Paul Meakin

Developer: Rocketcat Games

Publisher: Noodlecake Publishing

Platform: Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Mobile, PC and PS4

Release Date: 8th May 2018

The Oregon Trail is arguably the most important game I’ve ever played. Before I had to vocabulary to state the kinds of games I loved most, Oregon Trail provided the definitions – one part strategy, one part simulation, one part mini-game collection, one part geographical simulator. The original Oregon Trail was foundational to my love of games beyond their ability to entertain. They could, in fact, enrich. Educate.

And even if The Oregon Trail wasn’t explicitly ‘educational’, the gameplay loop would still be a lot of fun – as we’ve seen in titles like The Banner Saga, and now Rocketcat Games’ ‘Death Road to Canada’; a rogue-lite take on The Oregon Trail formula with more action, a cuter aesthetic, a quicker pace…and deadlier consequences.

Oh, and zombies. And Hybrid cars.

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A given 1-3 hour ‘run’ will find you making tough choices like where to camp, if sleeping is more important than a given reward, bartering your remaining food for precious medical supplies, and praising the high heavens when you find a car that works, as to save you from walking. There’s also perks, XP, and all sorts of stats along for the proverbial ride, too.

You start by creating or generating your given survivors (normally you and a ‘buddy’), hitting begin, and getting on the road to Canada. Like The Oregon Trail, the road is paved with random events, challenges, and happenstances, but unlike The Oregon Trail, ‘Death Road to Canada’ has a ribald sense of humour and absolutely zero desire to be taken seriously – thanks in part to text-based, seemingly character-specific chatter between your party members. It’s irreverent, silly, and occasionally very funny when the mood spills over into game choices – a good example being an event where your party is given the option to open a box containing supplies, but there’s a poo on it. The game asks whom you want to move the poo, then emphasizes just how gross the poo is via sparkly letters and unique fonts. I laughed.

No laughing matter is the meat of the game, raiding and scavenging. Throughout your journey you’ll be prompted with several choices – where to make camp, where to scout for supplies, or be forced into a situation that requires you to take direct control and go zombie shootin’ for a set amount of time. You can select who (and how many) of your crew take on these expeditions, and they’ll gain skills and items based on any number of factors – all the while trying to stay alive; so, while you’ll miss the man-power it’ll make sense to leave your injured party member in the car, as to save their life, protect your healer, – or they may just be useless.

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The idea is to go from location to location scoring as many supplies (ammo, food, fuel, medicine) as possible while avoiding damage and the increasingly ornery horde. To succeed you’ll have to hack and slash and smash and shoot your way through these hordes via standard action game controls, via a button to attack, a button to pick up items, a button to switch weapons, and so on.

How good you are at this depends on your weapon and stats and your stick skills, too – so if you’re wielding a shotgun but have zero shooting skill, you have a 12-gauge battering ram, and might just want to run around, grab quick supplies, and bounce away as quickly as possible. It can be problematic if you’re unaware of a character’s stats prior to engaging in the brouhaha, but that’s a function of the game’s random nature, I suppose. As are happening across ‘rare’ companions with special powers.

Regardless, the raiding experience is a lot of fun thanks in part to couch co-op options, which are a perfect fit for The Switch, by-the-by. But even with a pal, it’s not uncommon to get completely overrun and devoured by a particularly large horde or by being underequipped. Then again, that’s also the point. These zombies are your primary foe in Death Road to Canada, and they will surround and kill you as ‘real’ zombies would – they are not to be trifled with.

The raiding combined with The Oregon Trail stylings gives Death Road to Canada a welcome and addicting – if a bit low-calorie – game play loop. Each run is designed to last a couple hours tops, and the game’s origins as a pick-up-and-play Mobile game lends itself to playing in 20-30-minute bursts. You’ll raid, make choices, recruit people to your party, and eventually either make it, or die horribly trying – before starting all over again.

But this is more ‘choose your own adventure’ than it is Divinity: Original Sin or 5th Edition D&D. There’s depth here regarding load outs, part composition, and perks you upgrade, but it’s in service of the primary, seemingly random gameplay, not the other way around. I guess what I’m saying is if Death Road to Canada appeals to you, it will deliver, especially if you dig the art style with 16-Bit sprites and JRPG-style dialog boxes lending the game an aesthetic and feel that makes ‘Death Road to Canada’ perhaps the best SNES game made in the 2010s. Zombies, characters, and everyone else are all colourful and adorable and deliberately silly. This is clearly, awesomely, sometimes frustratingly, a game that looks, feels, and acts like cult-classic SNES games that may have never really existed; games that took chances on wacky game play elements like Harvest Moon or Romance of the Three Kingdoms or The Legend of The Mystical Ninja; titles that delivered something fresh and exciting in a familiar wrapper.

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Alas we’re in 2018, which makes Death Road to Canada something resembling a gourmet sorbet. Like many of the best rogue-likes it can take up as much or as little of your time as you see fit – but slots in best when you don’t have a lot of time or do have some friends over that would play along – those looking for something as robust as State of Decay, should look elsewhere.

Death Road to Canada is basically an endless game and is wonderfully modifiable with hard modes and long modes but is not a game with endless secrets to reveal and countless strategies to enact. Of course, The Oregon Trail wasn’t particularly ‘deep’ either, but made up for it with unapologetic earnestness and an oppressive atmosphere that let the player know they were in for a journey they likely won’t survive. Death Road to Canada offers a lot more to do but lacks the emotional connection of its inspiration – opting for a squee, silly, well-implemented early 2000’s Nickelodeon vibe inside those SNES era graphics. Then again, maybe that’s exactly what you’re looking for.

That said, if the notion of combining rogue-lite elements with action-RPG stats and gameplay, all in an ‘The Oregon Trail’ wrapper appeals to you, go ahead and check this game out right now – it’s on Console, PC, and Mobile. It’s literally impossible to miss and quite affordable for the asking price, regardless of platform for about the cost of £10.99.

Can’t do much better than that, eh?

Press code provided to the author by developer for the purposes of producing a review.

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