The United States of America is in a right pickle due to the zombie apocalypse but rumour has it Ontario, Canada is super safe from the tyranny of the walking dead. Ontario is only a 15 days drive away, so you hop in your car and hit the road. THE DEATH ROAD! Rescue, steal, run and kill your way to Canada.
Death Road to Canada is a permadeath roguelike with a heavy emphasis on randomly-generated narrative strings. You start off with two characters, one of which you play as and the other is either controlled by AI or your mate sitting next you on your sofa – multiplayer, baby! Or, for extra difficulty, you can ditch your buddy and play as a lone survivor. You’ll need balls of iron to do that though.
So over the course of the 15 days a text-based story unfolds. Each screen will either tell a short story of your survival, where you automatically lose food, petrol, medicine and health depending on what’s happening, or you’re given a choice of environments to explore, which is where you actually get to play the game. You’ll either get eaten by zombies while scavenging, die on the road when you run out of resources, or reach Canada. Trust me, it isn’t easy to reach Canada.
The actual interactive parts of Death Road to Canada are pretty cool. Houses and supermarkets are great for scavenging for food, which is the game’s currency (both financially and biologically). Hospitals are where you’ll find medkits which are definitely a necessity! You also get the chance to visit survival camps, and here you can trade food for weapons, medicine or find people to join your team. Not all environments will have you finding food or stealing a new vehicle though, as the Siege levels trap you in a place for a few hours (game hours; not literal hours) and ask you to hold your ground until you can escape. These levels are tense and brutal, and usually resulted in me permadying.
And if Death Road to Canada expanded more on this interactivity I would have enjoyed it more. Unfortunately, the resource-sucking text screens let it down. Basically, all the loot you acquire during the gameplay is essentially lost during the story-telling, which creates a balanced feedback loop that sends you back into the wild to find more resources. This is good game design but my issue is how little I cared during these sections. After a while I stopped reading the plot and ignored the cascade of depleting stats. After a few playthroughs it felt pointless to try and keep on top of it all because the game seemed determined to bring you down no matter how successful you performed during gameplay.
The pixel art isn’t the best I’ve seen and everything can start to mix together into a pixel soup after a while but luckily in the settings you can switch off the grainy visual effects and that will make it easier on the eyes. The tutorial was lacking as I mostly figured out how to configure my characters, how to swap weapons, etc. by experimentation. The UI definitely feels at home on PC or touchscreens so I don’t think it translated perfectly to consoles. At least it works.
With that being said, the AI is amazing. You can decide whether the AI characters are offensive or defensive and the AI delivered on every playthrough. I never once felt cheated or let down by their actions. There’s also character-creation and it’s worth spending some time playing about with it. You can earn ZP points in-game which allow you to buy upgrades to customise your characters but you will have to put the grind in – Death Road to Canada makes you work for those ZP points.
Based on the trailer you would think Death Road to Canada was a 2D homage to Dead Rising, with all the hectic zombie hordes being chopped down with an admirable range of colourful and insane weapons, but it’s more-or-less a button-clicking simulator where you’ll spend most of your time flicking virtual pages of a digital horror book. At times it feels like a videogame but most of the time it feels like a dark tabletop RPG where your fate lies in the roll of a dice.
Should you play it? Yes
Why? If you’re into roguelikes, permadeath and plenty of reading you’re in for a treat with this one. Death Road to Canada was made for gluttons of punishment.
But… Half of the game goes into auto-pilot, leaving you feeling like your participation isn’t necessary. The UI and tutorial aren’t particularly strong either, so they might result in you dropping the game for something more friendly.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4. Review code supplied by Rocketcat Games.