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The player brandishes handmade, cutting weapons against a group of zombies Image: Skydance Interactive

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Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners excels at violence, struggles with VR design

The real enemy may be the game’s VR design

The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners revels in a personal, firsthand sense of violence and gore that could only be delivered through VR, despite the many limitations that same technology places on the game.

You’re a survivor of the zombie apocalypse, and the basic truth of that situation provides as much motivation as necessary. You’re trying to survive, in a world where just about everyone and everything else wants you dead. Another survivor you meet in the game’s opening moments helps explain the situation in the city, and soon you have your own home base and a basic idea of where to go and what to do in order to find some notion of stability, or at least hope.

For all the resource management Saints and Sinners asks of you, hope may be the rarest thing to encounter as you venture forth to gather materials, help or hurt others, and perhaps meet up with a mysterious voice on the radio. You pick up, and drink from, a flask of booze to tell the game you’re ready to rest until the next day, to give you a sense of the tone.

It’s the violence that sticks with me, though. The zombies in Saints and Sinners aren’t that scary on their own or in small groups. They move slowly and are easy to kill; you just have to find a sharp object of some kind and slam it through their brain, or swing an ax with both hands to rip their head completely apart. The trick is that you have to swing hard, or your blow will just bounce off or get stuck halfway in, as the undead still moans and thrashes at the end of your weapon. This forces you to push it in further, which finally puts them to rest.

And then you have to pull the blade out, or else your enemy will dangle at the end of your weapon, stuck on the thing that “killed” it. It’s not hard to do, but it’s gruesome to watch and participate in — a strong stomach for violence and dread is a must with this game — and my heart rate rockets every time I miss a shot and only partially destroy a zombie as its friends start walking toward me.

Weapons degrade with use, so you better make sure you have another one handy. The guns you find or craft can be hard to handle, with different mechanical methods for reloading each one that you’ll do well to practice before you’re getting surrounded.

Survival depends on you picking up, and mastering, how best to use this variety of relatively weak, finicky weapons that always seem to break at the wrong time. Trying to fire a semi-automatic rifle or automatic weapon without the use of both hands — and without figuring out, ahead of time, the physical motions needed to open it up and reload without thinking about it — is a foolish waste of bullets and time. The zombies are easy to kill, as long as you’re thinking straight. It’s the panic that gets ya.

The panic is a very real danger. Your body is covered in things you can grab, and they’re all useful at the right time but a liability if you grab them at the wrong time.

There’s a journal with maps and notes about what to do next over your right breast, and a flashlight that can be recharged with a shake over your left breast. You can keep a weapon at each hip, and you can reach over your right shoulder to equip a rifle or a longer weapon like a bat. Reaching over your left shoulder gives you access to your backpack, which is where you keep all your healing items and junk that needs to be collected for the game’s extensive crafting systems.

I often reached over my shoulder and grabbed nothing, or tried to place something in my backpack only to have it clatter to the ground again. Learning the sweet spot to grab the journal, but not the gun near it or the weapon behind it, takes some time. It’s easy to grab the wrong thing when I need the right thing the most, and a misstep means I’m swarmed and killed.

I get it — keeping your cool is tough! — but the issue here is with the VR equipment and the lack of haptic feedback, combined with the need to be so precise. In real life, you’d never go for a knife only to accidentally wrap your hands around a flashlight, and realize your mistake only when what’s in your hand fails to go through the head of a zombie. I cursed Saints and Sinners’ design rather than my own panic after many of my deaths.

Crouching is also very important in the game, as it helps you hide from the wandering zombies for a bit in case you’d rather avoid combat altogether. However, you have to hit a button on the controller to crouch. Simply crouching with your body — which feels like the most natural option — doesn’t make you stealthy. Making matters worse, if you crouch in real life, the game prevents your in-game avatar from dropping down all the way. That means your actual body will continue to move even though your view stops changing. For me, the result is intense VR sickness.

Setting the crouch command to a button instead of a physical movement is great for those with limited mobility, but makes it harder to avoid feeling sick in the game. I hope Skydance Interactive soon gives players a choice about how they’d like crouching to be handled in-game. It’s hard to describe just how physically uncomfortable it can be to move in real life but not have that movement mapped in the game. There’s the option to add “ghost hands” that show where your real hands are in relation to the game’s visuals, but turning this on only clutters things up visually.

an empty room after a zombie apocalypse in The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners
Get used to exploring a lot of empty rooms for resources and gear.
Image: Skydance Interactive

Saints and Sinners wants you to spend a long time in each session, and the story itself is stretched across a number of locations and missions. It may be necessary to go on roving item-collection excursions if you’re trying to craft certain objects. I spent as much time exploring dilapidated buildings in the game’s post-apocalyptic New Orleans as I did worrying about zombies. Keeping track of food and medicine is crucial once zombie attacks start wearing down your health, and doing anything strenuous chips away at your stamina.

But I just didn’t want to spend that much time in VR doing repetitive tasks, whether it was taking items out of my backpack one by one to recycle for parts, or slowly going through a mansion and opening every drawer, looking for junk I can salvage, food to keep my stats high, or the shells of broken guns (which I can craft into working weapons). It’s atmospheric monotony, but it’s still monotony, and if you don’t feel comfortable with spending 30 minutes to an hour in each session in VR, it may be hard to make much progress in Saints and Sinners.

But for all the game’s flaws, I keep wanting to go back in. There’s always another weapon I want to make, or a new location to visit during the campaign. Resting may give you back some health and stamina, but doing so will cause supplies to dwindle and more zombies to show up. There are other human factions you’ll encounter, and since this is The Walking Dead, human survivors can be much more dangerous than the zombies themselves.

Saints and Sinners would be a passable, but slightly boring, game if I were playing on a screen, but it becomes something much more interesting in VR. The problem is that so many of the movements, attacks, and interactions with the world don’t feel natural; they feel like an awkward way of making something from the real world kind of work in VR. I have to practice doing things the way the game needs me to, not the way I would do them in real life.

VR is going to feel like another way to play games, not necessarily a better way, until those two methods of getting things done move closer together. We’re not there yet, and Saints and Sinners stumbles as often as it succeeds. But, if nothing else, VR enthusiasts now have another meaty, full-formed game to sink their axes into.

The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners is available now for Oculus- and Steam VR-compatible hardware. The game was played using a download code provided by Skydance Interactive. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.