I have this worrying feeling that Et Geekera’s favourite games of 2016 list might be truncated this year. We’ve crossed the seven-month mark of 2016 and the only games that have secured a spot on the list are Uncharted 4 and Overwatch. Just when things were starting to look dire, zombies came back into my life. While Death Road To Canada might not look like a game that will make many year-end lists, the little pixel art roguelike zombie game has certainly earned a spot on the shortlist for our best of 2016.
Shockingly, Death Road to Canada is not about a hypothetical exodus of people from the United States to Canada in a world where Donald Trump is President and Mike Pence is allowed to run the country as VP. It’s about a group of survivors hopping in a car and making the two-week drive from Florida to Canada to escape the zombie apocalypse. So I guess it is political commentary, then.
Death Road to Canada bills itself as the Randomly Generated Road Trip Simulator. As you travel from Florida to safety, events will randomly occur to impede you on your journey. As the marketing says, these events occur randomly though you usually have one or two events during a driving day. What those events are is what is randomly generated. You will most often end up in a town to explore for supplies but you can run into traders or bandits, watch your car breakdown so you have to walk north and have to survive a mandatory zombie siege. Once, I had a demon consume the soul of one of the members of my group. Imagine picking up a game and having Satan show up ten minutes in. Certainly set the tone for this game.
That’s not to say that this is just a comedy game. While it has its funny moments, it’s very much a survival RPG at its heart. You have to manage resources, make decisions for your group and fight zombies in order to traverse the 1,400 miles from Florida to Canada (assuming you’re going from Homestead at the southern tip of Florida to Windsor at the southern tip of Canada). It seems like a small and simple set of events but the random generation of DRTC means that no two playthroughs will be the same and there is quite a variety of things that can happen in those simple umbrella of events that I mentioned.
I should note that not all events are entirely procedurally generated. Certain events seem to be available when you’re in a certain state (like without a working car or have less than a full party) or at certain points in time. The game certainly does get harder as you get closer to Canada and that’s reflected in the nature of events that happen. Though I’ve never made it to Canada (I’ve made it as close as four days to Canada), I’ve noticed that the difficulty ramps up as you progress, usually through encountering bigger hordes of zombies or more agressive zombies (or both). The last two days of your drive has the worst zombie conditions so you really have to earn your way to the border assuming your luck holds out long enough to get you within sight of the finish line.
It’s not just the events that are randomized but characters can be as well. You can create your characters and they will either start with you or randomly appear during your adventures. Randomly generated characters will appear at different points (randomly) during the game. They will have various attributes and skill sets. For example, certain characters could be medics, mechanics, fighters or motivators which would give you various boosts in the game. Car troubles won’t happen with a mechanic while a medic can work wonders with few medical supplies.
There are also special characters that can randomly show up, especially in the Rare Characters mode. I’ve been in a car with Alvis who looks suspiciously like that old rock singer. He wasn’t much help but his constant singing kept the zombies off the rest of the party. I’ve had a dog guide the party through trouble and charm our way out of a few situations. I saw one playthrough with Lonk (definitely not the guy from the Nintendo games) who was able to quickly mow through zombies. So it’s not just the situations that can vary but the cast of characters who you are throwing at them as well. Even if you have the same or similar decisions to make over multiple playthroughs, you may have to make different choices based on the crew you’re travelling with.
A lot of the game will pass through the travel scenes as the car drives across a static background. Many of your decisions will be made from this screen. However, the action takes place in a number of randomly generated neighbourhoods, rest stops and junkyards. When that happens, it’s into combat. Each character has a strength and stamina meter that impacts their ability to pound away on zombies so you can’t just swing away haphazardly, especially when using heavy weapons. There are also guns with an auto-aim mechanic dependent on a character’s shooting ability.
It’s the combat that I disliked the most about the game because the controls were hard to get a handle on. Sure, pressing X to attack is simple enough but that comes without any indication where you’re aiming. Sometimes, aiming is as simple as walking in a direction and swinging but it seems like it’s more a function of holding the thumbstick at the same time as you push X to attack. Attacking also seems to prioritize hitting inanimate objects rather than zombies which gets very deadly in the tight quarters the game can stick you in. There’s also an annoying lack of feedback on your health when you’re out of the travel phase of the game. Fortunately, it seems as though you only die when swarmed by zombies so death makes sense then.
If you want a looker of a game, you won’t get it here. It’s a very well done 16-bit aesthetic that would look gorgeous against the games of that era. The problem is that I’m kind of tired of 8- and 16-bit games. They’re a dime-a-dozen. Granted, Rocketcat and DUDESON clearly spent their time worrying about the gameplay which is very much better than the 16-bit standard. Also trumping the classic standards is the audio department. While the sound effects are all 16-bit inspired, the music is on another level. It mixes real instruments with the synthesized sounds of 16-bit music. The main theme is bright and cheerful while the exploration and action themes hit the appropriate notes spectacularly. The only downside is that there is no soundtrack available for sale. If other chiptune music is available, why isn’t this game’s?
If you’ve had your fill of 16-bit graphics, roguelike-likes, permadeath, zombies or survival games, DRTC might not be for you. This game is wading into a very crowded pool (whether that pool is shallow or deep is up to you but I’d hazard it’s shallow until more games move out of early access) and could get lost in that crowd. That being said, if you like The Organ Trail or Dead Pixels, you’ll absolutely love Death Road to Canada.
I’m not one for survival games and I’m a little burnt out on zombies (and can wait for The Walking Dead: Season Three) but I love a good game. You can say many things about Death Road To Canada but one of those things has to be that it’s a good game. Sure, I feel like I’ve played this game before but I also feel like this is the best take on the roguelike-like zombie survival genre. Considering how crowded that market is, I think that’s pretty high praise.
Death Road to Canada was reviewed on Windows PC but is also available for Mac OS X and Linux. Review code for the game was provided by Rocketcat Games. Your impressions of the game may differ based on platform played on, PC specs and whether you’ve had enough zombies for one undead lifetime.