Shaun Munro reviews The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners…

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It’s fair to say that truly AAA VR experiences are frustratingly few-and-far-between even with VR now being a well-established tangent to traditional “flat” gaming. The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners is the latest title to promise a full-fat VR experience and, mercifully, one of the few to actually live up to the hype.

Given how utterly over-saturated the VR realm is with forgettable zombie shooters, it’s a pleasure to report that this is one of the most substantial zombie outings for headsets since Resident Evil 7 alone justified the PSVR’s sheer existence three years ago.

It’s a major step up for Skydance Interactive, the studio behind the thoroughly mediocre shooter Archangel (a poster of which can be discovered in this game), while publishing duties have been undertaken by Skybound Entertainment, the very company that actually owns The Walking Dead IP itself. And while several of the hit comic’s video game releases have been quite forgettable, Saints & Sinners is anything but.

It’s clear from the opening minutes of this game that a great amount of care has been put into making it a highly immersive and cinematic experience; as you drift through a flooded New Orleans on a skiff, it’s tough not to recall that opening tram ride from Half-Life.

To be clear from the outset, this is not just another VR shooting gallery. You can go a long time, especially in the first few hours, without encountering more than a zombie or two, yet the atmosphere of the city is such a joy to drink in that few are likely to be bothered by this.

In fact, as someone who found Resident Evil 7 in VR positively PTSD-inducing, Saints & Sinners’ approach proved far more palatable for prolonged play. I was certainly anxious when exploring the world – especially an early traipse through a series of dingy, narrow catacombs – yet the game plays surprisingly fair in terms of your spatial relation to the Walkers.

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There are only a few well-spaced jump scares scattered throughout the game, which as a nervous Nellie I massively appreciated. There’s also great pacing between set-pieces, and the bus hideout which you return to throughout the game to craft resources and get some sleep serves as a welcome safe space.

As for the story, it’s a fairly functional affair for the most part, though smartly a lot of the world-building is doled out not through canned expository monologues but the environment itself. Pieces of lore scattered around can be examined and, in the case of written letters, listened to while you’re walking around the world.

Though Saints & Sinners is a mostly solitary affair as you traverse the zombie-infested city in hope of salvation, there are still frequent interactions with people – both direct and not – to make the world feel somewhat more lived-in and slightly less oppressive. While the humans lack the photo-real verisimilitude of, say, the brilliant Lone Echo, the voice work is unexpectedly top notch.

While many human encounters are scripted, bespoke events – albeit with some branching alternate paths – the semi-random NPCs allow for some interesting dynamic events. In one instance I gave a bandage to a beggar, who rewarded me with a box of metal to craft, only for a zombie to surprise both of us and maul the poor sap. As the zombie snacked on him, I of course took the bandage back and went on my merry way.

Though I took several hours to suffer my first death – at which point you can either reload from your last save or return to your death site and retrieve the loot – the game also autosaves every time you visit a new location.

This is effective enough, though during extended sorties you can easily go a solid half-hour without a save, which did result in a few frustrating restarts, especially as you need to hold down the “Y” button to skip through all the dialogue you’ve already heard on a repeat run. A manual save option would’ve alleviated this, though probably at the expense of some tension.

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However, the game generally tows the line exceptionally well challenge-wise; despite a lack of difficulty options, your journal makes it easy to figure out where to go next, so there’s little in the way of aimless wandering if you simply want to cut through the critical path. This is aided further by a handy fast-travel system, allowing you to hop on a skiff and quickly dart between the game’s nine points of interest.

Additionally, combat is both extensive and intensely satisfying, making highly tactile use of VR – with no motion sickness to speak of, no less. Gunplay feels precise yet realistically awkward, namely using two hands to fire larger weapons such as rifles, while the ability to flick open your double-barrelled shotgun for a reload with an actual flick of your wrist is simply remarkable. Even the seemingly simple act of reloading can itself be majorly stressful during prolonged combat, as it’s easier than you might think to drop ammo and start panicking.

While the game initially throws ammo at players who explore every nook and cranny, it certainly pays to be conservative, as each new day of survival causes resources to dwindle while the zombie horde increases in size. Furthermore, as the game warns you early on, if you hear bells ringing, be sure to get to your skiff, because that’s when a gigantic zombie swarm will sweep through the area.

