Roguelikes are a special genre- meant for those who like smacking their heads against the wall until the wall finally crumbles into dust as if to say, “Okay, I give.” Sure, you may fail the first twenty times and start all over again with nothing, but you know that eventually you’re going to drop that wall like this is Berlin in 1989. There will be plenty of blood, sweat, and tears, and that’s just from the zombies you’ll be annihilating on your way out of the country in Death Road to Canada. Replete with pixel graphics similar in vein to early 16-bit era games, players will shoot and club their ways through hundreds of flesh-hungry undead through randomly generated maps and scenarios. So is Death Road to Canada worth the trip, or would you be better off just buying some things from Tim Hortons? Let’s find out.
For those who don’t know much about the genre, many roguelike games nowadays like to stick players in randomized environments and, if you die in the game, you die for real you start over from the beginning without any of the equipment, items, or survivors you found on a previous run. Gameplay is divided into text adventure segments and real time action combat at any of the places your characters stop to scavenge supplies, and characters can die in either portion of gameplay. You start with one or two characters that can be randomly generated or customized by the player (with perks and other bonuses, more on that later), and will happen upon weapons, ammunition, as well as other, random survivors (including dogs and goats!) who have their own traits and benefits.
In the text adventure portion of Death Road to Canada, you’re treated to some of the greatest silly dialogue and humor in a roguelike, overall. Events can pop up, like a golf course covered in zombies and you are provided options with how you would best like to handle the situation, such as firing golf balls at the zombies, entering a siege (an event where you are stuck in an area with zombies for a specific amount of time), or just try to drive away from the zombies. Your choices may have positive or negative results depending upon the skills of the characters or just the RNG (random number generator) itself. The different events that crop up may cause your characters may become fatigued, lose morale, get injured, lose weapons or food stores, or even die during these events. Outside of the text adventure events, there’s also scavenging for supplies in real time action sequences, sieges, and more, where you directly control your characters to bludgeon the undead to… undeath. Zombies don’t move quickly, but your characters can only take three hits before dying and getting overwhelmed by sheer numbers is easy, especially during sieges.
Very few runs of Death Road to Canada are the same. Not only are the environments and scenarios pieced together fairly randomly, the weapons and gear you find along the way are also randomized so you may not encounter the same gun for several runs. Of course, this wouldn’t be a roguelike if there wasn’t a tremendous amount of trial and error. You’ll come across a plethora of weapons, but you won’t know which character uses them best, their durability, or even overall strength of a weapon without trying them out in different situations.
There are general tutorials to get you into the game by giving you general information on traits and the like, but determining what is most ideal (or just best for your play style) takes a fair amount of time. Of course, this also aids the game’s re-playability, as it will take dozens of hours before you suitably understand what character classes and traits work best in given situations, and which ones you should avoid like the plague or kill off, because some can end a run and you may not see it coming without being forewarned by reading a wiki or from prior experience.
As with all roguelikes, there is a substantial learning curve involved to, “Git gud” with Death Road to Canada. As is true in most roguelikes today, not every item or character you pick up is beneficial and some characters you recruit can completely end your run if you’re not careful. For example, that anime girl you picked up along the way may have been super useful on a siege and then she explodes two days later, destroying your car and killing your entire party (she’s a character I recommend killing off after a couple days). Of course, the learning curve is only part of it, and players will also need to experiment with different dialogue options during the text adventure portions, too.
Whether by design or just poor luck, sometimes text scenarios in Death Road to Canada can leave the player feeling like they have very little control over their resulting fate: Special events that pop up while driving can do everything from randomly lower and raise morale to cause your characters to leave and steal your supplies with seemingly little input from the player. Many of these will put you into a difficult to win situation that you otherwise would have been fit to handle, and it can be maddening when you’re doing well but a failed stat check and missed dialogue choice causes you to fail. Even with a blue happy face indicator for morale (something like 4 out of 6 morale overall), sometimes characters will fail the stat checks and will leave, die, or will leave and steal your car and most of your weapons, leaving you with little to do but fail your run.
Losing to RNG can suck and feel like forced difficulty, but there are moments where your characters will sporadically find things that greatly benefit your run, so things can proceed in an overwhelmingly beneficial or absurdly catastrophic manner and everywhere in between those two extremes. Sometimes choices may not match what you were expecting, but that’s part of having to learn a roguelike- there’s no real way around that. If you’re willing to put in the time, however, many of the events become more predictable and more easily controlled, allowing you to fish for the best outcome of what is available because you have a rough idea of what will happen.
For example, if you have the right kind of character, selecting the, “Cool it!” option during events automatically fails the event each time it’s used until it gets charged up (the exclamation points will flash to indicate this), in which case it guarantees the highest positive outcome. Using this option in situations it doesn’t matter or the penalties aren’t that bad is detrimental. But once charged, using it to help save you from bandits taking the literal shirt off your back is a great option. Experience is basically the only method to take advantage of all of the little systems and benefits that Death Road to Canada has to offer, so while it may be frustrating for the first few runs, there’s an extremely rewarding game underneath that will reward savvy players many times over considering you earn ZP that can be used for persistent bonuses and unlocks for future runs.
The visuals work quite well with the game, though when the action gets heavy sometimes it can become difficult to keep up with everything happening on screen, as the pixel graphics can get a little muddied when there are large number of zombies swarming and dying around the player. The music is strangely upbeat and fits very well with the tongue-in-cheek theme of the game, though it’s a little disappointing that there isn’t more variety in the music given how much the game lends itself to repeated playthroughs.
Overall, Death Road to Canada is an amazing little roguelike game. Combining two different styles of gameplay worked quite well to differentiate this title from games like The Binding of Isaac, Rogue Legacy, Darkest Dungeon, 20XX, and the like. Many of the events and dialogue choices can be humorous or flat out ridiculous, but always manage to be endearing in some way. If you enjoy zombies and roguelikes, preferably both, you will have a lot to love in Death Road to Canada. If you are the type of player who doesn’t like trial-and-error in games or losing progress repeatedly on failure (because you will die. A lot), then you may want to stay far, far away from the Canadian border. Otherwise, there is a lot of entertainment to be had for just $11.99.