Telltale Games certainly made a splash when they released The Walking Dead: The Game. It seemed to be the best way to bring the point-and-click adventure genre to modern gaming. It allowed the developers to tell an emotional story that still gave the player a feeling of agency. It’s surprising how rarely that formula has been copied, with Life is Strange being the closest comparison.
The Descendant is now the closest thing to a straight copy-paste of the formula Telltale has mastered, but it’s boring characters, boring plot, boring… everything make it a chore to get through it’s first episode.
The premise is simple enough. Global Warming caused wars between the world’s superpowers, ending in nuclear war. Sanctuaries known as Arks were built to house some of the world’s elite in cryosleep until… well that’s unclear. These Arks are maintained by engineers known as Janitors, who are automatically awoken at key times to work on things like water heaters.
The Descendant’s first episode is split between three time periods, following two characters. In the past, Mia is the “new guy” on Ark-01, who works alongside one of the most poorly voice-acted characters I’ve ever come across. There’s a weird moment where it feels like the game is interested in building some level of distrust between the characters. “Who are you?” asks Mia’s partner, “You’re not the guy I expected.” Oddly, this tension between the characters is never suggested again.
In the future (“Centuries later…”), you’ll take control of Donnie, a one-time Janitor who is now partnered with a cranky, old Senator, tasked with investigating what happened at Ark-01. The Descendant jumps around periodically between Donnie and Mia, unravelling more of the mystery as the game goes on.
The basic premise of learning what occurred on Ark-01 is admittedly intriguing. Even though we’ve seen this idea done to death (waking up years after the Apocalypse), The Descendant’s idea of turning it into a mystery is something that I haven’t seen done a million times. It’s unfortunate that the game is so bad at communicating exactly what the mystery is. Upon Donnie’s arrival, we don’t know anything that’s happened at Ark-01, so immediately, tension drops. Donnie makes a suggestion that the senator should stay behind (and you’re given 4 options of reasons why he should stay behind) because presumably there’s danger afoot. It’s unclear why Donnie feels this way. Is the world inhabited by mutants now? Was there signs of distress? Couldn’t the Ark have simply had a mechanical failure and everyone died in cryosleep?
There’s no reason to feel tension other than the fact that the developers lay on the thriller movie music. Even in the moments that feel like they should be tense, they aren’t because the controls don’t allow you to move your characters quickly. With the exception of one scene, the characters crawl along at an alarmingly slow pace considering meltdown seems to be occurring. Then these moments feature puzzles that require you to find a thing to make another thing work, so that you can get another thing to work. There’s no urgency and thus no tension. Then the episode – which took me all of 40 minutes to complete – ends with what I can only assume was intended to be an intense cliffhanger, but because I’d been so bored until that point, I couldn’t find it in me to care at all.
Everything about The Descendant’s first episode feels like a really boring SyFy original series, while Telltale’s games, while not perfect, tend to feel more like an AMC or HBO production in comparison. The Descendant’s low budget shows at every seam. The voice acting is terrible, the writing is unsure of itself and never knows where to go, and the gamiest aspects are boring at best. The puzzles are simplistic, and the camera lingers in places that force your character to constantly walk into walls or get stuck in awkward positions.