'The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners' Review – Satisfyingly Drenched in Existential Angst

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To put it bluntly, The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners is genuinely terrifying. And I’m convinced the game’s creators started with a pretty simple premise and built everything with that in mind: ‘how to make the player feel insanely distressed in literally every conceivable way’.

The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners Details:

Developer: Skydance Interactive
Publisher: Skybound Games
Available On: Steam (Index, Vive, Rift, Windows MR), Oculus Store (Rift)
Reviewed On: Rift
Release Date: January 23rd, 2020
Price: $40

Gameplay

Regardless of whether that supposed premise was Skydance’s intended goal or not, that’s exactly how I feel about Saints & Sinners: morally compromised from no-win scenarios, mentally fatigued from a constant barrage of the undead, and demoralized from grasping at what little detritus I can scrounge up along the way in a grey, unforgiving world. With only a few caveats, it is a remarkably fun (and frightening) virtual safari through a gang and zombie-infested New Orleans, and one you can easily slip into for hours of zombie-ganking carnage at a time.

To help infect you with this inescapable existential angst, the game is built on a few key elements: you need to scrounge for basic supplies, and craft those into useful items to help you throughout your successive hops across the map. A few cork boards back at your base present you with recipes that you can research and then craft by pushing a single ‘build’ button.

Supply recipes, Photo by Road to VR

Once you leave your base, you have both a stamina and health bar that needs constant attention. Getting physical like sprinting and using melee weapons kills your stamina and creates hunger, which additionally puts a temporary cap on your max stamina until you eat something wholesome—not that garbage you find in the NOLA wasteland, only home-made fixins. Similarly, getting infected from z-bites puts a temporary cap on your max health until you take medicine.

It’s not a very tough balancing act, provided you’re not overwhelmed by a pack of shambolic brain-eating monsters, which is usually the case. Killing zombies one at a time is easy, but more than three and you better have your head on straight and your supplies in order. And it’s not like there’s a wristwatch on your arm that tells you when to leave because the sun will go down and zombies will rush in to chase you through the streets until you collapse of exhaustion. Oh wait. That’s totally a thing.

Image courtesy Sundance Interactive

Escape the level before the clock runs out, or you’ll be overrun by a basically unsurvivable horde, forcing you to either start the level over entirely fresh or alternatively restart the level with your accumulated cache where you last died. The latter option can be useful if you died close to the dedicated starting area, but you’ll be stepping out from there empty-handed; if it’s deep in the level, you can basically kiss it goodbye at that point. It’s a clever, anxiety-ridden way of making you asses things quickly.

And in practice, this places you right on the edge of failure at nearly every turn. Like in the many of the beloved RPG titles from Bethesda such as Skyrim and the Fallout series, you need to be smart about what stuff you put into your finite backpack. If you want to build ancillary bad-ass weapons like assault rifles or machetes, you’ll need to grind it out a little bit for the raw material. While you can make it to the end of the game even the most basic starter equipment, chasing down even cooler weapons had me running around and rifling through drawers outside of the main storyline for a good amount of time.

Note: reaching your controller over your left shoulder pulls out your backpack. On your right shoulder is a large weapon, and on your left and right hips are holsters for knives and pistols. I like these sorts of holster systems, although you’ll need some muscle memory to make sure you’re not accidentally tossing away an important weapon willy-nilly.

Photo by Road to VR

And there is a singular storyline to follow with a few choices along the way, but not much in the way of truly world-shifting decisions to make. No matter how hard you suck up to either of the game’s dueling forces, you won’t find yourself becoming the king of your own gang.

I only wish the game had the budget to be a game at the grandiosity of Fallout, with its numerous intertwining stories and large, open-world environment, although I’m happy Saints & Sinners didn’t overextend itself. More on that in the ‘Immersion’ section below.

Image courtesy Skydance Interactive

What about zombie killing, you ask? If you’re not a good shot (head shots only, boys and girls), you’ll be grabbing zombies by the head and braining them for the foreseeable future—something that is intentionally super off-putting. And you have to watch out, because there are three types of zombies, a vanilla zombie, one that craps out infectious fumes when you kill it up close, and helmeted zombies with different exposed areas of their skulls. It’s a nice way of creating difficulty without artificially making them bullet sponges.

