Format reviewed: Switch eShop
Other formats available: iOS, PS4, XBox One, Steam
Developer: Rocket Cat Games & Madgarden
Publisher: Ukiyo Publishing
Website: Official Website
Death Road to Canada is a Randomly Generated Road Trip Action-RPG.
You have to manage a car full of jerks as they explore cities, find weird people, and face up to 500 zombies at once.
Everything’s randomized: locations, events, survivor personalities. There’s a different story every time you play.
Find special events, rare encounters, and unique recruits. Find a grunting super-bodybuilder. Try to tame half-wild dogs.
Survivors have different personalities and quirks that may help or hinder you.
Fight or flee from increasingly gigantic hordes of slow, classic-style zombies.
Be careful, death is permanent!
Make tough choices in Interactive Fiction text events. Get different results based on the traits of people in your group.
Start in Florida and try survive the journey to Canada, the last zombie-free nation!
Death Road to Canada is definitely a game of two halves. In its greatest selling point it’s a competent action zombie slashing RPG. In the other, a text-driven narrative story which allows the player to choose the outcome based on various boxed decisions that can be made.
There’s a day cycle that drives both sides of the game forwards, and your team of hapless heroes onward to Canada. Starting in your vehicle, or walking, every morning, choosing between a few random variables, you’ll eventually get on to the meat of the game, a random location where your objective is either to loot for an increase of survival chances, or just stay alive as the dead close in on your group in a siege style attack. The action side of the game is viewed in a top-down position with a slight angle. The graphics are based on a 16-bit style of design, and function well in concordance with all the effects layered over the top of the viewing screen. The game initially adds scratching, glitching, and graining to add historic depth with a feeling of an old VHS video tape during its last few plays after years of abuse. Being totally adjustable in the settings, the game feels more authentic and warm, with all the scratchy white flicks appearing, than without them. Turn the effects off and the game loses something of its intimacy and renders the game screen sterile. Leave those settings alone.
Moving around the environment feels rather awkward at first using the Left Analogue Stick, what with the way the characters bounce around, hopping from foot to foot, a little slowly, and before you realise that it’s important to be aware of the character’s foot placement. Upon initial play, the character was inevitably finding it difficult to traverse the narrow doorways of connecting rooms, but after realising the feet are the characters central position in the world and not the body, it all clicks into place and the environments get so much easier to negotiate. Zombies are an ever present threat at every location you travel to. These are the shambling zombies of Romero and The Walking Dead, and in earlier levels they present little resistance to your attacks with the Y button. Each character can hold up to 3 types of weapon at one time during an excursion, additional weapons can be stored for later use in the boot of the car, and can be selected during the pre-raid selection screen. Using the B button allows the character to cycle between these 3 weapons. However, a lot of the environments you’ll search with have various other weapons to collect and each has its merits and weaknesses, some more than others. Holding a plank of wood that could snap at any given moment, then pick up that aluminium baseball bat and onward to cranial deformation. The weapon you’re holding gets dropped and replaced by that rather fancy looking weapon of your better choosing. With so many weapons on offer from umbrellas and knitting needles to shotguns and chainsaws, from swords and katanas to flamethrowers and pipe bombs, there’s bound to be something that takes your fancy dropped at the bookstore. As well as your 3 inventory weapons the environments allow your character to pick up furniture such as chairs or even sofas, depending on the strength stats, and use them as projectiles of death. So as expected, different locations are more likely to have different loot available. A visit to the police station is more likely to net you pipe bombs and shotguns than a visit to the pharmacy. But, you’ll have to balance the needs and requirements of your team constantly. Do we raid the Y’all Mall for food, the pharmacy for medical supplies, or the Prepper’s Safe House for a chance at unusual pick-ups? The choice is always yours.
