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The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners Review - A Bloody Fulfillment of VR's Potential


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The extended alarm on your watch triggers and New Orleans’ bells are close to ringing. Somewhere nearby you hear the familiar shredded howls and rustling shuffle-steps of a clutch of hungry walkers, promising a difficult route back to safety. It’s just that this large piece of lumber won’t in the backpack, itself already crammed with gear too precious to leave behind—you’ve already stressed about trading the bandages for medicine, the alarm clock for the broken gun, the twinkie for the razor blades. No, there’s no time to reevaluate, further pressured by that touchy .30 pistol closer to shattering with each shot. In The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners, it’s a scenario which persists during each trip into danger, as brainless zombies and testy opportunists feed risk into every reward.

When Skydance’s game first released on PC back in January, Saints & Sinners made a noticeable impact, shouldering the promises of VR with aplomb. It’s gratifying to learn that its PS VR port, despite any apparent console limitations, carries those qualities over to the Sony crowd virtually intact. With so many VR games on the platform often feeling like compromised prototypes or hemmed in rail shooters, an experience so elaborate and empowering, carefully designed and packed with things to do like this one is cause for celebration...even if horror-themed video games are not your usual cup of tea.

You take on the role of The Tourist, a highly-capable scavenger who’s found themselves in The Big Easy, hot on the trail of a legendary supply cache in the flooded city. After meeting local plot-sacrifice Henri and learning of the warring factions laying waste to New Orleans with their crossfire, you establish a base of operations and begin your harried sojourns to key areas for supplies and plot beats. The days spent on these runs are tracked and noted, with ventures to each map node presenting one complete 24-hour cycle; slight adjustments occur as time passes, like reduced supplies and increased enemy density.

It’s an interesting sense of urgency to build the larger game upon, and it’s entirely possible to “waste” time, more or less, by spending those days returning to areas to fill up on supplies and crafting materials. Back at home base you can then spend as much time as you want fiddling with loadouts and crafting upgrades, or even placing your own macabre trophies around the bus. Of course, you’d be doing so in lieu of the missions which progress the story, pushed along by a few mysterious NPCs who communicate via radio or hidden messages.

It’s a rather spirited approach to game progression because, while there is that slight nudging concern that the game is getting harder if you’re avoiding the broader mission focus, the threat mechanic is usually quite subtle. More specifically, you’ll rarely if ever venture to a town that is bereft of useful items to collect or so overburdened with zombies as to be practically impassable. That is, unless you ignore those aforementioned bells, helpfully tracked by a handy digital wristwatch. Once they do ring, the zombie population increases more dramatically, and it’s usually wise to wrap up whatever you’re doing and head back to home base.

While avoiding zombies is usually an option, the reason for all these violent upgrades is to take them out with style and efficiency, and Saints & Sinners has a surprising number of firearms, melee, and explosive weapons to discover. Each of them features durability ratings and stats which change your playstyle, with melee weapons feeling especially visceral, requiring you to yank knives and barbed wire bats out of fleshy targets before reusing them. It takes some getting used to, and the game’s thorough tutorial does its best to prepare you for what’s to come. Here you’ll learn the different hotspots on your character’s body to quickly retrieve a sidearm or flashlight, and the quick way of tossing supplies over your shoulder to automatically stash them, a motion which becomes satisfyingly instinctual in the first hours of play.

As can be expected, facing off against a single zombie is usually a breeze, but having to contend with three or more walkers approaching from different angles gets hectic—you might find yourself stabbing a zombie, leaving the shiv in their skull to quickly draw a sidearm to fire shots at the rest, or shoving them away if you’re outmatched and unarmed. It’s a bloody, often frantic ballet that works better than most any comparable combat system on the platform.

Then, of course, are the omnipresent scavenger factions, The Tower and The Reclaimed, who loosely represent the order and anarchy tickets, respectively. Dealing with human enemies is considerably tougher than chopping up walkers, and sneaking through their hostile turf transforms the game into one of the most thrilling stealth VR experiences to date. NPCs and human enemies can certainly be choppier than the walkers, with some unpredictable AI flubs, but they still come off as mostly coherent and somewhat predictable in their patrols. Siding with one faction or the other is up to the player, but you can also just choose to kill anyone on sight you like, even quest-givers, and there’s no real pacifist playthrough possible.

The sheer freedom of scavenging as loud and quiet as you like is the main draw. As you creep through alleys peering over cover for threats or scamper up a drainpipe under scanning enemies, the game is also remarkably physical as a VR experience. Touching surfaces with your in-game hands causes a slight vibration to the controller, cluing you in that they can be vaulted on top of or used for leverage. It’s hard to imagine a comparable action title that offers this amount of tactile interaction while remaining remarkably stable, and bugs or physics tech freakouts during our playtime were minimal.

While some missions and side quests can be broken or interrupted, there is a lengthy cycle of reloadable save files always available via menu. For perfectionists who want to get it all right the first time, they can savescum to their heart’s content, but others who just want to plunge ahead and live with their clumsy mistakes can choose to ignore them, with no synthetic endgame scenario apparently possible. Dying in a level just means having to return to retrieve your backpack or loading a previous save, and the ease of this system feels like that rare situation where pleasing everyone was the right choice for the developers to make.

Rounding out the elaborate gameplay mechanisms is some very solid voiced dialogue, a low-key but successfully atmospheric soundtrack, and a slightly animated or cartoonish quality to the character designs, reminiscent of Telltale’s critically acclaimed adventure series. Aside from any hardware limitations imposed by choosing to present more photo-realistic character designs, it’s another example of a smart development approach, with the aesthetic offering just enough detachment from the potential horror and dread, which makes the experience feel manageably distant rather than relentlessly terrifying and bleak.

While some VR games can cause motion sickness, The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners never once prompted this reviewer to take a break due to nausea. Vignetting and motion controls always kept things pleasant, even when teetering off the side of a building or being chased down alleys. Somehow this impressive ambition and complexity didn’t give way to short-changing compromises, which is probably one of the highest accolades one can grant to a game playing on cutting edge tech like this. It’s an experience so rich, rewarding, and interactively creative that it’s likely you’ll want to keep playing long after the last mission, just to lay waste to enemies using upgraded gear, or try out a previously ignored weapon. Most VR games don’t have legs like this, and it’s what pushes The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners into that vaunted category of must-buy PS VR titles.

The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners is available on Steam for PC and PlayStation VR for $39.99.


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