Dead Island‘s latest spin-off is, sadly, as unfulfilling as the last ones. At least it makes me yearn to play the original again.
Developer: Fat Shark
Publisher: Deep Silver
Format: PC (reviewed), PS3, Xbox 360
Released: November 18, 2014
Copy supplied by publisher
I must confess a fair amount of fondness for Dead Island, Techland’s admittedly messy foray into tropical zombie mayhem. While not a particularly polished game, it carried with it a certain charm, marrying cooperative role-playing mechanics to hack n’ slash undead slaughter. Unfortunately, attempts to capitalize on the original game’s apparent success have failed to gain much traction. Dead Island Riptide felt like a tepid placeholder that refused to address the original game’s many varied problems, and while I barely even noticed the release of Dead Island Epidemic, the popular opinion seems to be that I didn’t miss much. Sadly, the same is true for Deep Silver’s latest spin on the series, with Escape Dead Island coming across as little more than a rushed attempt to remind us the franchise exists while Dead Island 2 remains in production.
Unlike the main series entries, Escape Dead Island eschews a first-person perspective, co-op features, crafting, and leveling systems, and instead gives us a third-person stealth/action game with a cel-shaded visual style. As wannabe cameraman Cliff Calo, players visit the tropical paradise of Narapela, ready to document the mysterious plague that annihilated Banoi in the original game. As one might expect, everything goes to buggery and the dead start shambling in hungry droves. Well, not exactly droves – more like awkward little clusters that don’t really seem to know what they’re doing.
Escape Dead Island is a bit of an empty game, found desperately wanting in heart, soul, and presentation. It doesn’t help that everything seems everso slightly unfinished. The sound effects are limp in their dampened half-heartedness, while animations are stuttery and glitchy. Enemies attack through walls, and the scenery overall is overtly artificial. While cel-shading can make anything look passably pretty enough, the graphics here are nonetheless rudimentary in nature, reminiscent of the kind of earlier cel-shaded visuals one might find in games several generations old. Cliff and his zombie opponents scarcely feel like they belong in the same world, since the inadequate audiovisual feedback during their interactions leads to an overwhelming sense of disconnect – Mr. Calo will swing at a zombie with a club or an axe, there’ll be excessive amounts of blood, but there’s no real impact there, no feeling like you’re actually tearing into the creatures as they fall to the ground in mute, unimpressive clumps.
The island of Narapela is small and constrained, as evidenced by the sheer amount of backtracking undertaken throughout the game. Expect to see the same environments, and traverse the same dull, empty caverns several times over as Cliff huffs it on foot from one destination to another and back again. Along the way, one will be expected to sneak past or dismember a variety of zombies, from the standard shamblers, to ranged spitters and ever-deadly butchers. Some stealth has been casually implemented, as Cliff can crouch to sneak up on creatures and put them down with a one-hit kill, though doing so can alert other zombies and the player will take damage while locked in the kill animation. Combat itself is as minimal and brainless as you can get. There’s a regular attack, a strong attack, a shove move, a sprint slash, and a woefully inadequate dodge. That’s about it. Every single melee encounter involves shoving a zombie to interrupt its own offense, then mindless pummeling it until it’s dead, with that same lifeless sense of disconnect I’ve already discussed. The butcher requires a little bit more finesse, since he’s got a range of abilities and constantly blocks, but even he goes down simply enough once you nail the repetitive patterns. During the course of the game, Cliff also acquires a handful of ranged weapons, for some simplistic over-the-shoulder gunfire. At least here, there’s a little satisfaction, as pulling off a headshot slows the game down briefly and allows one a good look at the cartoony skullsplosion.
If Escape had been given more time in the oven to properly bake, there’s probably something good that could have been done here. As with Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, a comic-inspired spin-off with a greater emphasis on over-the-top action is a nice idea, but just like with Tecmo Koei’s little experiment, the resulting product is severely underdone. The game’s narrative especially could have been more impressive, if the script had been given a little more “oomph” – the usual “shady corporation” narrative is infused with bizarre hallucinations and seemingly supernatural events, in scenes that borrow a considerable amount of stylistic inspiration from television’s Lost. If only the combat had been deeper, or at least refined enough to feel satisfyingly dynamic in any way, shape or form. If only the stealth mechanics weren’t so utterly stale. If only the weak attempts at Metroidvania style progress wasn’t held back by so much involuntary backtracking and no real incentive to ever want to explore fresh areas with any new tools one picks up. If only the stamina bar that governs attacking, sprinting, shoving, and dodging wasn’t such an annoying bloody thing.
Part of what makes Dead Island appealing as an idea is that it isn’t just another shallow zombie hack n’ slash game. The mainstay entries pinch a lot from the Borderlands series to maintain a consistently interesting atmosphere, with tons of loot, plenty of unlockable skills, multiple characters, and a fun weapon crafting system. None of that’s in Escape, leaving us stuck with just another shallow zombie hack n’ slash – one that’s especially remarkable in its vapidity. As one trudges through the experience, medkits can be found to add “Plus One Health,” though there are no actual health bars on display – it’s all regenerative. Weapons are drip fed throughout the game, and all more or less behave the same way, not even providing noticeable damage upgrades. Every now and then, you’ll uncover a new progression item – like a grappling hook to reach high places, or a lever axe to jimmy open stuck doors – but the non-linear uses for such items are few and far between, and the rewards found beyond do little to inspire encouragement. As a photographer, Cliff can use his camera to snap shots of noteworthy objects and scenes throughout the story, and there’s no real reason for doing so other than going through an arbitrary “yay videogame content” checklist.
I’ve played far worse games than this. I encountered no egregious, game-breaking glitches, and for as exanimate as the combat and stealth mechanics are, at least they’re functional, as inoffensive as they are unimpressive. But it’s just so completely, exhaustingly boring. There’s nothing to it. It plods along, doing very little to ever annoy its audience, but doing precisely diddly-squat to ever entertain it, either. It’s just… there. From beginning to end, Escape Dead Island is a game that’s simply… there. An unambitious, consequently undistinguished little endeavor, something that indeed just appears to be playing for time while Dead Island 2 gears itself up for release. It’s the two-bit local band that’s been trotted out onstage to do a barely passable job of warming the crowd before the act they came to see comes on. What would a musical equivalent of the Dead Island series be? I don’t know. Ratt or something.