That’s where the RPG elements of Death Road to Canada come in. Each randomly generated character has stats that can be upgraded during play, from fitness, medical and morale, through to loyalty, attitude, and mechanical. Reading books, completing a few days of survival, choosing a correct path on the text adventure, all can add to a character’s development. And you’ll certainly feel the change as your playing in the action part. Just to take a stat like fitness into consideration. Upon the first day, and your first zombie encounter, going in swinging your weapon haphazardly will see your on-screen chum very quickly running out of puff, turning red-faced and sweating and unable to swing another hit until you ‘cool’ down. The tactic is always to take it easy, a single hit, or two, back off, relax, and then repeat. Increase your fitness up a few levels and your character can perform far more swings before tiredness settles to consume you at an inappropriate time.
During your adventure, you’ll also have the random access to ZOMBO points. These can appear on-screen as a floating yellow skull, and need collecting, or sometimes appear just for living for an allocated length of time. It’s by amassing these points that Perks can be upgraded. Each character, in addition to all their stats, is given a Perk to help them along in specific areas. Perks include; Surgeon, medically based allowing greater healing; Ultrafit, resistant to fatigue; Gungineer, more accurate shooting with projectile based weapons; and a lot more. There are many Perks, that can help in all aspects of decision making and action survival, and all can be upgraded allowing for greater efficacy and a bonus starting weapon. A Surgeon Perk levelled to its maximum will not only give that character greater healing effects with less medical supplies, but also start a new game with a lovely shiny scalpel to take down the hordes.
And, there are hordes aplenty! Before entering an action scene, the preparation screen allows you to swap out characters between the 4 allowed in your party at anyone time, rest players and, switch and swap between all the weapons you’ve collected so far. There is also a forecast of the current shambling corpse conditions at that location, from density of the horde to their current agitation level. A ‘Massive’, ‘Hunting’ horde is going to throw a few more problems your way than a ‘Sparse’, ‘Mild’ horde. With up to a 500 strong siege there’s plenty going on in every stage. That’s where Death Road to Canada fails in the action stakes. Don’t get me wrong, even when the game is throwing unfeasibly large numbers at you, and whether or not you’re utilising the drop-in drop-out 2 player co-op element, the game doesn’t drop a single frame. It all runs consistently smooth. The added mess of dismembered gelatinous globules writhing on the floor do nothing to break this game’s performance, impressive. What does occur regularly, however, is losing the position of your on-screen character. You’re cornered, and the only way to get through, is plow straight on with your 3 other companions and cross your fingers that Jeff bites the bullet, not you. Even when the screen is not so fully occupied, it can be easy to lose sight of which character you’re controlling, under the aforementioned circumstances it’s practically impossible. Not knowing who you are, and more importantly where you are, takes you out of the planning loop. A little arrow icon above your character would alleviate this loss of positioning in most cases. This rears its ugly head in some other small design choices that seem a little baffling. Most pertain to the character controlled by the second human player, co-op is a great way to play. Unfortunately, your friend will have to choose which character they want to be every single time they enter an action level, and during the level. Why can’t they select at the preparation set-up? And when passing through doors, something which the lead, player 1 controlled, character can only instigate, a lag exists where the 2nd player doesn’t appear until they catch up to the door, but sometimes the lag is sufficient enough for the lead player to reach the next door. The inability of the 2nd player to actually traverse a door by themselves can lead to some frustration and deaths for your couch partner.
Just to make situations worse, in a well placed panic inducing way, it always matters what time of the day you enter an action level. This is non-negotiable and the game chooses as part of its random nature. Arrive on scene early in the morning and you’ll have plenty of time to search every available building, taking your time to ensure your exit is clear and collect those valuable survival items. Arrive late in the afternoon and you are racing against the clock and an ever darkening screen. Sure you have a torch, but switching between that and an offensive weapon can be pretty hair raising in a bind. The positioning of your on-screen persona is now completely lost, but it’s not without effect. It does add tension, and many laugh out loud deaths.
