There’s a different sense of progression and achievement in the grim world of the “roguelite” (or “roguelikelike”). It’s about reaching ‘your’ end rather than ‘the’ end, slowly dragging yourself to the objective conclusion through RNG-luck and suffering. Getting a little closer each time, with each subsequent playthrough, that’s the masochistic joy of the subgenre as you die and die and die again.
Enter the collaborative offering from Rocketcat Games and Madgarden, Death Road to Canada: a 16bit pixel art, arcade-style road trip through the zombie apocalypse from Florida to Canada, and rumours of safety in the great white north.
Even from the title screen, there’s clear, stylistic inspiration from the classic arcade era.
An old school “reel film” effect dances across the monitor, with surprisingly catchy original music all upbeat and in your face, flashing neon skulls inviting you to start. The quirk is charming without being try-hard or aggravating.
Starting off, you’ll create a main character and a buddy, complete with various appearance options, roles and social stats. A paranoid survivor will have contingencies for unforeseen encounters, the irritating trait will see your companions’ morale erode much faster than normal as you make stupid noises and always seem to say the wrong thing. But there’s not much explanation of how each trait affects the game and some more in-depth info would’ve been appreciated. That said, traits provide gameplay variation in numerous amusing ways and although the ability for full-on custom creation is present, I often stuck to randomly generated characters providing emergent scenarios that I didn’t expect.
Each playthrough of Death Road consists of two distinct layers: The overworld, where your car (many of the vehicles reference classic movies, like the dog car from Dumb and Dumber etc) continuously side-scrolls along the aforementioned “Death Road”, and the mission tile sets; where you’ll search for supplies and weapons, rescue survivors and battle zombies in one of the half dozen or so game types.
The background changes as you venture further towards Canada and resources such as fuel and food continuously deplete. Without fuel your car is useless, without food and meds your characters will starve, get hurt, and maybe even abandon you.
Random social encounters in the overworld offer decisions on your next course of action. Will you crash through a checkpoint or go around? Will you select someone to clean the poo off of a food crate or leave it alone? The self-aware writing adds to the comedy and a character effectively dying from “extreme annoyance” has never been so darkly amusing.
Play the game long enough though, and encounters repeat themselves a little too often. I laughed the first time a car passed my hopeful survivors shouting “NEEERRRRRDDDD!” resulting in a huge loss of morale. It proved far less amusing by the fourth or fifth occurrence.
The RNG nature of these encounters can also be a double edged sword in terms of the gameplay itself. It’s not uncommon to have your butt handed to you by 3 or 4 consecutive disasters completely out of your control. Even with a generous cache of supplies (which aren’t easy to have in excess), anything but a perfect game can see you stumble from happy, fed and healthy to destitute and starving in moments. To many, this water cooler “what happened to you?” is the hook that keeps them playing, but others may quit in frustration.
In one instance; my car broke down, an ambush event robbed me of half my supplies, whilst a hole in my bag claimed the other half. Hungry and alone, Brodie the irritating bandit, died in the darkness of a log cabin as he searched fruitlessly for the car keys to an ice cream truck. In another more amusing turn of events, everyone died apart from my dog. With axe and car keys in paw, he became the new playable character, carrying on the journey alone.
With so many variables out of your control, a bad roll invites huge repercussions the further you progress. Your first few supply hunts are easy; abandoned hospitals or supermarkets with sparse zombie populations and relaxed AI behavior to match. Mid to late game sees a dramatic difficulty spike, and dozens more enemies on each map that will actively hunt you and your group of up to 4 survivors. There’s no real middle ground and long inescapable sieges, especially near the end, are extremely hard to manage if the meta game has been tearing you to shreds throughout your journey.
Disclaimer: if you reach the final area (containing a very amusing cameo that I won’t spoil) without a full team, maybe a special character, great weapons and at least one explosive… you’re boned.
The difficulty is remedied somewhat by the inclusion of same screen couch co-op, a welcome addition in a space increasingly overshadowed by online multiplayer. The “hop in, hop out” implementation is well executed but only really enhanced by the specific person you’re playing with. The experience isn’t changed to any massive degree from having an all AI team, aside from having a decent conversation with whomever is sitting beside you.
Death Road to Canada’s combat system is simple but effective, coming with a wide array of melee weapons and degrees of quality: the ever reliable iron pipe fatigues your character after too many concurrent swings, whilst a wooden cane will break with overuse. Guns are powerful but ammunition is scarce, explosives even more so, lethal and extremely valuable in their ability to despatch dozens of foes at once. There’s even some neat environmental weaponization and a running joke about the formidable “throwable chair”. Hot tip: throw chairs.
Special characters are another amusing addition to the referential self-aware writing style of the game. Randomly acquired, they’re often intentionally cheap knock offs of other franchises, but also exceptional game changers. In my first successful play through, my group was effectively carried by Lenk, a blue-hatted young man with a sword and boomerang. In another, a wandering knight saw me through a difficult end game siege. Each possess powerful abilities that range from damage dealing to straight up magic. They’re must have additions if found and their ambient dialogue features in-jokes from their respective origin material.
Aside from the standard game mode, you can jump into 5 other variants at your leisure. These include a higher difficulty, a rare characters mode (where the frequency of special character encounters is increased dramatically) and options to make the trip to Canada longer or shorter depending on your preference. These are all welcome additions to any completionist, but they don’t switch up the formula in any overwhelming, game changing way, and the encounters, enemies and loot are largely unchanged.
Prospective replay value is further enhanced with the acquisition of zombo points. These tokens can be found within missions or as rewards for particularly difficult tasks. Collected points are spent in the unlocks area on anything from new traits for your characters to new vendors in and around the game world. Again, this may appeal to the completionists but doesn’t change the game enough to warrant its own area. The game seems to make a big deal about it but confusingly, many of the unlocks are already present in a standard play through. Why would I unlock the “Friend of Dog” trait when I can quite easily create a random character with those skills already present?
Death Road is most effective as a sprint rather than a marathon. It’s clearly not meant as an immersive, hours-on-end experience and playing as such will only burn you out as the same scenarios crop up time and time again. But as a pastiche to the arcade greats, booted up for bitesize sessions, it’s incredibly enjoyable. Each Game Over “Dang It” will make you all the more determined to reach your goal.
Onward to Canada.