It’s exceedingly rare that I can review something on its release date. But in the case of a brief, two-hour downloadable addition to the first season of The Walking Dead, it’s actually possible. This collection of five intertwined short stories revolving around a truck stop manages to capture the essence of the main series while introducing some new, interesting twists. A full review with spoilers for both the main series and 400 Days follows after the jump.

One of the strongest aspects of the first season of The Walking Dead was the way it let players get to know its protagonist, Lee, and become invested in his story over the course of its five episodes. Given that 400 Days is split into five separate stories, I had feared that it would be unable to engender that kind of investment in 1/25th of the time. I was mistaken. By keeping what was great about The Walking Dead – character interaction, tough decisions, and tense moments – and trimming away what wasn’t – overly simplistic and lengthy puzzles – Telltale was able to craft a leaner, more poignant game.

In 400 Days, Telltale continues The Walking Dead’s tradition of getting the player to sympathize with characters whom would be ostracized by society in real life. Vince’s story paints a white-collar convict and a statutory rapist in an empathetic light, while Russell’s tale displays the good side of a creepy misogynist. 400 Days has a knack for showing players that people are complex creatures, not merely good or evil. This is best exemplified by Bonnie’s story, which pulls one of the most surprising bait-and-switches I’ve ever seen in a video game. It starts with what appears to be a tender scene between two longtime lovers, Leland and Bonnie, when Dee suddenly appears and is revealed to be Leland’s wife. To my surprise, I found myself disappointed to see Dee, not disgusted to find out that Bonnie was the “other woman,” helping Leland emotionally cheat on his longtime wife.

400 Days also succeeds at putting the player in a position of having to make tough choices with no clear right or wrong answer. In particular, the decision to kill Steph or leave the compound in Shel’s story was a gut-wrenching decision that took several minutes for me to make. (I went for killing Steph. No way was I going to endanger Becca.)

The DLC adds some interesting mechanical twists to the proceedings. Rather than tapping Q repeatedly, 400 Days has you moving the mouse back and forth to jostle something loose, which feels like a better mechanical representation of the action being performed onscreen. Furthermore, the chase through the cornfield serves as a sort of action/stealth mini-game that better captures the tension of the situation than a cutscene would have.

My one problem with 400 Days is its conclusion, which feels too disconnected from the five preceding stories to work. For instance, I received nary a hint of how Becca and Shel ended up with the other survivors in spite of Shel’s decision to stay at the truck stop. Given that I had never seen the six survivors interacting with each other, Tavia’s proposal didn’t have the intended effect of making me feel conflicted about the group’s break-up. As such, an episode that had remained emotionally engaging throughout its five stories ended with a cold, unfeeling whimper.

But that ending aside, 400 Days is a remarkable piece of DLC. By boiling The Walking Dead down to its pure dramatic essence, it far surpasses the main series in its ability to tell complex tales of moral uncertainty. In fact, now I worry about season 2: will it fall into same pitfalls as season 1 by stretching out uninteresting drama over several episodes, or will Telltale learn from the success of 400 Days and adopt a leaner approach to storytelling that still manages to engage the player’s sympathies?

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