Rocketcat Games’ Death Road to Canada is a survival action roguelike that delivers simple and punishing thrills.
I’m a blue-haired, bespectacled senior citizen. I’m a “Surgeon,” which means I should have a much better time of sewing up my companions’ wounds, but I’m also “Oblivious,” which doesn’t bode well for said operations. My partner at the genesis of this doomed road trip was once a wildly “Irritating” “Car Nut” who kept our vehicle going right up until the point she was mauled during an attempt to save the weird Garfield cosplayer we picked up from being eaten.
It had started out innocently enough. Our latest stop for desperately needed medical supplies had only a very few and very sluggish zombies, so we took our time searching every inch of the buildings available. We’d picked up a golf club, a fire ax, an “otaku katana” of dubious quality, and some fuel. By the time we found any actual medicine, we’d been there about two hours, according to the game’s accelerated event clock.
We stepped out of the building to at least a hundred or so shambling corpses. We made a desperate break for our car, but our furry friend was caught and mobbed as we tried to blitz down an alley. My original compatriot fell trying to beat back the undead assailants. With no way to get to either of them, I made a break for the car. It didn’t start right away. I find myself yelling and laughing at the screen as I keep at it, even as zombies are beating against the windows and doors of the vehicle. It sputters to life, and I floor it to the edge of the map.
This is a very routine playthrough of Death Road to Canada, one of the most frantic roguelikes I’ve ever encountered in which you guide a group of misfits through a zombie apocalypse as they make their way across the U.S. to Canada. The graphics are straight out of the SNES era, with mechanics and gameplay that balances nostalgia with modern sensibilities — only faltering once in a while.
After putting together your initial randomized pair of survivors, it’s time to find your way from Florida to the promised land of maple syrup and mounties. That road trip will play out very similar to Oregon Trail, calling upon you to make various decisions about travel and trade, while you scavenge for food, fuel, medicine, and ammunition. Events take place either as dialogue challenges — some offering unique solutions based on character traits — or as top-down maps in which you’ll attempt to search buildings as efficiently as possible before the zombie presence builds and you’re forced to retreat.
The events are many and varied, as are the characters and items you can acquire. All of it is threaded through with slapstick humor and dialogue that is some of the most amusing I’ve seen since the cheesy masterpiece that was Broforce. From status screens to car trip conversations, the game oozes a personality that always manages to lighten otherwise stressful situations.
And situations are always stressful. This is not an easy game, nor a fair one. The odds are always against you, and your success will depend on luck almost as much as skill. Even though there is almost always a way to overcome a given obstacle, the game is never afraid to put you in nearly impossible situations. Permanent death punctuates each playthrough, adding a distinct sense of peril to every decision you make.
Do you burn more fuel to keep driving past a bad situation, hoping you’ll find more before you are forced to abandon your transport altogether? Do you try and rob that extortionist merchant? Should you pay the bandits’ toll, or drive right through them? Party members can be recruited as you go, and probably should at every opportunity — they die an awful lot. Sometimes leaving someone for zombie chow is the best (read: only) way to ensure the rest make it out alive.
When you lose — and you will lose — you’re booted back to the start screen to try again. A different set of randomized characters might fare better, but you won’t know until you try. That’s because, just like in real life, you won’t actually know most of the stats and abilities of your party members until they’re tested. Who stands watch? Better hope they’re committed to the group, so they actually try and stay awake. For that matter, how do you know your newest party member won’t just snap and betray you all at the first opportunity if things have gotten a little bit too rough? Answer: You don’t.
It’s less frustrating than it sounds, mostly because it’s just so much fun. That fun increases exponentially as you add other people to the mix. My experience with the game on its own was great — my experience playing it alongside my wife was unforgettable.
[Warning: Playing Death Road to Canada with your spouse may end in divorce.]
If you have the patience for a game that’s more than willing to punish the slightest mistake, where chance is as powerful as tactics, and if an action-oriented Oregon Trail-esque adventure sounds like your cup of tea, I can’t recommend Death Road to Canada enough. It’s a whole lot of game for fifteen dollars, full of replayability and just enough of that tooth-grinding roguelike difficulty to keep you coming back for more.
Follow Nate Church @Get2Church on Twitter for the latest news in gaming and technology, and snarky opinions on both.