Team17 have been making a few waves with their re-entry into the publishing business in late 2013, with a laser focus on bringing small, otherwise indie developers to a wider marketplace. They’ve been working hard on behalf of smaller devs, and The Escapists: The Walking Dead can be seen as one of the sweetest fruit of their labours. Mouldy Toof Studios’ prison escape game The Escapists was somewhat of a breakout hit on Xbox, Steam, and PS4 earlier this year, and Team17’s publisher nous has helped Mouldy Toof secure use of The Walking Dead for their upcoming zombie apocalypse escape game. I went hands-on with a demo build of The Escapists: The Walking Dead, and I have to say that what I played left me surprisingly impressed.

After Telltale’s hugely successful Walking Dead games, and the less-than-acceptable FPS Survival Instinct, I wasn’t entirely sold on the idea of a top-down, crafting, twin-stick-shooter-without-the-shooting-but-maybe-still-some-shooting-sort-of-thing. And then I played it, and it’s a natural fit. The top-down perspective, coupled with The Escapists’ crafting mechanics and the actually rather awkward shooting mechanics gives a rather light, arcadey, fun feeling to an IP that has never shied away from the grim.

That’s not to say the game is a foxtrot through a field of peonies, though. It puts you in the shoes of series protagonist Rick Grimes, following the story of the original comics, rather than the TV series. The little slice of story I saw was brief, retold through unvoiced text bubbles and short, blocky cutscenes and inserts. The game seems to focus more on mechanics and environment rather than retelling narrative, with story beats being hit but not expanded on. It trusts you know the depth of the narrative, instead deciding to give you familiar locations and characters to play around in.

TheEscapistsTWD_HarrisonMemorial_2_08-07-2015

I think that works in its favour as an experience for fans and newcomers alike. The original narrative can be placed onto this gameplay scaffold by those who know it, while eschewing a complicated retelling that might alienate those who aren’t so familiar with the comics.

The demo started with a (very) short story panel, establishing Rick Grimes’ wounding in a police shootout. It immediately cuts to a very confused Rick waking up in a hospital – one fans will recognise as Harrison Memorial. The first task is to put on a shirt, teaching us that going over to objects and pressing A will loot things. Next Rick is sent down a few abandoned rooms and hallways, looting a pillow slip and a bar of soap, which you must then craft into a makeshift weapon via the crafting screen. Further exploration introduces Rick – in classic genre style – to the bizarre nature of his predicament – namely, vicious walking corpses.

Killing and looting the first creature is simple, and yields more crafting ingredients, which Rick then uses to make some shoddy bolt cutters. We’re then encouraged to pick up a nearby set of drawers and place them under a vent opening. Using the bolt cutters to open the vent, we travel through the ventilation system until we can open up another vent and drop down in another room. We’re then treated to an iconic scene, where Rick opens a chained door and reveals a hoard of hungry walkers, which then chase Rick down a hallway and through another door.

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Finally we find a pistol lying on the ground, which can be equipped, and a door to the outside, which we use. Outside are some more walkers, nicely gated off by a chain link fence. Once I shot a few walkers through the fence with my unlimited ammo (I hope this is just for the demo) using typical twin-stick aiming, I went into the conveniently placed hole and used the equally conveniently placed shovel to dig through to the other side of the fence – and to more walkers. I shot some, and ran past others to escape. And that was it. It will probably take you about the same amount of time to read through those last few paragraphs as it did for me to actually complete the demo. The five minute demo was enough to show me how great the game could be, but not enough for me to truly get a handle on how it will truly play.

After the demo was finished, a short trailer played of Hershel’s Farm, another location that will be in the game. We saw Rick in his trademark sheriff’s uniform, along with some puzzle solving and shotgun blasting. It looks like the game gets more complicated later on, and I hope that it builds on what it has and delivers a unique take on the Walking Dead story.

Controls were a little confusing for me, since I hadn’t played The Escapists, or indeed anything on a controller that wasn’t Bloodborne for a good while. It runs like a typical twin-stick shooter for movement. Equipping items was relegated to the shoulder buttons, and I was a bit confused as to whether something was or was not equipped, since weapons are moved to a box on the left of the item bar once equipped, but tools are not. I also found the crafting screen a little opaque at first, and the demo’s brevity didn’t give me a chance to get used to it. I can see how it will work, and those who have played the original Escapists will be familiar with it though.

The game uses The Escapists’ 16-bit aesthetic, which is fine for general gameplay, but I found it a bit too muddy and indistinct for cutscene panels and zoom inserts. It was difficult to see the features of characters and walkers, and it tended to mix together into a mess of pixels. Which is a shame, since I can see it putting some players off.

I’m optimistic, though, since the game is built on solid foundations. The top-down perspective works surprisingly well, and the focus on crafting reflects the survivalist nature of the source material. While I would have liked a bigger slice of the game to be playable, the taste it gave me was enough to show me the potential of this new take on The Walking Dead.

The Escapists: The Walking Dead is aiming for a late 2015 release.

Lachlan Williams
Former Editor in Chief of OnlySP. A guy who writes things about stuff, apparently. Recovering linguist, blue pencil surgeon, and professional bishie sparkler. In between finding the latest news, reviewing PC games, and generally being a grumpy bossyboots, he likes to watch way too much Judge Judy. He perhaps has too much spare time on his hands. Based in Sydney, Australia. Follow him on twitter @lawksland.

OnlySP Week in Review + Giveaway – July 19th

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