The horror games of the late ‘90s retain a special sort of camp charm in comparison to their modern counterparts. The advent of polygonal 3D graphics gave survival horror titles a whole new tool kit to work with: dramatic camera angles, thick plumes of volumetric fog, and enemies that could follow the player from one location to another. Partnered with ridiculous storylines and challenging puzzles, the games remain popular to this day, with remakes of the more popular titles still selling well. Dead County is an ode to this era of survival horror, complete with tank controls and fiddly item management. Developed by Blake McKinnon Productions, this spooky adventure perfectly captures the atmosphere of a PlayStation game, but a few details need a little more ironing out for the title to truly shine.
A young delivery driver is on his way home from work when he hears disturbing news on the radio: a zombie outbreak has occurred, and the streets are filled with the undead. Unconvinced by these outlandish claims, his mind is quickly changed when a creature plows into the side of his van, rendering the vehicle useless. With only his trusty flash light in hand, he begins the long walk home, danger lurking in every corner.
Dead County plays as a traditional survival horror game, with the protagonist gunning down zombies, avoiding others when ammunition inevitably runs out, and collecting keys to open slow-moving doors. Tank controls will feel alien to younger gamers: the character moves forward and backward with W and S, and changes rotation with A and D. This clunky movement style takes some getting used to, but it was once the best way to move around a 3D environment in the absence of a mouse or joystick, and also allows for creative camera angles. The flexibility in viewpoint is put to good use, with the world slowly twisting on a 45 degree angle as the protagonist walks down a long road, and turning corners is tense as a zombie could be carefully placed just out of view.
Gunplay is simple, but tricky. The protagonist can not move and shoot at the same time, and is also unable to run, so choosing where to stand your ground against the zombies is of vital importance. In true Resident Evil fashion, several weapons are offered over the course of the game, with plenty of ammunition available for the low-damage pistol, but the powerful shotgun rounds should be saved for the most dire of situations.
Managing inventory is a key component in many survival horror games, and Dead County is no different. Four slots are present for collecting items, but holding on to everything the protagonist picks up is impossible, as each gun, ammo type, medical kit, flashlight, and key take up a space. With the game featuring a fairly generous autosave feature, leaving behind the medical kits is easy enough, but deciding between other items is more challenging.
The interaction between the save system and the inventory is also where the game’s issues begin. After a death, the game will load the player to the beginning of the area, generally a long road or a floor of a building. However, the ammo counter does not reset back to what it was when the player first entered the area. This means that dying repeatedly can lead to the player getting stuck. I had to restart the game from scratch because I ran out of bullets on a screen that had no pick-ups, and since the player cannot run, getting past all the zombies was impossible. Wary of getting stuck again, on the second attempt I used the glitch to bank up way more ammo than I would ever need, collecting pick-ups then deliberately getting killed over and over. This ensured that I could play through the rest of the game, but the delicate balance of which zombies to fight and which to avoid was gone.
The bugginess of the inventory is a shame, since the rest of Dead County was a joy to play. The exploration of environments and combat with the monsters was spot-on in replicating that Resident Evil feeling. I would have liked the inclusion of a puzzle or two, since they were a staple of the series, and some nonsensical dialogue would have been welcome. The protagonist does have a great personality—he is incredulous at the amount of ammo left everywhere, and the victory moment at the end of the game has him hiding under the bed—but his adventure through the town is quite the solitary one. The death screen also has an annoying typo, the ‘your dead’ apparition adding further insult to injury.
Dead County invokes the spirit of the late ‘90s survival horror game with great success. While the save bug does require some attention, the rest of the project is extremely polished and well executed. Developer Blake McKinnon Productions has also created several other games, which can be found here.
Next week we will be playing Knock Harder: Useless, an action game where you have to determine if the current level is set in the real world, or a dream. The game can be downloaded from Steam here. Discussions are happening in the Discord server, or you can email me here.