Gunplay aside, it wouldn’t be The Walking Dead without some melee weaponry, and there’s plenty to choose from here; knives, shivs, and larger bludgeoning instruments such as Negan’s spiked baseball bat, which brilliantly requires you to dent the Walker’s head and then yank backwards to retrieve the weapon from their caved-in noggin. It’s extremely satisfying and adds an extra physical component to the game, though some may be slightly disappointed by the lack of physical crouching options on launch.

Stamina plays a major role in balancing the game and ensures that you can’t just flee from the Walkers at every opportunity; your stamina bar needs to be managed by consuming food, and if you get out of breath it’s incredibly easy for the Walkers to overcome you. Elsewhere, you need to bandage wounds to restore health, which in another wonderfully tactile VR flourish actually requires you to take a bandage and wind it round your arm several times.

Inventory management is meanwhile an area where VR games often become unstuck, especially ones as centered on crafting and hoovering up junk as this. But handily, you’re able to store items by simply chucking them over your left shoulder, and even if you do need to do some on-the-fly organisation, it’s extremely streamlined and intuitive to grab your backpack and sort things out.

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Similarly, crafting isn’t the headache that you might be expecting; at your base you’re able to convert junk into resources to build progressively more impressive weapons, items, and power-ups, and while this aspect wasn’t hugely interesting to me, as it rarely is, it never once became a cumbersome chore.

As someone not terribly into crafting, I appreciated that it wasn’t hugely complex or demanding, yet just deep enough to not feel completely rote. I did take a few hours out mid-game to effectively grind crafting and raise my equipment prospects, and while the crafting systems wouldn’t seem at all remarkable were this a regular video game, they do represent one of the system’s more in-depth and intuitive iterations in VR to date, aided by smart choices regarding controls and inventory.

There are really only a few minor issues in terms of core gameplay; managing your flashlight can feel like a bit of a chore, and not in the wilfully arduous way that’s actually interesting. You thankfully don’t need to scavenge batteries for it, but having to constantly shake it to re-energise it is perhaps a step too far in the stead of “realism.”

But otherwise the game does a fantastic job of creating entertaining solutions for its various objects and systems; weapons can be grabbed from your sides, your backpack from your back (obviously), and your flashlight and journal from your left and right pockets.

The AI of your fellow humans could be better, though; on too many occasions the NPCs failed to clock an approaching zombie until they were mere steps away, and sometimes obtuse objects would block their narrow sight-line and stop them from realising a Walker was about to snack on their (or my) neck.

Also, after a few hours the frequent backtracking between locales did start to feel a bit tiresome, reinforcing just how samey some of the environments are visually. Also, the problem with gating the mini-sandboxes off from one another with skiff travel is that it never quite feels like a huge, holistic, sprawling city.

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Visually, this is a very solid effort indeed, for while hardly a game-changer in terms of pure textural fidelity, it makes fantastic use of lighting to create a palpable mood. Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, Saints & Sinners’ aesthetic isn’t entirely dissimilar from Resident Evil 7‘s; murky swamps, oppressively quiet ornate mansions and so on. The art direction is especially effective in terms of realising a persistently bleak world.

Sound-wise, it’s also a strong effort; the directional audio of Walkers approaching is intensely effective, and the ambient musical score does a great job raising the pulse. Voice acting is also surprisingly good for the most part, though hearing an NPC repeat the same phrase over and over again while you walk around the area can be annoying.

As someone with little interest in the Walking Dead TV series these days, Saints & Sinners succeeds as a delineated, standalone zombie romp with more meat on its bones than you might reasonably expect from the IP. It ebbs and flows between quiet and chaos in a way that ensures it won’t only appeal to those looking for a purely stressful experience.

With a campaign lasting 12-20 hours depending on your adventurousness, it’s a refreshingly beefy sit, despite the relatively repetitive nature of its central quests. And with locations changing somewhat upon revisits – in one case, a zombie was randomly strung up where it wasn’t before – there’s even some decent replay value on offer.

While The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners would seem like a fairly simple zombie survival romp outside of VR, the added dimension and some smart design decisions elevate it significantly.

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Pros:
+ Offers a substantial AAA VR campaign.
+ Excellent atmosphere and VR presence.
+ Intuitive controls and menus.
+ Some of the most physical VR combat on the market.
+ Sharp visuals and sound.
+ Addictive crafting loop.

Cons:
– Environments are too samey.
– Dodgy NPC AI.
– Checkpoints could be more generous.

Rating: 8/10

Reviewed on Oculus Rift.

A copy was provided for review by the publisher.

Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more video game rambling, or e-mail me here.

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