''The Walking Dead: 400 Days"

Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC

Genre: Action

Publisher: Telltale Games

ESRB Rating: M, for Mature

Grade: 4 stars (out of 5)

In the time it takes to read this review, you could complete all of "400 Days." Yes, it's brief. It actually lasts closer to 90 minutes, but that remains short by gaming standards. Yet in that compressed amount of time, Telltale Games manages to deliver an emotionally taut game loaded with intriguing characters and gut-wrenching decisions.

''400 Days" does not mark the return of the acclaimed "Walking Dead" video-game franchise. It serves as a mere interlude until the second set of episodes begins sometime later this year. While we shouldn't tease out too much from a release bridging the two seasons, let us at least rejoice that the winning gameplay format from season one appears intact.

Forgoing traditional first-person shooter or survival horror themes, "The Walking Dead" games have thrived on a stronger narrative approach. Interestingly, the travails of Lee, Clementine and the gang from the first season are not referenced at all; rather, we circulate through several combinations of all-new characters as they converge at a truck stop. These vignettes provide the backdrop of the first 400 days since the zombie outbreak was unleashed.

You won't get to spend much time with the love triangle of Bonnie, Dee and Leland. And there are only brief encounters with lunatic truck driver Nate or buddies Eddie and Wyatt. No matter, though, because all of these interactions feel instantly fleshed out and alive with purpose. Eddie and Wyatt have a rapport similar to what you might find in a Quentin Tarantino film; as with them and all the survivors you meet, you feel connected to them while also wanting more when their time is abruptly cut short for some reason, sometimes due to your own decisions.

And therein lies what made season one and this bridge chapter so compelling: The zombie apocalypse sucks, and not everyone comes out on top. Everyone is affected at some point, so the whole rocks-and-glass-houses metaphor gets a bullet to the brain just as quickly as that onetime friend who now wants to chew on your jugular. "The Walking Dead" games have always played out more like interactive stories than typical video games, and that setup worked wonders even when the series lost steam when eschewing it for more standard shoot-'em-up fare.

Series fans need to jump into "400 Days" immediately, if only to introduce themselves to some folks we may potentially meet down the line. And let's hope so, because that truck stop not only served as the birthplace for this band of survivors, it also played out as a microcosm of the franchise's best elements at work.

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