Death Road to Canada Review

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.

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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.

4.5 Stars

 

Developer Spotlight: AwkwardNaut

Today’s Developer Spotlight is on AwkwardNaut, a 2-person team based out of Belgium, currently working on the space roguelike Far Ago.

AwkwardNaut

Thanks for chatting with me, guys! Can you talk for a minute about who you are, and what Far Ago is all about?

Thibaud Gayraud: I’m a Unity game developer, and I started AwkwardNaut one year ago. On the way I encountered Marcus Drake. He was interested in my work and I fell in love with his musical talent. We are now working together on this big project.

Marcus Drake: I’m an eccentric composer from Chicago. I’ve been running a DIY Chicago label called Grandpa Bay and performing in bands for many years, but I recently started to refocus more on composing for games and film. When I stumbled upon AwkwardNaut, I was so impressed that I reached out to Thibaud. We made a pact signed in blood and the rest is history!

Far Ago is an FTL-like kind of game. The game has a huge tactical aspect due to the different type of modules you can equip your ship with, and the destruction system that can strip apart important pieces of your build. With Far Ago, it’s all about choices. Some situations can be handled peacefully while some will require a less subtle approach. Another important part of the game is that every new level is a step back in time, meaning that you can cause ludicrous paradoxes. These paradoxes will be important, but in what way? This we will keep a secret.

As Far Ago is a roguelike, what are your primary considerations when it comes to developing your algorithms for procedurally generated content? How do you keep the content feeling fresh and purposeful when you don’t have complete control over every last pixel?

TG: This is the most challenging part, as keeping every bit of the scenario in line with every quest can quickly become a real mess. Add paradoxical events to that, and now you have your very own 42x42x42 Rubik’s cube! To achieve this, you have to carefully choose the conditions that will drive the creation of every level. Keep everything in easily reusable little boxes. If this is done correctly, you just have to make sure that those boxes are fun to play with and that they can mix together to create interesting challenges for players to overcome.

How long have the two of you been in game development? And when did you decide that you wanted to work in the industry in this capacity?

TG: It was always a dream of mine. I started creating some small Flash games inspired by what I found on websites like Newgrounds when I was 13. I later went into art school and graduated in infographic design with a specialization in video games.

MD: I’ve been a musician for a while, always very inspired by video game soundtracks and have always wanted to create them myself! It took me a while to build a decent portfolio, but through being very active in the Chicago music scene, it all eventually started to come together. Recently, I decided to pursue composing as a career. And I’m very honored to be working with someone as innovative and talented as Thibaud!

Far Ago looks really sharp! Could the two of you talk for a bit about your biggest visual and musical influences for the game?

TG: I’m a fan of the Youtube channel Kurzegesagt – In a Nutshell. I’m a big fan of the minimalist aspects in their videos. The visual universe of Edmund McMillen (The Binding of Isaac, Super Meat Boy) is also a big inspiration.

MD: I’m not the biggest aficionado of dubstep, but recently I have been very intrigued by the production and the futuristic/apocalyptic tone brought on by artists who dabble in that genre. So, while there will be a lot of different elements going on, some things I want to emulate are the emotions and production techniques of what one might call dubstep, but I will be using a wide variety of mostly live, nonsynthetic instruments to make it unique. Two soundtracks I am taking inspiration from are the Earthbound OST by Keiichi Suzuki and Machinarium OST by Tomáš Dvořák.

You’ve previously released a sports minigame called Tippin’ Ball. Can you talk about the most important lessons you learned from your previous release, and how you’re looking to improve for Far Ago?

TG: Tippin’ Ball was a way for me to start making some noise around the AwkwardNaut persona I created. It’s no more than a fun project I did for people to enjoy. The biggest mistake I’ve made was to think that I would be able to do everything by myself; making a game is one thing, but the marketing around it is as important as the game itself! Now that we’ve teamed up with Marcus, we have all the skills we need to create and promote Far Ago.

MD: Tippin’ Ball was the first OST I made for Awkwardnaut and it was one of the most enjoyable writing / recording processes. While the music was a hoot to make, we also learned a lot about how to market our games better. It was a great project that led to productive discussions between Thibaud and I about indie development in general, audience interactions and the importance of transparency.

As an avid iOS gamer, when a great-looking game shows up on Steam, I cross my fingers, hoping that it will eventually be ported to mobile. Any plans to port Far Ago to iOS?

TG: Far Ago is not the kind of project that would work on mobile devices, but I’m very interested in connections between an app and a game; if the game goes well, we may be able to add some mobile connectivity for someone with a smartphone to mess with the player or to rearrange modules on the fly.

Favorite snack while developing?

TG: Pecan nuts.

MD: Steak tartare.

Most-used software during development work?

TG: Unity3D.

MD: Reaper.

Favorite game of all time?

TG: Enter the Gungeon.

