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December 2018

Death Road To Canada

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action
Publisher: UKIYO Publishing
Developer: Madgarden (EU), Rocketcat Games (US)
Release Date: May 8, 2018

About Andreas Salmen

I'm sure this is all just a misunderstanding.


Switch Review - 'Death Road to Canada'

by Andreas Salmen on May 14, 2018 @ 12:30 a.m. PDT

Survive the pixel-perfect zombie hordes in this roguelike, randomly generated, zombie-filled road trip.

Buy Death Road to Canada

The entertainment industry is still going strong with its numerous depictions of the zombie apocalypse and the urgent question of how to survive. If you're an American, your destination would be where a zombie apocalypse is unthinkable: Canada. That's the assumption that Death Road to Canada makes when it provides you with a vehicle and sends you on the road to the Canadian border to escape the zombie plague. Sounds like nonsense? It surely is, and it has finally arrived on the Nintendo Switch.

Death Road to Canada is a roguelike, which, like zombies, is far from a novel concept in this day and age. Indies frequently use game concepts based on roguelikes or lites to craft experiences with short and fun gameplay loops. The issue is that they can easily become mindless and exhausting grindfests that have little to offer beyond their initial novelty. Death Road to Canada's gameplay loop feels novel even in later runs due to its wealth of character traits, choice, events, and hilarious moments that seem to pop up randomly.

The title offers several modes or "routes" to the Canadian border, with the normal road requiring us to travel for 15 days. There are shorter and longer modes (9 and 25 days, respectively) and modes with special and known (previously created) characters. We usually start with randomly mixing our main character and an optional buddy by our side. However, we can only choose a few general traits from the get-go, such as overall attitude, and other traits are revealed during our journey.

The actual gameplay then revolves around moving forward on the road and looting (i.e., bashing and shooting zombies in the head while collecting resources). While we have a car, the vehicle may break down or run out of fuel. Traversal is therefore not limited to four wheels. The travel episodes are fully automatic, and we're informed of any changes in fuel and food, character traits and skills, and, most importantly, morale, which may be influenced by events and discussions. It may sound like a lot to track, but the updates are displayed rather quickly, so you won't get stuck tracking every single action if you don't want to. While the events are plentiful and change slightly, you'll find that some of them quickly get repetitive.

Every so often, you'll need to take action. It may be a simple decision, like where to spend the night, or it can be more involved, like who to send out to hack wood for a fire or choosing a location to look for more supplies. The latter choice sends your troop to bash in some heads and see what they can find in the ruins of American civilization. All decisions are final, so you can't go back and choose something else. If you notice that you're in over your head, you have to maneuver yourself out of harm's way, or you're done for. As long as one character of your party is still alive, you can push on.

On our very first trip in Death Road to Canada, I started with a buddy and quickly recruited another human companion and even found a loyal dog. One event left everyone dead but our dog, which had me believe the game was over. I was wrong. My dog eventually learned how to drive the van, and he found an abandoned hospital and a chainsaw. He taught himself to permanently attach the chainsaw to its arm to slay zombies at a higher rate ("Evil Dead," anyone?). I didn't make it to the promised border that time, but it left me with an absurd and entertaining first story. That's what Death Road to Canada is ultimately about. This may make or break the game for you personally, as the game thrives on creating absurd story arcs rather than deep and fulfilling gameplay.

While on foot, we can engage in close-quarters combat with weapons that are lying around. Items like hammers, machetes and mops are available, but they're limited by our character's fitness. There are also guns, like pistols, rifles and shotguns, but they all require ammo, which is a rare commodity. We can control one character in our group and switch between them at will. If we're playing alone, we can set basic behavioral patterns, like how aggressively they should pursue the undead or if they should shoot or physically attack their targets. If you have a physical buddy near you, the looting trips can also be played cooperatively.

Having a high death count during your trips might give you bragging rights, but that's not the point. The point is to get out alive and unhurt with as many supplies as possible. Everything in Death Road to Canada is randomized, and you have to make smart decisions. Pushing through a thick crowd of aggressive undead is probably going to hurt or kill at least one in your party, without a guarantee of landing you additional resources.

From a gameplay standpoint, the trip sections are tense because they can end your game if you die or don't find the resources you need. However, gameplay is all but smooth, and the controls can be a pain and not very responsive. It feels more like a fun minigame, but be prepared to spend a lot of time flailing around in a pile of zombies. The tense atmosphere and exploration in those sections are what keep them from getting boring, but be prepared to feel repetitiveness creep in.

Death Road to Canada has a thing for screwing you over at the most inconvenient points in your run, and it can feel unfair or even punishingly random. There's a chance you may complete a normal run in your first few attempts, but if you don't, it's still fun but can feel frustratingly undeserved.

To honor the genre, Death Road to Canada has a progression system that carries over in between runs, called Zombie Points (ZP), which can be spent on additional and better character traits for future runs and several other permanent improvements. It makes the game more varied and easier, but it mostly keeps up the motivation to try another run with different setups.

Even though roguelikes have already been done to death, Death Road in Canada nails the concept and approach in a way that rekindled my love for the genre, even though it's a rather flawed experience. It reminded me of my first true rogue love, Faster Than Light, and it does get similar things right while also falling behind. It's fun to craft a story that changes both randomly and due to your decisions, even though the battle sequences can be a chore. The humor, plot and style are good enough though to make Death Road to Canada appeal to gamers who are interested in games similar to Faster Than Light, even though it never reaches similar heights. The overall execution is fun and good-looking, and that's more than you can usually expect from a $12 roguelike purchase.

While the Nintendo Switch version of Death Road to Canada isn't the first portable one (the game was previously released on iOS, PC, PS4 and Xbox One), it is the most complete and appealing portable version due to its attached controllers and co-op support. It runs perfectly without issues both docked and undocked, apart from a small frame rate issue when starting the game, which is resolved by restarting the console. The only missed opportunity in this specific port is the lack of touch controls when navigating menus and inventories, especially since the recent iOS version was built on that very foundation.

It's easy to recommend Death Road to Canada to anyone who's into either zombies, roguelikes or both, as it comes with its pros and cons. If you hate roguelikes, you probably won't enjoy this one, but if you're on the fence, be assured that this is one of the best executions in recent times, even if just for the absurd story and setup.

Score: 7.1/10

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