Although you’ll find a number of guns on missions, they have lower durability than home-made versions, which take considerable resources to research, build and feed with appropriate ammo.

Image courtesy Skydance Interactive

Save states are equally as punishing, as you’re only afforded autosaves when you wake up in the morning and when you land at your destination, which makes wandering through larger levels really a truly daunting task. One false move, and you’re back to square one, albeit a bit wiser about the map’s layout and general zombie placement. It’s definitely a double-edge sword; it keeps you on your toes, but can frustrate when you have to race your way through the same dialogue tree over and over.

This game really got under my skin, and in the best sort of way. Like both the comics and the TV show, The Walking Dead is less about the zombies, and more about the survivors fighting it out for survival. And to that effect, you choose who lives and who dies, and there aren’t any easy answers. You can try to talk your way out of pulling the trigger, but NPCs have their reasons—human reasons for doing the terrible things they do. And everyone is pretty terrible, you included.

In the end, it took me around 11 hours to complete Saints & Sinners. After the credits rolled, you’re tossed back into the game for infinite scavenging, crafting, and zombie ganking throughout the world. I hoped there’d be a little more to it than that to cap off an ultimately satisfying story filled with warring factions, betrayal, loss, and enough zombies to shake a stick at, but I was more than happy with putting down the headset and leaving the game’s fractured, depressing verion NOLA behind.

Immersion

Firstly, the game’s sound design is pretty great. Zombies visually flail around when they notice you, but they also give off a number of warning noises that should keep you from having to keep your head on a swivel. Constant moaning gives you a good read on their general position, and more aggressive moaning means they’ve seen you and are coming towards you. In addition, there’s also a few different levels of ‘da-dump’ sound effects that happen when a zombie is interested in you.

The soundtrack is also littered with noises that, if you’re not carefully listening, could sound like breathing and screaming, which essentially puts your perceptive system into overdrive as you try to keep your ears open for the nasty ghoulies. In addition, voice acting isn’t hammy, or overdone, which is a feat when it comes to Southern accents.

Image courtesy Skydance Interactive

Sound is so much of an important factor because the game is extremely dark, even in the ‘daytime’, which is really more like a temporary twilight. You of course have your military-style flashlight to help you out when you’re tippy-toeing through poorly lit crypts and passageways, but you have to get used to just how dark and grey everything is. Although the screenshot above makes the zombies look a little too shabby, it’s not something I really noticed (or cared about) in the game. Animations are on point though, so zombies definitely feel real enough when they grab you and you nearly smash your monitor in fear.

If you’re hoping for unbridled exploration, level design is intentionally on the small side—only the size of a few small city blocks—and only offer a few areas to explore, which shunts you to what few NPC side missions there are alongside the comparatively overbearing main quest line. Again, I’m more glad that Saints & Sinners is reducing complexity and not tossing it in where it doesn’t belong in the name of making a technically larger game. Instead of putting emphasis on pure exploration, the clock is constantly ticking away, so you really only have a few minutes to dash in to admire the actual craftsmanship of the game’s levels.

Image by Road to VR

Saving the best for last: yes, this is a physics-based game, although it’s not nearly as married to the concept as, say, Boneworks (2020). Weapons have weight, and your hands don’t clip through the world, which I’m a big, big fan of on principle. Low stamina makes things heavier, and your virtual hands won’t keep up with your physical hands as a result, which can feel a little weird at first.

Because of a strange hand placement issue with the Oculus Touch controllers, I walked away after a few hours with a distinctly ‘off’ feeling to the actual placement of my physical body, which lasted for about an hour after playing. There is a setting that allows you to have a ghostly representation of your controller’s actual position in contrast to their simulated position, but that strangely felt less immersive.

Comfort

Saints & Sinners offers up a fair bit of comfort options that should keep most player happy, as it includes snap-turning and smooth turning locomotion. Variable FOV blinders help keep forward and turning movement comfortable as a default, but can be toggled off in the settings menu.

There is very few moments when your point of view is forced in a slightly uncomfortable way, like when you’re climbing on a ledge or being grabbed by a zombie, although these are few and far between. Otherwise, Saint & Sinners is extremely comfortable for both standing and seated players.



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