There are lots of VR games that deal with zombies and even more games outside of VR obsessed with zombies still, even in 2020. Arizona Sunshine has been the benchmark we’ve used, collectively, to judge zombie shooters ever since late 2016 and now, with the weight of The Walking Dead IP and some truly excellent, immersive gameplay, The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners is the new standard.
The secret to Skydance Interactive’s impressive success here is that they focused on what other developers seem to be afraid to tackle: everything other than the zombies. We all know what zombies are, we’ve seen the movies, played the games, and watched the TV shows, and all of the best pieces of zombie fiction explore what happens to the world and the people inside of it after the apocalypse hits and what it takes to survive. That’s where Saints & Sinners is at its strongest.
In The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners you play as a nameless protagonist referred to as The Tourist. You’re not from New Orleans, but you come to the flooded city on behalf of an old scavenger that promises you a lifetime’s bounty of loot and gear if you help him uncover it. When you arrive things don’t go quite as planned so you’ve got to pick up the pieces, figure out what’s going on, and carefully navigate the rundown streets and dilapidated environments of post-apocalyptic New Orleans.
It’s a good hook to get you invested early and there are very clever, albeit simple, customization options that let you choose your skin color, hand size, and voice. It’s not detailed enough to really make you feel like yourself but it’s better than playing as a character that doesn’t represent you at all. Although I do wish the player character was entirely silent. Hearing a voice that isn’t mine narrate conversation options always feels off to me from inside a headset. But thankfully there are branching dialogue trees and decision points in missions that can alter the outcome, making it feel like a world you have impact on rather than just a museum of zombies you’re stumbling through.
From the opening moments you’re thrown into a complex and realized world that feels alive, despite the walking death that surrounds you. There are humans doing their best to survive between warring factions, straggling survivors begging for your help, and a massive arsenal of deadly weapons and improvised tools to wield against it all. A lot of the NPC interactions are a bit shallow though and even though there is a lot to do and see, it all starts to feel a bit repetitive. It may be true-to-form that most of New Orleans would look pretty much the same after a flood in the middle of the apocalypse, but it still means there isn’t a whole lot of visual variety. Lots of browns and grays here.
And the human enemy AI isn’t the brightest. All too often I’d witness a shoot out between factions with characters just standing in the middle of the street shooting at each other, mostly missing, without anyone trying to take cover. It can look a bit silly. When you add in walkers and lots of different actors running about causing chaos though, it tends to meld together better.
In a way, it sort of feels like the budget must not have been enough to really push things over the top, but what they’ve got is still very substantial and much more robust than most other VR games.
Combat is gruesome and satisfying. It doesn’t quite have the same level of intricate physics simulation as Blade & Sorcery or the precise cutting and chopping system of its main rival, the upcoming The Walking Dead: Onslaught VR game from Survios, but it doesn’t need all that. You can chop off heads and arms and impale in all the places that matter. Instead of vanity features, Saints & Sinners is more interested in depth.
There is a huge assortment of weapons on display from crafted melee brawling devices like bats with nails — Negan’s iconic weapon — as well bows, swords, knives, and claw blades. There are various pistols, revolvers, assault rifles, multiple shotguns, bolt action rifles, and more. Specifically I want to call out how satisfying the pump action shotgun is — bottom loading each shell then having to pump after each shot felt incredibly immersive. Especially when you’ve got hordes of zombies coming down on you — dropping shells on the ground when you’re frantically trying to reload in the dark just as your flashlight starts to go dim is a unique sort of terror only VR can provide.
You spend a lot of time fighting walkers, but Saints & Sinners soars its highest in the moments between the violence. Moments such as crouching down behind a car as you creep past a hoard while desperately low on ammo or on the edge of death without healing supplies, slowly cracking open a door to poke your head through and see if the coast is clear, or waiting for two factions of humans to finish their shoot out so you can mop up the rest. It’s a game of intensity and anxiety, but when it all bubbles up to the surface and erupts in a flurry of panicked violence, the adrenaline rush is all worth it.
One thing that’s easy to gloss over and forget is all of the survival mechanics here. You have both a health bar and a stamina bar to take care of. Things like sprinting and melee combat will lower your max stamina bar, shaving off how much it can recharge, while food will replenish it at the cost of your max health bar, and medicine will replenish that. Healing is mostly done through bandages, which you have to physically wrap around your arm to use. Everything from the bandage wrapping, reloading guns, storing items, searching through cabinets, and more is done with very visceral and physical real life motions that significantly amplify the sense of presence.
The voice acting is some of the best I’ve heard in VR, which leaves the rather stiff animations sticking out even more than usual. Visually the soft textures and not-quite-realistic art style reminds me of TellTale’s Walking Dead adventure games — along with the original comic itself — and I mean that in the best way possible. The branching quest lines try to emulate those stories as well, but never live up to that same level. At the end of the day, most of the missions and side stories essentially devolve into fetch quests and some surface-level moral quandaries that don’t have as dramatic consequences as you might hope.
Generally the game operates over the course of about three weeks of time. Each day you go out to a location, scavenge for supplies, complete missions, and search for secrets (like hidden loot caches, secret crafting recipes, etc) and then head back to your base to craft, configure your load out, and sleep until the next day. Each subsequent day loot becomes a little bit more scarce and the zombies become a little bit more frequent. Each time you return to an area, loot and enemy spawns are also shuffled around a bit so there is a bit of added replay value.
Comfort options in The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners are about what you’d expect from most modern VR titles. It’s a smooth locomotion only game, which means no teleport movement, but you can adjust things like FOV dimming if you’re sensitive or switch between snap and smooth turning. At launch you could not crouch in the real world to crouch in-game, instead there was a required crouch button. Since then they’ve patched in physical crouching to be turned on by default. There are some other options like changing the grip button from pressing to toggle grabbing things or holding it to grab, which is what I preferred.
The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners is a meaty game. All in all it’s about 18 hours long, give or take a few depending on how slowly (or aggressively) you play. Most main story missions are assigned from the school bus base station where you’ve got a radio for contacting some key characters as well as crafting stations and other resources. Returning to a familiar spot is a good change of pace and it establishes a rhythm that emulates episodes of the TV show. Stock up on gear, arm yourself, then head out to scavenge for supplies or find some key item you need to advance, then get back to base before nightfall. If you take too long and the city bells ring, you’ve got to contend with much larger numbers of walkers.
One thing that could have helped shake things up a bit more, or at least offer some optional variety, would be an optional wave-based survival horde mode on the side. That would have also been a good way to incorporate co-op without sacrificing the pacing of the main campaign.
The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners Review Final Verdict
Despite its minor issues like relatively boring environments, repetitive mission structure, and human AI that leaves a bit to be desired, The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners is easily the best zombie game in VR to date. The shooting mechanics feel heavy and impactful and melee is extremely violent in just the right ways. There’s plenty of depth between the survival systems and crafting mechanics and it packs a large and dense adventure unlike anything else out there.
Final Score: 4/5 Stars | Really Good
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The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners is now available as of January 23rd for $39.99 on both the Oculus Rift Home store and Steam for all other major PC VR headsets. Skydance Interactive and Skybound are also planning to release the game for both PSVR in Spring 2020 and Oculus Quest later this year. Once it does release on Quest, it will be cross-buy with the Rift version on Home. If you get it on Rift now, you’ll have it on Quest too at release.
This review of The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners is based on the Steam version of the game and was conducted using an Oculus Rift S with two Touch controllers.
Editor’s Note: After publication we added a section on the game’s comfort settings. We also added information about crouching in that same section, which has been updated on February 5th, 2020 with information about the patch to support physical crouching.