Preamble: As it is not possible to review a film or a book without a single spoiler - same goes to this "interactive novel" game. I'll try to use as little as possible but here is a short guide for you:
1. If you own a game and still didn't finished it - than get back to it, no text can describe it better than the game experience itself.
2. If you are thinking about own a copy or not then think about this: Did you like Heavy Rain, Fahrenheit and other "interactive movie" style games? If so - this game is your choice. Do you like reading/watching a good drama and ever thought that you know better what to decide than the main character? Then this game is for you.
3. If you already finished the game or will not play it all - fell free to browse a review, you should not be aware of spoilers then.
Another small note is about game episodes. Game is divided into 5 episodes and they divide into chapters. For now first season of the game is complete and this is a review of a full game (i.e. all 5 episodes).
So now we should get started :)
Controls and game mechanics:
First of all (and this is obvious) - game takes place at the dawn of zombie apocalypse. It is based on comic book and not on TV-series, though both the game and the series take place at the same universe, but in different time, with different characters and they differ in details. Game follows original comics more accurately.
Mechanics is typical for a games of this genre. It is a third-person view and direct control (WSAD). You can walk freely on scenes except no free jumping or crouching, so a character does not look stupid on a screen by jumping around other people in the middle of zombie apocalypse. When something happens (i.e. you face a zombie, get attacked or get into any other trouble) game uses QTE (quick time events) where you actually might have to crouch, jump, punch, shoot or do anything else depending on a situation.
So free walking takes place where everything is quiet or close to it. You have no control of camera, it changes an angle automatically when you walk between places (go upstairs, walk around a corner, e.t.c.). If you try to walk away from where events take place - you can eventually face a wall (visible or not) which is not a good form for game but is excusable: its hard to reach a boundary not on purpose as you always know where you need to go.
The way of interactions is chosen at the beginning of the game. In standard form - you get small hints and objects are marked so you can see with what you can interact. In realistic form - there are no such marks. In this way game experience is more rich, but I might advise you to use standard form for a first play-through so you can learn how interactions are made. A good thing that you can change this setting anytime.
To interact with object you just click on it or scroll to find the way you want to interact (look, open, break, shoot...). Same goes for communication with other people - you start a dialog and choose what to say. This is similar to many games such as Mass Effect series, but in here a set of replies is more rich and distinct, so you will not have to choose between something like "yes", "sure" and "of course". And everything you say and the way you act will have a consequences. Some of them you may face immediately, some will stick with you for episodes. This will be described more at the "branching-plot" section.
QTE appear when some action is started. Usually you will have to manually aim and hit or shoot, sometimes combine it with movement and interactions. QTE are limited in time, but a failure not always lead to character's death. Sometimes you will just have to face the aftermath of your mistake.
Branching-plot and consequences
The main plot is very good for an often used zombie apocalypse theme. The main character Lee Everett has it's own mysteries and we only learn a little of him in the beginning while he is driven in a police car as a criminal. As he talks to a police officer, we discover that he had a wife and killed a man and from that point we develop his story ourselves. What we will say to other people or what we will hide, what they will find out on their own - all these shape Lee's history. It is an original idea - to let players develop their own role and not to play some pre-made one. It's most important in a game where everything is about plot and decisions. Lee never got to the prison as they run into the start of the apocalypse (literally). At this point main character must catch up with the player as the player knows about zombies much more than Lee who saw them for a first time. Once it is done - you and Lee become one person and you play not his role but yours own. Soon from the start Lee meets second main character - 8 years old girl Clementine. She is alone and Lee takes her with him. Her role is just brilliant, girl herself is adorable, young but clever and she is the only stable piece in a world that falls apart. Clementine trusts you only like a child can trust and that is flawlessly shown in game. You care about her and this is a difficult part - deciding what would be the best for a child you are close to. When everything is complicated - relations with a child can be complicated even more. So you are not concerned only about yourself, you babysit a little girl with all responsibility. That emotional link between you and Clementine is build precisely to connect and stay forever. And this is significant line of the whole game.
General idea of the plot is simple - you try to find a place to survive by deciding what can work out the best way. You meet another survivors on the way and build relations with them, and here a consequences play its part. Everything you say or do have influence on the people around you and nothing is as simple as it seems. Sometimes you can help others, other time you can not save everyone and sometimes you even have to choose who will be saved and who will die. Developers (Telltale) made a hell of a job adding tons of branches to the plot and keeping all your actions through all episodes.
You start to feel that your choices have an impact long before you face one, and that is what makes the game a really exciting novel. Another great part is that some choices that must be done in defined way are made by yourself one way or another, so you do not have a sense that you are travelling on rails.
The bad part however is that you will know the main line of the plot is straight just after completing a game or on the second walk-through. You simply can not decide not to go anywhere, go to completely another place or remake the whole plot. It is still a novel and you travel through its chapters with a baggage of your actions but cannot get outside the book. In simple form - all the details and deviations depend on you, but the story on the whole doesn't. Still the main story-line is intuitive and rational so don't expect to hit a border by leaning on any of the sides while progressing through it.
Graphics 8/10 is styled as a comic-book on which originally it is based. There may be a lack of modern post-effects but it is very optimized and have no resource intensive peaks. For sure there is no need of real-life look in such stylistics, but some additional improvements on face animations would be great.
Interface and controls 9/10. Interface is as simple as it should be, controls are intuitive. Mouse movement is a bit console-like, but not causing inconvenience.
Music and sounds 10/10 are perfect. Game relies on character's speech much and this part is ideal. Voices are acted faultlessly and sound emotional as they should. They match their characters and differ from each other so you easily will know who's talking just by voice. Music is well placed and sounds have good quality, so no fault can be found in here.
Gameplay 10/10 experience is just great. No moments where you could stuck because of unreasonably high difficulty or some irrational logic. No boring and pointless moments and no over-saturated parts as well. Decisions are balanced and vary without some artificial restrictions.
As the novel - game is no less then spectacular with enough cliff-hang moments, plot twists and one of the best emotional finals ever. Ambiance is well sustained for all the time as this is not a drama about zombies but a drama about survivors.
Getting yourself on main character's place gives much more empathy with him than just by watching from aside. And this is exactly what the game offers: to relive a story by being over there - inside the apocalyptic world among the survivors, surrounded by crowds of zombies with a little girl holding your hand. Nothing exists beyond that until the story comes to an end.