Dead Decaying States of Death
Alright, here’s something I don’t normally do. This is a review for a game I haven’t finished. Gasp! Shock! The indignity!
Truth is, being abroad means my time is pretty limited and I’d rather get a post out now before my month long silence than have a more encompassing review that might not even come out by the end of the year. I’m looking at you, Shadowrun: Hong Kong!
But anyway, not to long ago was the oft lauded Steam Summer Sale in which I had the chance to partake. It was, regrettably, less exciting than previous years. Perhaps for the best since I am not getting younger and the blissful days of copious free time have sadly fled me. I did, however, have a steam gift card from a birthday present and – by God – I was going to use it!
So I bought Derek a present. Then I bought Kait a present. Then I thought it was silly I hadn’t bought myself something. When I realized that Xcom 2 simply was not going to run on Kait’s rather beleaguered laptop I decided that I would buy myself a present. And thus, I became the proud owner of Dead State by Double Bear Studios.
In short, the game is… meh?
Sadly, this isn’t the sort of review where I’m going to bat for an overlooked underdog and try to convince you, the wider world, that it is worth your time and money. Personally, I don’t regret my decision. As an Xcom replacement that doesn’t chug a lower end computer as much, it’s actually quite enjoyable. Outside of this rather narrow entertainment need where I couldn’t even replace with dreary television programming and the desire to play the game would certainly diminish.
So what is it?
Well, Dead State is “Yet another zombie game” in a market that is filled to the brim with that sub-trope. One could cynically think it’s a shameful attempt to cash in on a mainstream craze before public opinion wanes and shifts to some other fleeting distraction. I, however, don’t think that would be a fair assessment. I feel that Dead State actually taps into its zombie elements even more fully than a game like Left 4 Dead and I really love Left 4 Dead. Just ask Derek.
But what kind of game is it? The easiest way to describe Dead State is a less realized version of Xcom. There are two primary phases of the game. One is a base maintenance where you need to perform some rudimentary worker management in order to balance the needs of your small but ever growing band of survivors. The main game elements on this end are morale and hunger. At the end of the day, every survivor will degrade both food stores and a general morale statistic. Get too low on either and (I can only assume) bad things start to happen.
In order to prevent this, you can assign your survivors to different tasks. So having a person work the kitchen to produce more appetizing meals than a can of Coke and twinkie bar will give you a slight global morale boost. You can set survivors to farm in order to produce additional food, nurse injured survivors back to health, unclog toilets so people don’t complain about the stink and several other tasks. Needless to say, the more survivors you have at your shelter, the more tasks you can accomplish. However, the more people you bring into your sanctum the more moods you need to manage and mouths to feed.
Furthermore, there are also upgrades you can build for your shelter. These can introduce more food production, more mood improving activities or simply keep those pesky, moaning undead from shambling up to your cot in the middle of the night and nibbling your brain. Upgrades are rather limited and important improvements (barring that damn chicken coop) and so take a significant amount of man hours to complete. Once again, the more survivors you have working on them, the fast you can get those improvements up and potentially avoid some negative events.
And this brings me to one aspect of Dead State that I like but feels like it’s a bit underdeveloped. Your survivors can approach your character on any day (though always when you first wake up like they’re awaiting to address the glorious emperor) and make some minor requests. Sometimes this is for you to fetch an item out in the world for them. Sometimes it’s to plead that you don’t a loved one of theirs into the field and potential risk against zombie attacks. Usually it’s to nag you to repair the damn wall.
I like the idea of having random events to throw a bit of a wrench into your plans. It’s an element of roguelikes that I enjoy and I would have liked to see more of them. I’ve put in about twenty hours into the game and I’ve only had one crisis and several people come to me with the flu. A crisis is an interesting event where some major issue has come up and you have to choose how to resolve it, usually while mediating between two quarrelling “sub-leaders” – influential members of the community who aren’t in charge of making decisions (no one talks out outside of these random events behind a handful of generic lines). I had a crisis about a potential system failure in our water purifier. I had the choice to either ignore it which would make my sheriff happy or allow my shelter organiser to look into it which made everyone angry. I presume there’s a third option but I suspect that it’s resource dependent and I’d already spent most of my scrap upgrading the fence.
It’s a neat system when it comes up it just seems to be far too infrequent to be of any real interest. Partly, I think this springs from the fact that there are so many survivors and the development team had way too few writers to address the enormous amount of text required to pull it off.
