Setting can justify a lot with a game’s potential flaws. Crippling random number generators and games of ‘what am I thinking of?’ can be infuriating and the death of many games, but give context to the struggle and the pain involved with never having the right answer or a good drop for an item and you can reach a certain level of cohesiveness that goes on to make for a fascinating experience.
Death Road to Canada can be boiled down to a simple ‘Oregon Trail’ meets twin stick shooter. It’s an incredibly reductive way to describe what is so much more than that but it will set a tone that needs setting before anyone sits down to get their arse handed to them. From the get go you are given a character, you could create one with great abilities etc but where’s the challenge there, the character you’re given has 3 things, a name, a perk and a trait. Most perks and traits are self explanatory like Martial Artist, Mechanic and Calm under Fire but then there’s slightly more obtuse skills and traits that you need to dig around and find the explanation of like Mysterious Past, Friend of Dog and BERSERK!!
Once you’ve got your hero, and an AI or second player co-op sidekick, you’re good to go, on your 15 day drive from Florida to Canada. The reason you’re taking on this epic journey is down to your character hearing a rumour that the zombie virus that has plagued America isn’t effecting Canada. With just this bit of information and your car you must make your way north. The difficulty comes in you needing to have fuel to run your car and food to run your humans. As such every day you’re stopping at locations and scavenging. In game play this means you go from a simple animation of a car bouncing down a road with your inventory floating around to a top down exploration game. Leading your character around twin stick shooter style you must enter buildings and rooms and spot a little hint sparkle that indicates an item can be picked up or a location can be searched for an item. Whilst you’re doing your hunting dozens and dozens of zombies are being kited towards you.
To aide you slightly you have various weapons that range from a bit useless to completely useless. Something the game doesn’t outright say, but wholly implies, is that killing zombies is pointless. There is no XP, or drops from monsters, instead all there is coming towards you is danger. Death Road to Canada is about survival, it’s not Dead Rising style kill all zombies. If you are unfortunate enough to get bitten by a zombie then your health goes down and the only way to get it back is to hope that one of your characters is any good at medicine and you have a first aid kit going spare. Finding out your party’s stats and abilities in things like medicine and survival, plus character traits like charisma and patience, is all context based. Bump into a really annoying person on your drive; hope you send out someone with charisma or patience to handle them without getting into a fight or losing morale. Need a car fixed; hope that the person you choose to fix it knows what they’re doing and doesn’t cause more harm than good. Only once you’ve tried them in a scenario will their skill level be reveled.
Death Road to Canada looks like a top down twin stick shooter but more than that the game is actually a choose your own adventure, where you’re not allowed to keep your finger in the previous page just in case things go bad. As you drive along you’re presented with scenarios like “you find a camp full of strangers, everyone in your party is tired, do you sleep here or carry on driving?”. If you sleep there then you risk getting mugged in the night and losing half of your inventory, if you carry on driving then the next location you go to will have your party fighting with lower stamina. Every choice you make in this game has a risk, and more often than not things will not go in your favour. Finding weapons as you go around is great but everything has a shelf life and eventually all things must break leaving you trapped with a horde, trying to get back to your car, with just your fists to defend yourself.
It’s easy at this point just to flip the table and call it quits on getting your party wiped over and over and over again. But as I said at the begining, this game justifies it’s difficulty with it’s setting. You’re supposed to have your back against the wall, you’re supposed to be struggling to survive, this is the zombie apocalypse and you’re all only human. Cars run out of fuel and people run out of food, of course you’re not going to find the exact supplies you need in every location you check. In one of my dozens of runs I had 4 members in my party and all needed first aid kits badly, we checked 2 locations with no luck and on the third we found a single med kit, unfortunately in my excitement of being able to keep someone going for just a little bit longer three of my team got taken down and all I was left with was a dog with a knife in it’s mouth. The little fella tried his best to survive but unfortunately with just a couple of days left to travel DOG bit the dust.
Gaining new team members is always a fun experience, you’ll find random travelers wandering down the road and you’ll need to decide quickly if you want them around of if they’re a waste of food. More often than not I took everyone I met on board and that led to more food and med kit shortages, but that extra pair of hands in a pinch sure does help. The characters you meet on the road are all fun with their own quirks, my personal favourites have been a lady in a big dress that used an umbrella as a weapon, a dog with a brutal melee hit and a man in a suit with a horse head that had a thing for guns.
Death Road to Canada will entertain and stress you out in equal measure, this game will be almost unfairly cruel but realistic in its struggle. Adding a player 2 will help slightly but you’ll still end up restarting over and over. Thankfully getting back into a game from death is near instant. Despite many many many hours put into this game I’ve never reached the end, but much like Spelunky and Binding of Issac that’s OK, Death Road to Canada is about the journey, not the destination, just go in knowing the journey is a bit of a bitch and you and your travelling buddies are going to die a hell of a lot.