Hard Times In The Big Easy

HIGH The melee combat.

LOW General jankiness, especially when it comes to the sound.

WTF Dirty bandages have no negative effects…?

There are few things in pop culture more played-out than zombies, and that goes double for them in videogames. They’re just boring. I’d much rather spend time fighting intelligent enemies who aren’t mid-decomposition, yet The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners manages to make them intimidating again. The secret is VR. When paired with motion controls, it acts as something of a disempowerment simulator.

Through this interface, tasks that once felt trivial have gained a newfound physicality — swinging a bat or cocking a gun is more satisfying when I’m not just pushing a button, and I’m getting a closer approximation of what it would feel like to be in these situations. Decapitating a zombie with a perfectly-angled slice of a sword feels incredible, but struggling to reload a gun while zombies are swarming me in a dark corridor feels horrible. In this light, victories are harder-fought, the failures more panicked, and zombies become an interesting prospect again.

Saints & Sinners follows a protagonist simply known as the Tourist who’s arrived at a flooded New Orleans in search of a legendary supply bunker called the Reserve. Though the campaign has a clear endgame, the story missions are simple fetch quests and play second fiddle to the day-to-day struggles against walkers, human gangs, and the basic need to stay healthy and fed.

Every day, the player can travel to one of eight or nine locations throughout the city – each spanning a block or two – where they’ll have a limited amount of time to gather loot and evade danger. At sundown, they return to their safe house, convert junk into materials, replenish their equipment, and get updates via radio on supply drops or enemy raids that could dictate where they next venture. It’s a well-defined gameplay loop that lasts as long as the player needs it to, with items and enemies spawning procedurally.

Saints & Sinners is nerve-wracking when I’m in the thick of it, but the tension is never overly prolonged. Every escape back to my boat, no matter how close or ugly, was followed by a relaxing sigh before I’d calmly return to my camp and use my scrounged supplies to continue working through the crafting trees. The next run might leave me shaken, but the cycle of stress and safety provides relief before long.

Ideally, the best way to explore New Orleans is slowly and quietly, but the Tourist is on a timer. Every night, church bells sound and cause a herd of zombies to flood the streets. If the player hasn’t returned to their boat before the bells chime, no amount of caution will get them home without attracting a lot of unwanted attention. The constant, underlying dread of an incoming wave of zombies can cause the player to act rashly even before things go to hell.

However, the real test of a stealth game is how enjoyable it remains when the player gets caught, and heated moments give Saints & Sinners a chance to show off its phenomenal melee combat. It shouldn’t work with the lack of physical feedback, but Skydance Interactive finds a way.

Things like the recoil of a zombie when I strike it, or the way my character’s hands twist and contort to prevent weapons from clipping through objects in the environment smooth the disconnect between a virtual world that’s supposed to feel impactful and a real world where I’m just swinging my arms through the air and not actually hitting anything.

Battling human enemies is considerably less enjoyable, if only because their AI isn’t exactly cutting-edge. Saints & Sinners has a lot of technical problems that I mostly find forgivable given the ambition of the project, like dialogue overlapping or sound effects blatantly missing in spots. Human behavior, however, is wildly inconsistent in a way that can make infiltration missions frustrating – enemies are overly alert one second, easily exploitable the next.

At the very least, we’re given no shortage of options. While Saints & Sinners is primarily a survival game with players requiring a steady stream of food and medical supplies, it also has unexpected immersive sim elements. There are multiple routes into every compound, which can involve breaking through boarded entrances, dismantling noise traps or scaling to a second-story opening via a climbing mechanic that feels fantastic with motion controls. The gunplay is also reliable enough to make storming through a front gate a viable strategy, and the story provides several opportunities to form alliances with warring factions.

Even the late-day herd can be used to the player’s advantage. I eventually discovered that gang members will abandon their encampments when the bells sound, so if players would rather take their chances with the hordes of walkers than against less predictable opponents, the choice is there.

If Half-Life: Alyx sold as many VR headsets as it should have, every new adopter needs to make Saints & Sinners a priority. Although it obviously lacks the polish that Valve was able to bring to their juggernaut, it’s another hearty single-player offering that was not only built from the ground up for VR, but showcases the exciting advancements unique to the platform. It’s an easy recommendation, even to people like me who thought they were sick of zombies.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Skydance Interactive. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the PC using Vive. Approximately 25 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Mature and contains Intense Violence, Blood and Gore, Strong Language and Use of Alcohol. Dismemberments and decapitations are a regular fixture of the combat, and there’s even a mechanic where players can disguise themselves as zombies by rubbing entrails all over their bodies, so clearly this is not for children. Characters also drop F-bombs constantly, and the player drinks from a flask at the end of every day to signal that they’re ready to rest for the night.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Subtitles are available, though they only seem to apply to plot-important dialogue, and even then sometimes they don’t appear if the player is too far away from the character speaking. Audio cues are used to communicate when the player is at risk of being spotted (or has been spotted), and enemy noises can help alert the player to danger when they’re under attack. The game is not accessible.

Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.

Mike Suskie
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