Speaking of the writing, it’s pretty bad. Part of this is due to the nature of the game. Since a number of events are randomized, it isn’t feasible to pace the action properly since you don’t know what has already triggered. The other problem is that whoever wrote this wasn’t great. There some spelling and grammar mistakes in the first few days’ tutorial and the characters are fairly bland and generic. That said, given the nature of the game it’s not nearly as detrimental had this been a narrative focused RPG. And, really, most people in real life are boring so having a cast of characters that reflect that is pretty accurate. If I were to pinpoint the most unforgivable crime of the writing is that the player’s responses to NPC interaction are absolutely dreadful.
Anyway, that’s the base portion of the game. The other component is scavenging. This involves a party of up to four survivors braving the greater world beyond to loot and pillage supplies for the shelter. This is necessary in order to accumulate the scrap needed to build shelter improvements and feed your band of merry apocalypse survivors.
The scavenging portion is basically two parts. You have an overmap that you wander around looking for points of interest. These are abandoned check points, malls or old churches. You then click on your little locale and are loaded into a map. Here, the game is quite similar to Xcom in that you have a grid layout and you advance your characters through a turn base system, bludgeoning the undead and shooting looters in the face. In between your humdrum acts of gratuitous violence, you’re rifling through strangers’ homes in order to steal their white shirts and coffee grinds.
As a whole, it’s serviceable. The weapons you find have various attack options which can provide a bit of tactical variety. Perhaps my favourite mechanic is that use of noise. The undead in Dead State are not attracted by blood or brains like land bound sharks but go towards the places of greatest sound. So when you’re in a map infested with the walking dead, you are encouraged to pull out your bats and knives to try and kill them one by one to avoid attracting a whole horde on you at one time. This gives the ponderous dead a chance to swipe at you in combat and make you worried any of your scavengers will get infected.
The NPC looters however, don’t give a fudge about zombies. They see you and they’re going to go out with guns blazing. This makes interactions with the living even more tense. On the one hand, guns deal far more damage than crowbars. Plus every shot a looter pulls off is one less bullet you can pull from their cold, dead pockets. Finally, after even one round of gun exchange, you can generate enough noise to start spawning zombies at the edges of the map who will then begin to shamble forward, attacking looter or NPC alike in their mindless march.
It works and I really like the system. What doesn’t work, however, is the shallowness of your adversity pool. You really only ever fight looters and zombies and it does turn combat into a bit of a “rinse/repeat” situation. For instance, when taking on zombies, I always have Doug lead the charge since his police baton can cripple the undead. And an undead that is cripples loses enough AP to be unable to retaliate against your survivors. This then turns the encounter into a whack-a-mole as we surround the corpse and pummel it into after-afterlife. Personally, I would have liked to see a greater variety of enemies and undead. One of the interesting additions Left 4 Dead provided was the “special infected” who were unique zombies with abilities wildly different from the horde. Dead State could really do with a greater breadth of the infected that could, say, spit puddles of acid to threaten your survivors at range or who can charge from a great distance to prevent you from sneaking around and clearing the map one body at a time.
Likewise, some greater variation in looters and their abilities would be nice. Also, it would be wonderful if there were more interactions that didn’t immediately descend into gunfights. You can basically tell if a person on the map is an enemy or recruitable NPC by hovering over them and looking for the dialogue icon to pop up.
And I haven’t explored the game but I’d have liked there been a greater emphasis on random factors influencing areas. For instance, it would be wonderful if some maps were relatively empty if you went to them within the first couple of days or so after the disaster but are overrun if you delay too long. You could have recruit NPCs only able to “survive” in certain maps for so long until either wandering away and closing the window to snag them for your shelter or they are killed outright. And, of course, having random amounts of enemies in maps and random spawn locations would make replay far more enticing but that also feeds back to the argument that we need more varied enemies.
I’d also liked if the “story” of the game progressed through time. The radio, which has a new broadcast every day, could have been used as a vehicle to organize the greater narrative without having to worry about player interaction affecting the progression of important events. In an idealized version of this game, you could have some significant time sensitive events that occur regardless of player decision. For instance, some of the other shelters could be running just fine within the first couple of weeks and allow the player to visit and trade with them. Then, on certain days, they could become overrun leaving the player to discover the tragedy only when they set out to trade with them on another day as if nothing has changed.
Overall, Dead State has a lot of good ideas going on that never really reach their potential. They are developed enough to be enjoyable though the lack of depth to its systems and world keep me from investing large amounts of time into the game in single sittings. I’d have liked there to be more pressure on the player in the shelter and scavenging phases, needing to balance the problems and worker placement at home while figuring out optimal exploration sites and priorities with just enough randomization to prevent a “perfect route” from being charted.
Overall, I’d give it around three festering wounds and one terrified infected out of Do the Necronomicon and Cabin in the Woods.