The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners Is Making Me Relearn Survival Horror

After rounding the corner of a parked bus, I saw her – a shambling, growling brain-muncher, standing idly at an abandoned intersection. I had twelve shots left for my revolver, and was feeling pretty cocky. Hoping to catch the hapless zombie unawares, I took aim at her head and fired from afar.

I missed. Fuck.

In an instant, she was on my tail, and I was trying to take her down. I fired off my last five shots, most of which connected, but it wasn’t enough – she was gaining ground. Desperate, I fumbled with ammo as I reloaded, yet somehow managed to screw that up too. Three of my remaining bullets clattered onto the wet pavement, and before I could reload, the zombie grabbed me. I flailed my arms and pushed her away, then sprinted as I kept trying to reload my gun.

Naturally, that also went wrong. My hand slipped. The gun tumbled from my hands, then clattered on the ground and skidded under a car. I had no weapons left, and my attacker wasn’t even close to dead. To make matters worse, the commotion attracted more walkers – their gurgling moans surrounding me like a hellish choir. My only move left was to sprint towards a nearby house and climb the drainage pipe, hoping that they couldn’t follow.

Little did I know that house was full of zombies. Whoops.

This is but a small slice of my experience with The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners on the Oculus Quest 2. The survival horror title released on other platforms earlier this year, but this new port is one of the marquee launch experiences for Facebook’s new device. And I do mean marquee – Skydance Interactive’s harrowing VR experience is one of the most immersive and innovative to date.

But those two words get thrown around a lot – “immersive” and “innovative.” Each major breakthrough in VR is often heralded as the second coming of video games themselves, and frankly, it feels like a reductive way to talk about the medium. At this point, virtual reality is the lay of the land – there are more headsets in homes than ever before, and big companies continue to make headway in making it more mainstream.

While I could dwell on just how cool every single aspect of Saints & Sinners is, what interests me most is how it iterates on one of my favorite genres. As a dyed-in-the-wool survival horror veteran, this game impresses me in just how much it recontexualizes these sorts of games. In a way, it’s making me relearn a genre I thought I’d mastered ages ago.

Like any genre of any medium, once you experience enough survival horror games, you start to pick up patterns. “Oh, I shouldn’t waste ammo.” “Oh, I shouldn’t heal unless I need to.” “Oh, I should dig through every part of every level.” Those patterns become learned behaviors, and those behaviors become universal experiences that translate across different titles. In other words, Alien: Isolation and The Evil Within are challenging games for newbies, but pretty straightforward for people who cut their teeth on Resident Evil and Clock Tower.

However, that’s not the case with Saints & Sinners. Yes, a lot of the conventional wisdom still applies, but you might as well throw everything else out the window. You have to contend with opening every door, aiming every shot, loading every bullet – it’s a complete nightmare, in the best way possible. Stuff like collecting items and reading clues are now deliberate, careful acts that you can’t just button-mash through anymore. The actual act of surviving horror, so to speak, is less passive, more active, and way scarier.

As somebody who’s grown used to horror gaming formulas, something like Saints & Sinners feels like a reinvention of the wheel. It isn’t, of course – it’s the same gameplay loop that Resident Evil popularized in the mid ’90s – but the added element of actually “existing” in the game’s world makes it feel like something I’ve never experienced before. For the first time, I’m living through the same kind of stuff I’ve only observed as a third party before, and it makes me feel completely helpless.

You see, I love how much I suck at this game, because I want to get better at it.

So I’ll keep fumbling those shots, dropping my ammo, running for dear life. Because each encounter is a new learning experience – a chance to keep me alert and prepared like never before. No matter how bad it feels in the moment, it feels good that I can’t just turn my brain off and coast through a horror game. That’s the sort of experience that sells VR, and I look forward to more like it.

Next: Saw Would Be The Perfect VR Nightmare

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Bella Blondeau is a lovable miscreant with a heart of gold… or so she says.

She likes long walks in dingy arcades, loves horror good and bad, and has a passion for anime girls of any and all varieties. Her favorite game is Nier: Automata, because she loves both robots and being sad.

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