Dead State review
Hard corpse gaming.
There's a really good RPG in the guts of Dead State, the latest in a very long line of crowdfunded, early-accessed survival games. You just need to be prepared to carve your way through a lot of sloppy meat to find it.
For one, you need to overcome any weariness you may feel towards yet another game based around foraging for planks and tinned food, while fending off the undead and diplomatically keeping a community of survivors from tearing itself apart. That's not to say there's nothing left to be mined from this idea - or that other genres are immune to repetition - but by Saint Romero's neatly trimmed beard, it often seems like five of these things shamble up every week.
The other big hurdle that Dead State faces is that despite now having officially left Early Access and launching as a full finished game, it's still creaky as hell. Admittedly, this is a criticism that is more and more relative now that we have million dollar blockbusters launching with code held together with spit and prayers, but anyone who plonks down the £22 to download Dead State on Steam will be forgiven for balking at the multiple rough edges sticking out all over the place.
Generic and scruffy are hardly the sort of adjectives likely to entice a wider audience, and that's a pity since beneath its seemingly mouldy exterior, Dead State is also compelling, clever and strangely satisfying.
You start, as you so often do, by creating your character. The options are hardly generous, but you do get to select the traits that will define what sort of leader you'll be in the zombie-infested dystopia. Strength, charisma, mechanical skills - it's all predictable enough.
The game proper kicks off in a series of static cutscene slides, with you aboard a domestic flight - one of the last to take off before a mounting medical emergency closes all the airports. Of course, we know what's going on and, sure enough, somebody is infected on the plane and you crash in the Texas desert. Staggering from the wreckage, a brisk tutorial gets you up to speed on movement and combat, before delivering you into the arms of the survivors whose fate you'll get to decide.
Refreshingly, you don't need to seek out shelter. They've already found it. A whole high school, in fact. There's a decent amount of food put aside, and some medical supplies. There's a small but useful arsenal of weapons already in place, including a few firearms. The only pressing job is patching up the fence outside, but that's easily done.
The bulk of the game is split between walking around the cavernous empty school, talking to your fellow survivors and finding out what they need, and heading out into the world with whoever you think will be useful in the field. You click on your destination on the world map, and then watch as your marker makes its way there, Indiana Jones style. Sometimes your journey is interrupted by an incident along the way, which you can choose to react to, or you may detect other visitable locations on the way.
Once arrived at a destination, you explore much as you would in the original Fallout games, which Dead State resembles in several ways. Inventory management is fairly simple, as a right click changes your pointer to enable healing, item swapping or attacking. Despite the apocalypse, the world is still surprisingly well stocked. Unlike similar games where every can of beans is hard-earned, here you'll return from your foraging expeditions laden with goodies.
Combat, meanwhile, is old school and turn-based. Action points are spent moving and attacking, with the expected chance-to-hit percentages resulting in equally expected moments of frustration as a character lethargically swings a machete at thin air, somehow managing to miss the cannibalistic cadaver standing directly in front of them.
Zombies can knock chunks of health off with a swipe, and can also grapple characters and knock them to the floor. If strong and healthy such stumbles can be shrugged off, but for wounded or weakened characters it can be disastrous, as zombies will continue to munch as the turns tick by. At least zombies go down fairly easily. Far tougher are human looters, who often come armed with guns, wear armour and travel in packs of five or six. Surviving an encounter with them in the early going is as much about luck as strategy.
That holds true of combat in general, though, as the game's rather rigid systems don't leave much room for subtlety or deep strategy. Characters have pitifully low reserves of Action Points, meaning you rarely have the chance to do anything more than move a few squares and unleash a single attack. As a result, fights often boil down to standing in place and simply trading blows. The game is also fussy about where you can move, and it's not uncommon for characters to be blocked in by each other, or forced to use up multiple turns clumsily repositioning themselves around scenery items that really shouldn't be impassable barriers.
It sometimes feels like the game isn't playing entirely fair as well, with a line-of-sight system that is somewhat flaky, and enemies that can literally seem to spawn from nowhere. The twitchy camera, which constantly resets your zoom level and sometimes decides to go off map entirely, doesn't help either.
More interesting are the interactions at the school base. The diplomacy required is familiar enough, but even with graphics that look a lot like an early beta version of The Sims from 1999, some chewy scenarios and conflicts worth caring about manage to emerge. What's especially worthwhile is that there's rarely a binary good/bad option, and when you lose someone - to suicide or just having them abandon your refuge rather than suffer your inept leadership - it's never as obvious as picking one wrong response.
It's in the crossover between the lumpen exploration phases, and the crude polygon soap opera unfolding at home, that Dead State's pulse beats strongest. If you can get through the first few hours, when you're most likely to make mistakes or fall foul of the game's clumsier systems, then you'll find an adventure that is familiar but also fairly compelling.
Sadly, it's in the long term that Dead State struggles most. Far from being a desperate battle for survival, there's a lack of urgency to both your situation and the storyline that bleeds a lot of the inherent tension out of the game. You'd actually have to deliberately screw things up to run out of food, and even medical supplies are incredibly numerous. Once you've found some serious weaponry, and equipped some makeshift armour on your characters, you'll breeze through what is supposed to be a harrowing armageddon without breaking much of a sweat.
There's nothing here that can't be fixed with a few well aimed patches and balancing tweaks however. For all its lack of technical polish, there's nothing game breaking and even as the challenge diminishes in direct proportion to your playing time, the stories that come out of the cast of broad appealing archetypes will keep you on the wheel through another day and night cycle.
Nothing much to look at, and with a premise that has been dulled through repetition, Dead State is a game that requires you to approach it with an open mind and a forgiving nature. Make the effort, and you'll find a game that makes up in charm what it lacks in polish.