When games let me roll a character before I start, I always make someone who seems cool, rather than min-maxing stats. In Death Road to Canada, I wanted someone who’d be fun to hang around with in a zombie apocalypse, rather than a simple zombie-clobbering machine. Given this, it’s probably no surprise most of my forays didn’t go that well, but I had a great time trying to steer a band of pixelated misfits to Canada.
Rocketcat Games’ randomly-generated road trip game for the PC has you escaping zombie-ridden Florida to drive to Canada, where I assume Justin Trudeau was cool enough to ward off zombies. Along the way the little band loots buildings, fights off hordes of the shambling undead, and encounters friendly traders and not-so-friendly bandits. You can also get sucked into a vortex, make sweet jumps in an ice cream truck, stub your toe a lot, and tell a whole bunch of people to “cool it.”
You can create your own player characters and followers or start with randomized ones, and custom characters can also appear as NPCs in your games. My first character, Tighe, had bright blue hair and the qualities of being ‘charming’ and ‘friend of dog.’ He was basically a stylized version of me from about six years ago, when I was working as a dog walker and playing in a punk rock marching band. Much like past me, he wasn’t that great at surviving.
The characters have a range of stats that are indicated with pleasantly vague faces. There are basics, like strength and stamina, as well as a morale meter that shifts as characters bicker or eat a good meal. There are also other useful traits like medical and mechanical, which helps you fix your car when it breaks down because you plowed over too many zombies in it.
Stamina plays a big role when facing off against zombies, and Tighe quickly tired himself out swinging whatever he could lay his hands on—rebar, a frying pan, a board with a nail in it, and even a zombie femur. Hordes can easily overwhelm you, so your best bet is to run circles around the room as you loot points of interest. You can block off areas with furniture, but more often than not Tighe created a bottleneck that made everything worse once the horde broke through. The game also features unavoidable ‘siege’ events in which you have to hold out for a set length of time or escape through darkened sewers. These appear to get worse as the game goes on, and their unpredictability means you can’t entirely plan for them. Tighe and his AI companions didn’t stand much of a chance.
Tighe was great at making friends and getting deals on trading, but we ran into far more zombies than people to be friends with. His less combat-oriented skills didn’t come into play as often or meaningfully as I would have hoped, and he died repeatedly on his adventure. His ‘friend of dog’ skill only came in handy in one of my runs, when he managed to find a dog. The dog was much better at running in circles than Tighe was, and when he succumbed to the zombie horde the dog took over driving duties, learned to use a shotgun, and almost made it to Canada. Good dog.
Tired of being at the mercy of fate, I gave up on Tighe and made a new character. Who would have the best chance of surviving a zombie apocalypse? Joel from The Last of Us.
At one point Joel found a sports car, which made him a lot happier. “I once saw a bodybuilder throw a sports car,” he sagely told his companion, a boxer named Contender whom he’d picked up on the side of the road. “That makes no sense, Joel,” Contender replied, politely sidestepping the fact that Joel had reached peak Embarrassing Dad. The characters are unique in theory, with clever lines and personality quirks, but the randomness of the dialogue assigned to them doesn’t entirely make them feel like individuals. This bit of dialogue was funny because of the characters I’d attached to it; he fact that I’d heard these lines from plenty of other characters made even Joel, like many of my runs, feel disposable and random.
The randomized events tend to either be good luck encounters, where you get supplies or stats upgrades, or bad luck encounters, where you lose a stat or supplies or get hurt. During the driving sequences, these events come on fast—there’s seldom a moment of downtime before some new thing happens. This can feel overwhelming at times, and since events are often out of the player’s hands, it’s easy to find yourself watching while your morale falls or you lose a bunch of supplies through no fault of your own. The consequences of these random events were rarely the sole cause for my failure, but the luck of the draw sometimes turned a good run into a bad one with little I could do to stop it. The game’s fast pace and unpredictability occasionally made me feel like I was along for the ride rather than actually steering my survivors to Canada, even if that ride was an enjoyable one.
Luckily, restarts are quick and light affairs. Unlike a game like FTL, where you put careful thought into upgrades and loadouts only to lose it all, Death Road to Canada doesn’t feature a complex levelling up process. Dying well into the game feels unlucky given the randomness, but I rarely grew frustrated because I felt I’d made the wrong choice. In the three or so hours I spent with the game I played about twenty runs, getting five days from Canada at my best. I’d like to see the end, but it feels like it comes down to luck.
Death Road to Canada has a consistent, fun tone, with a great soundtrack and cute pixel graphics that keep it from being too serious or gruesome. However, overall it feels a little shallow and rushed. Fun stories come out of your runs, but I felt like I had little hand in shaping them. Local co-op and additional modes that can be unlocked after beating the game, such as Deadlier Road, which features harder hordes, or Short Trip to Heck, which provides a shorter campaign, likely provide new challenges for players who benefit from the luck of the draw. Ultimately Death Road to Canada is a light, breezy game rather than a hardcore one, which suits its tone just fine. Overall I enjoyed my time with it, even if that dog never did see Canada.