The Road More Traveled
Putting a new twist on the classic Oregon Trail gameplay, Death Road to Canada contains very difficult but also rather humorous gameplay. Relying on both luck and skill to survive, reaching Canada is one death-filled journey that is quite entertaining.
Playing as a custom made avatar or a randomly generated character, the player is tasked with journeying from Florida to Canada as a zombie outbreak has spread across the land and rumors of a safe haven in Canada is the only hopeful thought keeping you alive. Reaching Canada is a very difficult task as the player must collect and manage gas, food, medicine, moral, health, weaponry, and more to survive the long journey just like the Oregon Trail. Often faced with difficult decisions, the journey is constantly filled with anxiety. Do you risk rummaging through that zombie filled Yall-Mart store to find desperately needed food? Do you continue driving without sleep that will make your attacks weaker and moral to decrease but could be safer? Do you take on a human survivor only to have them betray you at the worst possible time by stealing all your gear? What makes Death Road to Canada so compelling is that each decision might seem small but it could very well be your last. Each death, however, is usually a learning experience to prepare the player for the next attempt. Even finding and maintaining a vehicle is a challenge. The types of cars also provide detail to the journey just as SUVs using more gas but are lousy at jumps, or riding in a small car to get better gas mileage but isn’t as durable. Decisions are everywhere.
Check out my stream of Death Road to Canada below:
Gameplay is essentially broken in two sections: narration and exploration. During the narration portions, text appears on screen to indicate what is happening during travel. These dialog bubbles are often humorous and can indicate what is coming next. For example, the game might tell the player that a deer walks in front of the car and asks what you would like to do: shoot at it, drive around, or let it pass. Shooting it might yield food if your character is handy with firearms, or you could miss and drop moral, for example. Or, the game will ask where you wish to go, that factory or house on the hill. Many times there is no right or wrong answer, just different outcomes; this is a randomly generated roguelike after all and you only get one chance; death sends you back to the title screen. Sometimes these indicator bubbles tell the player information, other times provides an option. As an example of humor, while driving in the car one character farted and the game asked me which character was responsible. I suppose I picked the wrong answer, or maybe there was no right answer, because my character received a drop in moral after pointing the finger. Even though it negatively affected my success and gameplay, it is still hilarious and didn’t even mind that my journey was now made more difficult because of this silly encounter.
When starting the Oregon Trail, the player has the option to select from different factors when starting the journey such as how much money to bring, job class, and how much food to pack. Death Road To Canada takes this idea and runs with it as well as characters have both a job class and personality trait that determines how well or how poorly certain situations are handled. For example, an athlete might receive a combat buff whereas a character with a medical background can heal teammates between combat scenarios if medical supplies are available. It is these perks, buffs, and debuffs that make this action simulation appealing with creative replay value. Although each character moves and attacks the same, these perks provide difference to make gameplay different each time. Friendly AI is also competent too as they will follow, attack with you, and only rarely get stuck on the environment.
The exploration, or action segments, the second form of gameplay, takes place from an overhead view through simple pixel art. It is here that players can swing melee weapons or pick up furniture to chuck at zombies. Before each encounter, the game indicates the time of day, the amount of zombies, and their aggression level, letting the player weigh the risks involved in each scenario. Even the weather will change how the zombies behave and rain aggravates them more than normal. If I had one complaint with these combat scenarios it is that the opening, closing, and walking through doors is a little more difficult than it should be. Each one of these openings is small and can sometimes be easily missed especially when trying to avoid a horde. The flashing indicator helps let the player know that a drawer can be opened, a toilet investigated, or an oven door dropped, but sometimes interacting with a door is a little troublesome. The real-time combat actually reminding me something of light version of Secret of Mana as the player when eventually get tired if attacking in succession; this makes it so the player cannot spam attacks to fight off a horde. The player is not supposed to survive an overwhelming attack and the combat system ensures this.
Eventually the player will earn zombie points in which new perks can be unlocked from the main menu. Once unlocked, they can be assigned to players in subsequent play-throughs, basically making the game a little easier but still slightly different. During the stream above, I was venturing alone when the character I created randomly appeared during a trading post stop and joined my team. This pleasant surprise was completely unexpected as reminded me a new neighbor moving in Animal Crossing-style.
For the most part, players will find and use melee weapons to defend themselves against incoming zombies. All weapons are different, however, as some will be more powerful than others while some might break more easily. Using the attack button while unarmed will throw a weak punch that won’t do much damage so the game lets the player hold a total of three weapons at a time, cycling through with the B button. Guns are always powerful but finding one, let alone ammo, is always difficult. A grenade and propane tank saved my life on several occasions with large, screen clearing explosions but they are even rarer items. Combat only involves a single attack button but the constant hunt for something better keeps gameplay entertaining.
If the humorous writing wasn’t enough, the simple 8-bit blocky pixel arts makes the game drip with personality. Although the zombies move slow, each playable character moves with this skipping hop, not a walk or a run, animation that never gets old. Even though Death Road to Canada will kill you more than not, it is hard to get too upset over such a cute game. Further, there are these little flourishes that really make this title what it is such as killing a zombie then being able to swish his guts or brain by walking on them, or being able to push furniture in the way to hinder an incoming horde. Even the tips during the initial loading screen are insightful yet creatively funny.
Unfortunately, in my many, many playthroughs at the time of this review, I was never able to reach Canada. It is pretty frustrating to lose a good thirty (+) minutes of progress, but I kept coming back for more. Even the Achievements are brutally difficult to unlock and only the most dedicated of players will even attempt at unlocking them all. Most deaths, however, are learning experiences – don’t try and grab that one piece of food surround by dozens of zombies, you dummy! Over time, I started to see some repeating scenarios take place so I am sure eagle-eyed players will be able to cheese the system a bit to make the journey to Canada easier with experience. But even though death is around every corner, players will want to keep attempting to reach that northern board even after getting their ass kicked over and over.
Also available on PS4 and Nintendo Switch (with 2-player split-JoyCon support) for $15.