust Kenny, but he became a trusty ally. I wanted to like Ben and gave him chances to prove himself, only for him to let me down. Those interactions stick with you. Making a choice that may impact some guy you hardly know doesn't.
With 400 Days being standalone, it's hard to criticise it for not having the same impact as its predecessor. It would be very difficult for it to build the same relationships as the previous games did, but given its lack of focus and insistence on a story-hopping narrative, making a significant connection to the characters is a tough ask.
As with the previous games, actions have unseen consequences. Sadly, most consequences happen off-screen and dialogue fills the blanks. On my second playthrough I deliberately chose the actions opposite to those in my first playthrough. No matter what my choices, no matter how much things could have changed, the same narrative branch happened and I arrived at very similar conclusions.
One exception to this was the previously mentioned game of rock, paper, scissors. I lost the first time, forcing me to take the riskier path than my NPC buddy. In the second playthrough I won and we switched places. I really enjoyed seeing how differently the same story played out, unfortunately, despite my best efforts I couldn't find another moment like this.
400 Days is solid, artful and well-made. The interesting stories and decision making mechanics are as enjoyable as ever. New cast members are welcome and have solid depictions, it's just a shame there isn't more time to spend with them. There's plenty to enjoy and as a stop between seasons it's an entertaining place to visit. It lacks the subtlety and emotive pull of what's come before, but lays the foundation for the next season to be a solid follow-up.