Early on in Death Road To Canada’s short tutorial, the game recommends that the player pace his or herself.
It means it in the context of the game’s combat mechanics–there is a stamina system in place that makes your attacks and movement become less effective if you resort to button-mashing, and then you may well become enveloped in a massive tide of slow-moving zombies–but it turns out to be good advice for enjoying the game in general.
Death Road to Canada is a classic road trip adventure viewed through the lens of the zombie apocalypse. You start out with a car, hopefully a buddy, and not nearly enough rations or fuel to make it safely to the zombie-free promised land of Canada.
You then hit the road, trying to scrounge up extra resources and build up a helpful gang of misfits along the way. Everything you encounter along the way–from detours to events to possible allies–is randomized, and death is permanent. If you main character dies, you can assume control over one of his buddies and keep playing from there, but once everyone is dead–a common occurrence–it’s back to the start.
Death Road to Canada also guards its mechanics close to its chest. The tutorial covers the basics, but you’ll have to learn via trial and error. Occasionally, friendly NPCs may give you a helpful hint but those come few and far between. Allies, by the way, have their own internal set of traits and values. Some might even “level up” through use or training. Skills and traits can reflect how the characters will behave during an action sequence, but can also deeply influence how the game’s “interactive fiction” segments play out.
These are randomly generated, text-based events where you are given a couple of choices: do you take a detour to avoid the bandits, take them head-on, or send Sally on a stealth mission to burn their camp and create a distraction? The detour is the safe choice, but you’ll spend more resources and miss out on the opportunity of acquiring some extra goodies. Fighting can go badly and end up with one of your friends maimed and killed.
You can pick Sally’s infiltration approach, but if you have misjudged her character, she may very well betray you and join the bandits, possibly resulting in a Game Over. Of course, as you travel with your buddies, you will get to know them better, and get a grasp on their character traits. But quite often you’re forced to guess, especially because–with the exception of a few “special,” hard-to-find pre-made characters–their traits are randomized on each new playthrough.
This turns Death Road to Canada into a rather poker-like survival experience. It’s a game about making the best out of whatever hand you’ve been dealt. It also makes it a compelling story generator. There is no main, story-driven narrative, but the events and vignettes that you encounter along the way are crafted in a satisfying manner that easily allows each player to construct his or her own story. This is a style of narrative art on its own, one that few procedurally generated games get right, but a key area where Death Road to Canada manages to deliver.
As with all such games, there’s no guarantee that you’ll have access to everything you need to make it to the end, but the more you play, the more you get to know the game’s inner workings and start visualizing how to subtly nudge the odds in your favor.
The zombies, in the meantime, are the secret stars of the show. You will underestimate them. You will believe you can get away with running for one last can of fuel, one last piece of food. And then you’ll find yourself trapped in a bathroom with a horde slowly bearing down on you, blocking your way to the door. You’ll get back to your car later, bleeding, limping, and with a dead buddy left behind.
Rarely has a threat been so understated in a video game. In retrospect, it’s always hard to point the exact moment when the zombies went from generally hanging around moaning, to swarming to you and your team, and you’ll soon learn to develop a cautious approach and to not take any situation for granted.
These aren’t your traditional video game zombies. There are no runners, no boomers, no huge brute tank-like zombies. There are only slow-moving zombies–a lot of them–and they will swarm you when you inevitably get sloppy. Killing them all isn’t an option. There are too many, ammunition is scarce and even the most solid of melee weapons will break eventually. The zombies act more like a force of nature than like a standard video game enemy and evasiveness, you will learn, is almost always your best bet.
Of course, due the game’s random nature, you may very well do everything right, only to have the cruel hammer of fate deliver you unto a slow, starving trip in Death Road to Canada, or pair you up with a couple of insufferable jerks that will backstab you at the earliest sign of trouble. This is definitely a game that one can master, but hardly a game where one can aim for perfect runs.
As such, if you want to truly enjoy it, you should embrace its random heart and pace yourself.
Death Road to Canada was reviewed on PC (Steam) with a copy provided by the publisher.
Developer: Rocketcat Games | Publisher: Rocketcat Games | Genre: Action RPG | Platform: PC, Mac, Linux, iOS (at a later date) | PEGI/ESRB: N/A| Release Date: July 22, 2016