The VR experience in ‘The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners’ prevents it from being just a zombie cliche

Christopher Byrd

THE WASHINGTON POST – In the decrepit blue mansion I waited behind the doorway of one of the upstairs bedrooms for the zombie to approach. Its monosyllabic grumblings gave it away. I raised a shiv above my head. The blade extended from the bottom of my fist, as Norman Bates did in the famous shower scene from Psycho.

Then, as the lumbering zombie reached the threshold of the room, I stepped into its view. Before it could react I plunged the shiv into its skull and gave the knife an extra push to sink the blade in up to its hilt. The action is one of the most visceral I have performed in any video game and, generally speaking, I could not care less about zombies.

In VR, visual cliches are reinvigorated. Though I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a variation of the scene in which someone stands around a corner clutching a weapon waiting for their mortal enemy to pass to catch them unaware, I’d never, until recently, acted out such a scenario with all of its accompanying physical fanfare. It’s for reasons like these that I found The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners to be a captivating survivor horror game regardless of the technical and design issues that marred my enjoyment.

Set in New Orleans, Saints & Sinners casts players as the Tourist, a person trying to make their way to the Reserve, a place reputed to be rich in the sort of supplies one would want in a zombie apocalypse. (The devastated landscapes of the city evoke the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.) Aside from being overrun by zombies, the streets are a place for armed combat between two large groups of survivors, the Tower and Reclaimed. The Tower prides itself on order and community while the Reclaimed are more anarchic. The former is led by an authoritarian leader, the latter by a charismatic one; you can choose to help, harm or ignore either faction.

Your base in Saints and Sinners is a weathered school bus hidden away by a cemetery. Nearby is a skiff – your portal for fast travel. There is a recycle bin in the bus. Items found in the world can be placed into the bin to be converted into parts for crafting weapons, food, medical supplies, etc. The items you find while out and about are generally banged-up, soiled, or of otherwise cheap quality; thus, it’s practical to use one of the crafting tables next to the school bus to create better supplies. This emphasis on crafting, coupled with the scarce number of checkpoints in the game, makes Saints & Sinners feel a bit grindy.

Reaching over the left side of my shoulder, with an Oculus Touch controller, takes out a knapsack. An item found in the world can be placed in it by using one of the controllers, which doubles as my hands in the game. Reaching across my right shoulder I pull out and replace a shotgun. On the left side of my chest is my flashlight, on my right is my notebook where I can find information about my current tasks. On either side of my unseen hips are holsters that I can place weapons into. Rarely has inventory management felt so tactile.

Playing the game on an i5-4690K computer with a second-generation Nvidia Titan X graphics card, I encountered plenty of frame-rate hiccups as well as audio glitches where the sound dropped in or out. Frame rate hitches in VR are immersion-shattering. Although I rarely get motion sickness from VR, there were times where technical issues prompted me to close my eyes for a moment or take off the headset.

Of particular annoyance is the fact that to crouch in the game you must press a button on the controller rather than simply crouch down.

To ward off (relatively light) vertigo as best I could, I found myself haphazardly trying to synchronise button presses with crouching down in my living room so that the shift in scale wouldn’t bother me as it would if I remained standing up.

I hardly thought of the Saints and Sinners story line because I was more focussed on the game’s performance issues. If you have a PC capable of running the game smoothly, congrats – you’ll certainly have a more comfortable experience than I did.

A scene from ‘The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners’. PHOTO: SKYDANCE INTERACTIVE