Review: Death Road to Canada
There’s something gratifying about being presented with a challenge, weighing your options, and then taking a logical approach to resolving it. Games like Renowned Explorers and FTL do a fantastic job of building a roguelike adventure loop around these considerations, because your resources and skills provide the basis from which to determine how to best attack a problem. And then you have Death Road to Canada, where you can tell highway bandits to COOL IT and hope for the best. That’s the beauty of this gonzo take on survival roguelikes, that you’re going to be doing way less logicking and way more seat-of-pants flying here, and sometimes it’ll actually work out for the best. And even when it doesn’t, your demise will be too funny for you to mind.
World ended, everyone’s zombies, you know what’s up. Except! The great nation of Canada, leader of the free world, has succeeded in keeping the undead hordes from their plump, maple-scented interior. You, as an utterly forsaken denizen of Florida (even before the zombies), have decided to undertake the journey to the great white north in the hopes of escaping death by a thousand bites. You’ve got a car, you’ve got some food, maybe you have a weapon, and you’ve got a long way to go to make this long-shot dream a reality. You don’t have to be alone on this journey either, as there are scores of friends, family, rando, psychos, and dogs to team up, sometimes even to your advantage. But don’t expect the trip to be easy on them, or you, or your supplies.
I talked a bit about The Oregon Trail when I covered Hyperspace Delivery Service, and there are some faint traces of that here as well. The core of the game is you zipping down the road towards Canada (I guess that’s more up the road, then), with your fuel ticking down at regular intervals. Also at regular intervals you’ll be interrupted by events, sometimes simple notifications that a thing happened, more often a choice of terribly inadvisable things you and your crew can do. There are some set events which, while not always structured the same way, will challenge you to survive as sorts of checkpoints on your progress. You’ll also have to stop for the night periodically, where your food supply will be drained to ensure your team can progress in a happy and healthy manner.
You’ve got some other resources to play with, like medicine and three kinds of bullets, as well as the squishier resources like character health and morale, and the condition of your car. All of these factors will need to be weighed when making decisions, because all of them will come under threat. Bandits will demand all of your food. Detours to check special locations will cost fuel. Doing stupid things might hurt your health or morale. Even deciding what kind of locations to loot will be guided by what supplies you’re lowest on. Or at least they should be, if you’re set on making logical choices. But that won’t always be the case here, when presented with options like punching your car engine back into shape, or ramming through roadblocks, or being offered a head transplant for one of your characters.
The real genius of Death Road to Canada is that it offers you completely ridiculous options, and sometimes those are the best to take. It’s not that there’s no logic to sending dogs to negotiate with bandits or trading all your food for a claymore (the sword, not the bomb), it’s that there’s an internal logic to the game that rewards you for giving in to the silliness. It’s not always going to work out, and you’re going to realize that the moment you tell the wrong person to COOL IT. But it’s liberating to have gonzo choices that are worth taking, that won’t immediately tank your run both because they might be the best choices, and also because there’s a LOT of disasters you can bounce back from in this game.
Character stats and customization do a lot to support this structure, mainly in how they can mitigate some of your worst slip-ups. Each character has something like a dozen stats, covering basic attributes like strength and shooting skill, as well as key variables like morale and loyalty. They also get Perks which are bonuses to certain stats or add new abilities, and Traits which can define their playstyle. You can make people who are infuriatingly paranoid, utterly fastidious, completely oblivious, or just really like dogs, and they all have a purpose. Sometimes these factors can make a massive difference, like completely defusing a situation that could have killed your group. The best part, though, is that you can create and save a library of up to 80 custom characters, and there are game modes that can have most of the survivors you meet be pulled from this pool. And there’s local co-op, so you can even have the person you made a character of play that character as they get devoured!
The only thing I haven’t really touched on yet is the combat, where you stop your journey long enough to rummage through ruins and residences for loot. This part of the has shades of top-down twin-stick action, though for most of the trip you’ll be wielding melee weapons here. The zombies here are extremely well-tuned to be exactly what they should be: almost harmless on their own, and almost certainly fatal in hordes. Each zombie takes a few good whacks to take down, and you have a fitness stat that determines how many whacks you can dole out before you tire. That’s not a huge issue when there’s just one in your way, but facing a horde, you either need powerful weapons, powerful backup, or insane juking skills to survive. And periodically you’ll get stuck in big horde sieges, so in terms of combat that’s what you’ll need to prepare for.
Overall the game is expertly tuned for the challenges it presents. My only misgiving is how fast fuel runs out, because I keep ending up with dead cars after not finding any opportunities to gas up and travel on foot is loaded with harsh events. But you always find a new car after a few stops, so it’s not any kind of run-ender usually. You’ll earn points for meta-progression upgrades as you play too, so even if you don’t reach those noble Canadian gates, you can still unlock better perks and other fun goodies. And that’s the big thing, this game is just chock full of fun goodies. You can get an Olympic-level fencer on your team, accidentally blow her up with pipe bombs, and still win the run by looting a haunted house. Death Road to Canada doesn’t sacrifice a bit of fun to build a thrilling survival adventure, and punches it up with the kind of craziness that any game could benefit from.