The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners is a mix of high-stakes combat and moral choices that leave you second-guessing yourself at every turn.
I walked into the office space where The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners’ demo was to be held, with its sleek, modern, and under-designed aesthetics portraying nothing of the game I was soon to experience. From there I was introduced to some of the narrative themes that would play a major role in The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners. The Oculus Rift VR headset was strapped on, the dual Touch controllers fitted on my hands, and suddenly the environment changed completely.
No longer was I in a comfortable modern office with soft white furniture. I had been transported to the dusty, filthy, blood-spattered, splintered remains of a once vibrant city full of life and intrigue. It was populated by dilapidated houses with boarded-up entrances, scattered wooden boards, tepid and festering water, and hordes of the undead. I look down and my hands are no longer my own and clutching Touch controllers. Instead, they are the grizzled, wrinkled, and tough hands of the protagonist known only as “The Tourist.” While in this demo build the hands were male and white, I was informed that players will have the option to customize both gender and skin tone, which is sure to increase the immersive factor of The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners.
As “The Tourist,” I was first dropped into a tutorial, which serves to get the player acclimated into controls and combat proper. You start by learning where all the important items are stored, such as the planner, backpack, and weapons held outside. You can access said items by using the Touch controllers to interact with your environment and the character’s body. The backpack — accessed by reaching behind the left shoulder — holds spare weapons, supplies, and food. In the right pocket is the planner. This is one of the most important items as it includes a map, a tracker for your current questline, and any recipe ingredients you also may be tracking.
Located in the front left pocket is your trusty flashlight, which can be recharged after a while by shaking it with your left hand. It can also be placed back in the pocket while lit for convenience. Weapons can be kept handy on the right and left hips as well as the right and left shoulders, and your ammo for any guns is kept in your front pouch for easy retrieving. After that, it was time for me to learn how to use knives, two-handed weapons such as an ax, and the guns.
What’s incredibly immersive about the experience is how realistic it feels to plunge the knife or ax into a Walker’s skull. When wielding a knife, you have to hit the right angle and put actual force into the stab to pierce through and down them for good. You can even change your grip between a standard hold to reverse grip, which is incredibly cool. Not to mention having to hold the Walker’s head still with the left hand to pull the knife back out really adds to the depth of play.
An ax is similar in that regard, except since it’s a two-handed weapon it requires not only more force but a properly spaced grip. You really have to throw your entire body weight into each swing, which is both fun and surprisingly liberating to do in a videogame. There’s also a neat trick that took me a little effort to learn. If you want to reverse the positioning of your hands holding the weapon you can lightly toss it from one hand to another. The downside to any melee weapon in The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners, however, is that they break after a certain amount of uses, so players must take care and make sure to have plenty extra.
Guns are extremely varied, from pistols and other handguns to shotguns to semi-automatics and more. Each gun requires different ammo, a unique grip, and is used exactly how they should be in comparison to their real life counterparts. When aiming any gun, there’s no reticle; instead, you must aim down the sights as with any gun in real life. The only aspect missing is the sensation of recoil (although the character animation certainly demonstrates it), which would be impossible to reproduce.
As was explained to me later on, what gave the weapons such a realistic feel and weight is due to the implementation of Haptic feedback. Normally a human’s sense of touch is caused by the somatosensory system. Haptic feedback simulates that system in electronic devices, which usually only interact with you through sight and sound, by essentially allowing the computer to touch you back. And it is used to great affect in The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners.
Once the tutorial is cleared, I then found myself in The Walking Dead‘s safe zone, which is an abandoned bus that holds maps, supplies, weapons, food, and a recycling bin that’s used for weapon crafting. The food items are used for stamina and health and each one has a list of ingredients needed to recreate it. You can mark these ingredients to track them, which keeps tally of what’s been collected so far.
Lifting up the map, I was given an explanation of how New Orleans has been affected by the apocalypse. Thanks to the sharp decrease in life, no one was left to maintain the dam levies and they broke, flooding the entire city and creating a series of “archipelagos.” You use the map to fast travel to these various archipelagos, where different mission objectives are located. I arrived at one of these closed-off sections to continue on with a mission. I first practiced a basic movement skill, which required me to place my “hands” on a car roof and push, that allowed me to climb on top of a car.