So, enough about the action side, what else does Death Road to Canada have to offer. Well, before you get to a daily action stage a car trundles down the battered road and a text box appears filling you in on all the necessary information of what’s happening to your crew. The box informs of the group’s; desire to eat and how many supplies have been depleted from your total; the ability to heal and depletion of medical supplies; the amount of petrol the car is depleting; the current morale of individuals in the team; and actions that can be taken. Certain events will occur that require a decision to be made, for example a bear steps out in front of the road, and Jeff throws the car keys at it. Now the bear has the keys in its mouth. What do you do? A. Shoot at the bear, B. Run Away, or C. Wrestle the bear. By choosing an answer and a person to perform that activity, the game will decide if the right person for that activity was chosen due to their stats, and the outcome. Choose to shoot a bear with an inept gunman and a bear mauling might occur (in text form), injury or death the ensuing outcome. The game throws many varied situations, some humorous, others plain weird (I was accosted by the devil and given an overpowered trident because I shared my crisps with him). The text section slows the game down, but also adds variety to events. There’s quite a lot of reading between action stages, but all of it can be quickly skipped with the A button. What’s nice to see is the interaction between characters, and the effects they have on each others morale.
Music is a great loop of 60s Rock N’ Roll with added surf guitar flurries. Think of a modern day Chuck Berry number and you’re not far off from it. Sound Effects are all the correct moans, car revs, and spludgey smooshing sounds of hacking into the relentless undead. The effect that let me down, especially after great recent efforts, was the HD rumble and its simple use. It feels virtually non-existent at points.
The lack of any touch screen interface, even during Menu navigation is somewhat disappointing. The game’s heavy reliance on choosing a decision box during text play, or equipping weapons to certain characters, could have been so much more fluid in handheld mode with touch screen implementation. A huge shame because the game retains all of its smoothness in handheld mode, and looks great on the Switch’s own screen.
Some of the game’s Menu navigation is a little unintuitive. The game’s save process is the worst offender. For the first few days of playing, I saw no possible way to save a game, and a single game session could easily stretch into a lengthy consuming hour. Frequently, having to put the game down in the middle of its action, I had no way to save, so chose to die, this allowed me to keep my collected Zombo Points to spend in the opening screen. It was by pure chance that during the text section of the game, pausing it, and entering the Settings Menu, an option to Quit appears. This is not present in the action scenes only the text dialogue box screens. I’d seen it before, but didn’t want to Quit and lose my accumulated goodies. So, I chose to ignore it for a while, but after trying once, a sub-menu appears that informs me that a save is possible followed by returning to the Main Menu. Very confusing, and something that needs to be learnt by messing around with its systems. The other glaring misdirection is upon trying to escape in your car, the onscreen prompt tells you to press A. Well, press it, and nothing happens, you actually have to hold it down. Little things, people, little things.
Another great addition is the unique characters that can be met along the way. Not so common, in about 5 hours of play only 4 have been met. Parodies of Mega Man, Knights, and even Zelda’s Link, named L*NK, are all present. Each is overpowered, but usually comes at a cost to the team. L*NK, for example, is tough and his sword quickly cuts down the most ardent admirer of your tasty flesh. However, his constant whooping, ‘Hiiiyaaa’, annoys all your other team members and their morale decreases rapidly. My favorite so far is the Mexican Wrestler, El Satan, who commentates on some of his more absurd actions. Picking up a shopping trolley and using it as a projectile lets him scream out in delight that he has used a ‘Foreign Object’.
An overall thoroughly enjoyable experience, greatly enhanced by having a couch co-op buddy playing along and helping you through the morality of zombie apocalypse survival. Falls down with a few elements that could be bettered through a patch. This type of game, if it drags you in, will suck away your hours. Starting slow Death Road to Canada builds to a crescendo with its decision making text plight and leaving you in a state of panic when the realisation dawns that you opened the wrong door and the only way out is past a 100 flesh eaters. Do you have the time, resilience and patience to reach Canada?
Review by Lee Davis and originally posted at Nintendo: Review.