MD: Ikaruga tied with Katamari Damacy.

Favorite game console of all time?

TG: N64.

MD: PS2.

Favorite smell?

TG: My Potatoe.

MD: Defeat.

If you were trapped in the game world of Far Ago, what would be your preferred method of escape?

TG: Even if it’s a dystopian world, I wouldn’t want to leave it. I want to go to space so bad!

MD: Bending the code (like my homie, Keanu).

Before we finish this interview, are there any shout-outs you’d like to make? Other favorites in your own development community? Anyone I should follow on Twitter?

TG: @ElorynPartition They are working on a very gorgeous game. Lots of poetry and very unique gameplay.
@JailBreak3014 I met him on Facebook a few weeks ago. He is currently working on a game named Foot; if you like to spit whatever you’re drinking out of your nose, you should check out his work.

MD: @moblets This is a beautiful game about farming, creatures and adventure. It’s something like Harvest Moon meets Pokemon, but very unique. I’m overly excited for it!
@InnerSpaceGame A mesmerizing flight based game being developed by @PolyKnightGames. With a really great OST by Chris Miller.

If you’d like to help AwkwardNaut launch their game on Steam, visit Far Ago on Steam Greenlight and voice your support!

Siralim 2 Review

Grinding is a divisive gameplay element, even in the best of games. Smiting enemy after enemy, hour after hour can grow tiresome after a while, and doesn’t lend itself especially well to the iOS platform, where instant satisfaction is the norm. For this reason, I must preface this review by asserting that Siralim 2 by Thylacine Studios isn’t for everyone. But for anyone who enjoys a good grind, and is able to overlook its harshly-designed exterior, Siralim 2 is a fantastic example of pure RPG-Roguelike excellence.

Graphical fidelity isn’t Siralim 2’s strong suit. Booting up the game, I instantly cringed at the questionable mix of pixel art and smooth text, which is generally an aesthetic no-no. Framerate drops plague certain dungeons, and tiled floors flicker underfoot as the strings holding the game together threaten to burst, hinting at a low budget and small development team. However, my initial concerns and judgments that arose while playing the first half-hour of Siralim 2 were completely vanquished when I came across the game’s Bestiary, hinting at Siralim 2’s depth and detail. With 536 beasts to hatch or capture in the game’s dangerous procedurally-generated dungeons, I soon grew enraptured with the chase to catch every last one.

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But while the monster-capturing aspect of Siralim 2 vaguely resembles Pokemon and its ilk, its high level of difficulty and unusual progression style sets it apart from the pack. From the hub world of Siralim, your protagonist warps into an alternate dimension of Realms, which grow more difficult as you progress to higher levels. Every realm is ruled by a god, who can be swayed to your favor through the completion of various tasks. The God of the Sea might request that you find his lost doubloons, and the God of War might simply like to see you shed some blood in his honor. Helping out these sometimes-needy gods is a treat, as their character traits are quite over-the-top and self-aware. Unfortunately, the Goddess of Poison was written with strained, uncomfortably juvenile humor, which verged on tasteless. This character aside, most of Siralim 2’s humor is quite delightful. Every few levels, you’ll be presented with a massively-difficult boss, who will require quite a bit of grinding to take down, so you’ll need to return to lower-level realms to level-up your team. Combat is turn-based, and customizable with a huge variety of spell gems and weapons, which can be purchased, upgraded or broken down to their raw materials by characters in the hub world. There are no checkpoints within each Realm, so if your character dies, they’ll be instantly warped back to the hub world, depleting your Power Balance level, but without any serious consequences. It’s a fairly-balanced system, as you’re never forced to proceed to a realm that’s too difficult, but the rewards for taking a daring route are sufficiently enticing.

Beyond the grind, Siralim 2 also offers a few mini-games which can be played in the castle pub with some colorful dwarves, and in-depth breeding system. Upon summoning the souls of creature whose essence you’ve captured in battle, monsters can be added to your team or bred with each other to create more powerful combinations. The monsters are varied in personality and skills, and 8 hours into the game, I’ve barely seen a fraction of the game’s monster types. The amount of content in Siralim 2 is fantastic, considering the budget that the team is working on, and Thylacine’s pledge to boycott crowdfunding and microtransactions. What you see is what you get with Siralim 2, and that’s a great thing. If any of the content seems daunting or confusing, the developers have included an extensive library of information in the hub world, which can be read through manual-style.

For an iOS game, Siralim 2 is a little pricey at $4.99, but it offers easily a dozen hours of content, if not more. It’s well-written, well-designed, and if you can get past the rough visuals, it’s a highly atmospheric experience, clearly created by developers who are passionate about what they do. Thylacine’s love for the genre shines through in every moment of Siralim 2, and I highly recommend the purchase to fans of roguelikes, monster-collectors, and RPGs alike.

4.5 Stars