My job from there was to find members of the Tower and negotiate with them to recover a part I needed for someone else. The Tower is a faction in New Orleans, whose base is a huge fortified tower. They look down upon all other residents and occasionally sic Walkers on said survivors by ringing a bell. That bell will sure to be known as a herald of death for players as they explore, and has the affect of keeping you from sticking in an area for too long.
This mission objective first required me to approach a group of people holed up in a house. As noted by the developers, it was important that my weapons were put away at all times as to not antagonize them. Once I approached them properly and found Jeff, the lieutenant of the Tower, I engaged in conversation. Conversations have various dialogue trees and choosing the right options to get what you want, whether it’s information or necessary items, is vital.
I was told to find the base of a group known as the Reclaimed and retrieve a person of interest who had been captured. So I arrived at the said base and spoke to a member named Horace, who then informed me that the person they kidnapped was directly responsible for killing a little girl who had briefly taken residency in the Tower. Here, I was presented with the demo’s first moral choice and the very reason for the title Saints & Sinners. I could either agree to kill the guy myself and then aid the rebel group in taking over the other base or I could try to negotiate further and risk it all ending in failure.
Don’t judge me, but I ended up killing the man and leading the successful takeover of the Tower base. As I picked off the remaining two people, I learned the hard way that you must stab a fallen person in the skull or else they’ll come back as a Walker. You can also deliberately let this happen, then lead the Walker to kill your enemies. After the house was confirmed to be cleared out, I made my way to the bedroom to collect my spoils and on the bed I found a note. It was written by the man I had previously killed. He felt remorse for his actions and wanted to make it right by visiting the girl’s family and delivering supplies to them. The same ones I was now ransacking for my own use.
Moral choices are the bread and butter of The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners and you see how they affect the plot, as well as the allies you’ll have against the undead horde. This also provides a more than adequate reason to not simply kill any NPC you meet. While you certainly can as I was told by the developers, doing so means you’ll have those factions gunning for you as your facing down the undead.
But the real reason why moral choices matter in The Walking Dead is because they matter to you. As I looked the man in eye, pointing my gun to his temple, I was forced to see and listen to his begging become more frenzied. His voice increased in volume and pitch, his wide eyes filled with fear as he pleaded for his life. I shot him and it all ended. The cries, the movements, his life. That sort of experience is something only a VR game can create. That was the moment I knew I was playing something special.
As I tried to make my way to a boat to return to my safe zone, I heard a phone alarm ring. I was told that was my warning that the bell would ring soon and with it bring horses upon me. Very shortly after the bell rang and as I saw enemies shamble forward, I knew my survival chances were near zero. It was a truly chilling moment, trying and failing to escape and then trying and failing to fight them all off.
Before the demo event finished, one of the devs donned the VR gear himself and showed me some more advanced weaponry and gameplay. He proceeded to demonstrate how archery worked (very similar to the art in real life) and even some awesome bomb arrows. Then he dual-wielded pistols and used meat cleavers to cut down a huge horde of Walkers. He showed me some advanced movement as well. The character can climb up the sides of houses and other buildings by using the damaged wooden sides or even pipes that run next to them. It was impressive to see what some good practice could result in.
It’s certainly not a perfect experience, mind you. Controls take time to adjust to. Right-handed players will have a tendency to reach across themselves to pull out the backpack from the left side. When holding a weapon in hand, the trigger button must be pressed at all times. So if in a panic because Walkers are suddenly surrounding you, it’s easy to drop a weapon or a much needed clip of ammo. Sometimes the physics engine fails and items don’t interact with your “hands” the way they should. And as demonstrated by the dev showing me how you can easily lose your grip while scaling houses.
Despite these shortcomings, I had an amazing experience with The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners as it seems to utlized the strengths of the VR medium to totally immerse players in the world of The Walking Dead. I look forward to seeing how other players will choose to interact with and survive in the new world order.
You can also look forward to our interview coming soon. The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners launches on January 23, 2020.