It’s almost frightening to think it’s been almost six and a half years since Telltale first brought The Walking Dead to life in a new and exciting interpretation; the game that finally took its choice-driven narrative template and made those consequences truly consequential in a world where a single decision could condemn a character you’d grown to love to a death worse than death. And now, as The Final Season begins its swansong on Nintendo Switch, the debut of Clementine and Lee fitting follows it onto Ninty’s hybrid console with The Complete First Season.
Six and a half years is a long time in the world of games development, but you’d barely know it returning to The Walking Dead's inaugural season. Even from its opening moments, you can sense this was the game where Telltale cracked its own code. Those opening scenes are so perfectly paced they set a high bar the rest of the series only served to surpass. Playing as one Lee Everett - a former university lecturer riding in a police cruiser on his way to prison for murder - we get a brief glimpse into a man broken by his actions, brought to life in an award-winning performance by Dave Fenoy.
The way Telltale slowly hints that the world is about to irrevocably change - such as another police car rocketing down the freeway or bizarre chatter on the radio - is a masterclass in measured pacing before things go awry and Lee ends up in a car wreck. It sets the precedent for the formula to come; moments of quiet reflection savagely punctuated by violence and horror. Much like the comics and the TV adaptation, you’re given no explanation for the rise of the dead, only a palpable desire to survive that never lets up throughout the first season.
What makes this season so unmissable is Lee’s paternal relationship with young Clementine, an eight-year-old girl left alone to face the end of the world. Its a setup that could have been cheapened in the hands of another developer, but here Lee’s growing coldness is gradually thawed through his newly adopted role as guardian, while Clementine becomes far more than another stock NPC in need of protection. The seeds of the woman we see in The Final Season are sowed in these first five episodes and you soon come to appreciate that you’re seeing this world as much through her eyes as you are through Lee’s.
Season One does occasionally suffer from pacing issues - much as it did on its original release in 2012 - and that plot-centric sluggishness is still here on Switch, but it’s thankfully alleviated by some of the entire series’ most memorable moments. Since the Telltale franchise was originally created to exist in the same universe as Robert Kirkman’s comics, you get to meet some familiar faces along with all the new ones. If you’re a Walking Dead fan you’ll love being able to meet some of the fictional universe's most beloved faces, but there’s enough character development through the dialogue and gameplay choices you make that even newcomers will feel entirely invested from episode one to episode five. Even the inclusion of the 400 Days special episode - which helped bridge the gap between Season One and Two with a set of mostly new characters - is a welcome addition to Switch (and a must if you want the full, comprehensive story).
Having already been ported to PS4 and Xbox One, the Nintendo Switch version of The Complete First Season benefits from all the technical improvements Telltale made to the original iterations. Character models and environmental details are sharper, colours and more vivid and the muddy lighting model has been noticeably improved. As the oldest entry in the series, this season benefits the most from Telltale’s redux and it runs smoothly whether docked or in handheld mode, with only the occasional moment of slowdown. It’s UI and controls aren’t quite as unintuitive as later seasons, but it still holds up all these years later. With Season Two and Season Three on the way, this first instalment bodes well for the tragedy and horror to come.
Whether you played this back in 2012, are completely new to the series or a recent convert thanks to the arrival of The Final Season, The Walking Dead: Season One is a masterpiece in video game storytelling. It features some of the best voice-over performances you’ll find on any gaming platform and sets the stage for a grand, multi-season odyssey of tragic proportions. Having failed to support the series beyond the second season on PS Vita, The Walking Dead is finally getting the proper handheld treatment on Switch, and this is where it starts.