Review: Dead End Road
Vehicular horror has been a thing since… well, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow if you count horses. In games it tends to be the more actiony Zombie Driver variety, but Dead End Road strikes out to create an actual horrific driving experience. It does quite a job of it too, helped along by the tension and randomness of its roguelike elements. Only a few questionable design decisions might put you off, but this little gem does plenty more right than wrong.
A strange old woman in the woods offers you your heart’s desire if you perform a simple little ritual, which of course summons a demon who wants to devour your soul. Despite the wish thing he’s not the generous type, so you need to find the remaining tools for the ritual and return before he gets impatient and decides to snack on your spirit stuff. The spooky English countryside is vast, though, so you need to plan a trip through the miserable little towns and winding roads full of dodgy drivers and weeping corpses if you’re going to finish your shopping and make it back with your soul intact.
The heart of Dead End Road is the driving, taking place in small stretches between towns. There are no forks or intersections to deal with, just a straight shot from one village to the next. However, as you’re barreling down the darkened streets there are plenty of complications to deal with. Crashing into another car or a pole is an immediate game over, while running over boxes or trash cans or people does mounting damage to your poor land boat. Those are just the corporeal threats though, because the dark presence hungering for your soul will send all sorts of hallucinations to impede your journey. Illusions range from corpses in the street and severed heads hurtling from the dark, to visions of impaled bodies and fake system crashes.
Hallucinations do no damage to your car, but they stress you out and managing your stress, car condition, and fuel is the keystone challenge of the game. The longer you take to get from point A to B the more hallucinations you’ll suffer, but the faster you go the more damage you’re likely to incur. In towns you can buy items to heal stress, but you also need that money to buy fuel, items for the ritual, or upgrades to your car if you’re flush with cash. You’ll never be rich though, because opportunities to score additional funds outside your starting 100 pounds are few and far between. Giving hitchhikers a lift to the next town can get you a little, and gambling on scratch cards at the supermarket is an option, but neither is reliable and you need to prioritize getting the ritual items if you actually want to win. On top of all this, the features of each road and town are randomized every time you play so there are no ideal routes to learn.
Along with shady hitchhikers there are a few other features on the road you can easily miss. Gas stations sit along some routes (they’re marked on your map) which provide free fuel if you can find them. There are also rest stops you can search for random results, both good and bad. However, these opportunities can be a challenge just to locate on account of how dark the game is. I understand the aesthetic reasons for the pervasive darkness and it does indeed make the game extremely oppressive and moody, but it also makes it a pain to see what’s coming while you can still react to it, or just play the bloody thing in a well-lit room. The instant death from auto collisions is sure to be a big sticking point for newer players, in part because it’s so hard to see it coming and also because the fake 2.5D driving engine makes it hard to maneuver nimbly around threats.
The low-res scanline presentation does a lot for the creepy vibes of Dead End Road, and the sound design does an amazing job of matching with distorted effects and rumbling tones. These retro elements do exacerbate the problems of visibility and control a bit because of how the game is designed as a moving diorama rather than an actual driving sim. However, these are surmountable issues for players hooked by the dark charms and mysteries offered here. If nothing else it’s worth seeing how your wish plays out in the end, as you get to enter your own desire in text and it resurfaces in the conclusion (and some wishes get unique endings!). It’s not the smoothest ride in the world, but Dead End Road proves to be an entertaining, spooky journey worth taking again and again.