You could say that The Walking Dead franchise is a volatile beast in terms of quality.
I’ll spare you the rhetoric of the ups and downs of the television show, but even the flagship Telltale games took a dip eventually and fell into over-saturation territory. This franchise is a mess as studio after studio scrambled to get a piece of it, stepping over the corpses of failed projects; and that’s putting it lightly. Saints & Sinners, the new VR game (stay with me!), helps put it back on track.
The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners (PC [reviewed with a Valve Index]]
Developer: Skydance Interactive
Publisher: Skydance Interactive
Released: January 23, 2020
So before you close the window (I should have told you it was a VR game after you had read through most of the review), Saints & Sinners is a legit survival experience: crafting, limited ammo, the whole nine yards. It’s just in VR.
The way it’s presented is through a series of mini-hubs: spokes on the wheel of a main hub where you can take respite crafting, storing items in your Resident Evil-style bank and recovering. In that sense, it’s not a fully open-world game, but it is a real 15-hour-ish adventure: not a tech demo. Now I love a lot of those tech demos, but it’s important to stress that here. It’s been nearly four years since the dawn of commercial VR and we’re finally getting to the point where this is the new normal.
Saints & Sinners is available for an array of devices, but my playthrough was experienced with the Valve Index and those lovely knuckle controllers. Picking up screwdrivers and thrusting them through zombie heads is as seamless as doing it in real life — right down to the required reverse thrust to pull the tool out of their flesh. Using a pistol and a two-handed axe is similarly seamless: you just grab, point, and go. My only hangup is that the trigger area for grabbing an item out of your hip holsters (of which there are two, as well as two grab points on your chest for the flashlight and map, as well as two more on your shoulder for the inventory screen backpack and a heavy item) can be overly finicky. You get used to it though, and that’s part of the learning curve for the knuckle remotes as a whole.
Using the always reliable “creepy zombie-infested New Orleans” as a backdrop, various factions (a lawless Mad Max-like cult, a police state group) are mixed in along with the zombies, further perpetuating the whole “humans are the real menace” theme that Walking Dead likes to strut. Add in a mysterious safe location among all of the chaos (“The Reserve”) and you have a great basic plotline to propel you through a series of haunted locations that are made even more terrifying in an isolated VR setting. NPC interactions are a little more intimate because you’re right there with them, which helps hand-wave some of the more off cinematic moments.
I’ve found myself gravitating toward horror games in VR over the past few years and Saints & Sinners nails it. Even an event as rote as walking through an abandoned house is fear-inducing, as you slowly grip each door handle with the assumption that a (well-animated) zombie could be staring you in the face, screaming as you attempt to push it off with your actual hands and scramble for a rudimentary weapon to viscerally (look, a proper use of that phrase!) stab it with.
This all sounds great on paper, but where the game falters a bit is with the survival gimmick. As is the common theme with the genre, crafting can feel more like a chore than a rewarding hurdle to overcome, and juggling/sorting a ton of useless items in VR is just as tedious as it is with a controller. But once that busywork is done and you’re off to the next location, you’re really in the moment for as long as that undead sortie lasts.
It also uses the Breath of the Wild system of “everything breaks.” I get why the team wanted to incorporate actual survival elements and, in theory, it builds some tension. But when inventory management is slower due to the hand-controller nature of menu navigation, it can just feel plain annoying, and I have no desire to collect all of the gubbins required to craft the more advanced recipes. Pushing a zombie away while you try to clumsily reach for a knife in your grid-based backpack UI is exhilarating exactly once.
Despite some technical misgivings, The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners honors the Walking Dead name: a rarity in the current climate. It’s also cemented itself as one of the leading “full” VR experiences to date. It might not sell headsets, but it’ll be a hell of a pickup for current VR-heads.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]