I think it’s safe to say a lot of us have Walking Dead fatigue. What started as a groundbreaking comic book flourished into a promising TV show and a landmark episodic game. But, like a zombie that just won’t die, the series just sort of… keeps shuffling on.
Spin-off series, console tie-ins, AR games; nowhere is safe from the hunger of the undead. A series so refreshingly concerned with the humanity behind such a cataclysmic event soon succumbed to the phenomenon it generated, recycling the same tired tropes, time after time.
I mean, heck, there’s even two Walking Dead VR games on the horizon (this one I played from Skydance and Onslaught from Survios), which is perhaps as embarrassingly unnecessary a piece of brand overlap as you’ll ever see. But I’ll say this as someone that parted ways with the series a long time ago; The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners is the most promising extension of the franchise I’ve seen in years.
Their releases may be too close together to claim any source of inspiration, but Saints and Sinners, developed by Archangel studio Skydance Interactive, definitely graduates from the Boneworks school of VR design. While not every item in the game can be picked up and wielded against your brain-dead enemies, axes need to be swung with heft to make an impact, gun muzzles can be used to bash heads out of the way, and your hands are your first line of defense against the incessant gnashing of a Walker’s teeth.
Combat in Saints and Sinners, then, can be an uncomfortably personal, thrillingly grotesque, and intentionally messy affair. Like Survios’ upcoming The Walking Dead: Onslaught, great pride is taken in the stabbing of heads, though I note a sickeningly authentic feel to this approach. Knives, tools, and even serving spoons must be thrust into your enemy’s brains with intent, and successful blows then dislodged with queasy fiddling. No gory detail is spared either; at one point I take an axe to a zombified-companion, only to accidentally split his chin in two, much to the disgust of the developers and PR representatives in the room.
High-powered assault rifles and handguns, meanwhile, tempt Rambo-style action but in practice need a much more considered touch. If you don’t hold a rifle at the end of the barrel, it’ll flail around with a rubbery consistency, but even if you do grab it with two hands you’ll need to prop it up higher than you’re used to to help account for the weight you can’t physically feel. Skydance has clearly gone to great lengths to balance every weapon in the game, best seen in the measured reload animations which are often specific to the gun you’re holding. They’re unique in their handling and yet streamlined just enough to be manageable, provided you keep your cool under pressure.
It’s an encouraging set of rules and restrictions, suggesting Saints and Sinners genuinely belongs to that most wince-inducing buzzwordy of labels: a ‘next-gen VR game’. And it’s not just the combat that makes that promise.
Structurally, Skydance says there’s a beefy campaign with 15+ hours of single-player action, complete with your standard assortment of stamina meters and crafting elements. Saints and Sinners is set to a moody backdrop of a zombie-infested New Orleans, a series of flooded roads connecting several explorable areas to a main hub environment. You venture out in search of supplies and essentials, meeting other survivors that designate side-missions with the lure of big rewards.
One woman I meet straight off the boat asks me to put her zombie husband out of his misery in return for a safe code. I could comply or, living up to the title, I’m told I could just kill her and take the code right now. Why wouldn’t you just do that? Well, there may be other rewards to gain from accepting the mission and you may want to play the path of the Saint; there are multiple endings depending on the choices you make.
Given the welcome, crunching impact of the combat and the generally impressive production values — New Orleans is convincingly dilapidated and character models and performances are a step above your usual VR NPCs — I’m inclined to believe Skydance when it makes these lofty commitments. Saints & Sinners appears surprisingly comprehensive, almost as if the issues of short VR games with repetitive content were a distant memory. Granted I haven’t played enough to the game to claim it will maintain this quality throughout, but it’s looking promising.
The Walking Dead may remain a dogged franchise with no end in sight, but Saints and Sinners looks to at least put its name to good use. VR has a lot of zombie-slaying ahead of it in 2020 but, from what I’ve seen, Saints and Sinners should be setting an early high bar.
The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners comes to PC VR headsets on January 23rd. PSVR and Quest versions are set to follow later in the year.