It’s tough to avoid being a cynical crank about zombie culture. After mowing down thousands of them with a pea-shooter, bashing their skulls in with a crowbar, and stealing their twinkies, there seems to be no end to the abuse that zombies are willing to take. Like the creatures themselves, zombie culture plods on, refusing to die, and it’s only natural to be a little put-off by games and movies that use the concept as a cheap hook.
Thankfully, there is now a cure for zombie-induced cynicism. Death Road to Canada, Rocketcat Games and Madgarden’s self-proclaimed Permadeath Roadtrip Simulator is a surefire cure for zombie fatigue. From Hook Champ to Wayward Souls, Rocketcat’s games never cease to charm, so despite my own reservations toward the zombie-survival genre, I couldn’t help but pick up Death Road to Canada on Steam back in 2016. Now, the game has made the inevitable jump to iOS, and even on a handheld with limited controls, Death Road shines as a classic in its own right, overflowing with challenge and wit.
The game, at its core, is about survival. Your humble band of travelers is initially comprised of randomly-generated characters, but if you prefer, you can build your own zombie-fighter using an in-game character builder. You’ll need to carefully manage your food, gas, health and ammo if you hope to reach Canada, and if you die, you’ll have to start again at the beginning of the Death Road.
Gameplay is split into two different modes. Most of the game’s random encounters occur within an Oregon-Trail-styled text-based survival mode, in which the team must make difficult choices with unpredictable results. For instance, your team might encounter a moose, and be forced to decide to either befriend the creature, kill it for its meat, or drive somewhere else. Depending on your characters’ stats, these encounters can be hugely beneficial, or fatal. It’s a well-balanced system with a ton of personality, and lends a huge amount of variety to each individual playthrough.
The majority of playtime is spent in top-down exploration and zombie-battling sections, which can be nail-bitingly tricky. The zombies at the start of the Death Road are quite slow, and if you’re armed with something as simple as a lead pipe, you should be able to manage them without trouble. But as the levels progress and you get closer to Canada, the zombies become much, much faster, and it takes more than weapons to survive. Strategy and risk-reward decisions form the heart of Death Road’s challenge, and with one wrong move, your whole team can perish in the blink of an eye.
The game’s music by Joey Grady is quite energetic for a zombie title, and it lends itself well to the game’s self-deprecating sense of humor. All zombie and weapon noises fit the bill, the graphics are charming, and the game runs at a solid clip with very few framerate drops, even with dozens of zombies on the screen at once.
If there’s one thing that irks me about the iOS version of Death Road, it’s the controls. I initially played the game on Steam using a gamepad, and upon transitioning to play on iOS, found the virtual joystick just a little too inaccurate for a game this challenging. After all, if ever a game needed strong touch controls, it’s a Permadeath Roadtrip Simulator, and although the game’s touch controls are intuitive, they’re just unresponsive enough to warrant mentioning.
Death Road to Canada is a unique, must-play experience, even for gamers who aren’t on-board with zombie games. However, as happy as I am to finally get to experience the game on iOS, I definitely recommend picking up the Steam version instead, if you have access to a gamepad. Death Road is a punishing, challenging game, and without dead-on controls, the game can prove to be a little frustrating. That said, if you’re primarily an iOS gamer, I still highly recommend checking out the game on iOS, at its current cost of $7.99.