Escape Dead Island review
Zombies can cover a multitude of sins. They're famously dim-witted, so bargain basement AI and wonky pathfinding is easily masked inside the fiction. And they're always falling to bits, so it doesn't really matter if textures and models are crude. Whoever saw an immaculate zombie?
The original Dead Island and its hurried semi-sequel Riptide got a lot of mileage out of this loophole. Neither game was what you could call polished, but developer Techland compensated - sometimes overcompensated - by filling the cracks with gallons of loot, outlandish weapon crafting and knockabout four-player co-op. Both games outstayed their welcome in the long run, but offered enough mid-tier laughs to justify the start of a new franchise. That franchise will decay into slime all too quickly if clunkers like Escape Dead Island are what publisher Deep Silver has in mind, however.
It's actually hard to work out why this game even exists, since its relationship to the core Dead Island series is tenuous at best. Beyond the concept of zombies on a tropical island, a tangential cameo and the occasional pile of suitcases, it could easily be related to one of the dozens of other cheap zombie games that have shambled into view over the last few years.
Following a brief prelude, which sets up the tiresome corporate conspiracy plotline and threatens to make Dead Island's slim backstory as garbled and idiotic as Resident Evil, events fast forward to six months after the events of the original game, as the whole world wonders what happened in this now-quarantined archipelago.
You're then placed in control of Cliff Calo, another example of gaming's bizarre obsession with casting obnoxious jerks as the hero character. Cliff is a rich white kid who wants to prove his worth to his media tycoon father by dragging two friends to the supposedly deserted island of Narapela in search of The Truth.
Cliff's arc is fairly obviously inspired by Far Cry 3's Jason Brody, another tired rehash of the old Heart of Darkness motif, as the privileged white westerner descends into the jungle and is immediately forged into a hardened warrior. Escape Dead Island even cribs Far Cry's hallucinatory flourishes, with multiple surreal scenes, on-the-nose dream sequences and reality-bending edits to portray Cliff's fragile mental state.
It doesn't work though. At all. Cliff isn't just a boisterous bro stuck in a bad place, he's a weird preening idiot whose unpleasant personality is magnified by the game's ugly cel-shaded aesthetic. He's got the soul of Dapper Laughs, the face of X Factor's Rylan Clark and is dressed as Tidus from Final Fantasy X. A triple whammy of nope.
The things you'll do as Cliff aren't much better. Initially armed with just a camera - you can add Dead Rising to the list of influences - you explore the stiffly defined areas of the island, constantly hemmed in with invisible walls and stupid barriers that are only blocking your path because Cliff is perhaps the least agile game protagonist ever. He can duck and...well, that's about it. He certainly can't jump or climb anything other than specifically placed ropes, so even the simplest box or fence might as well be a sheer mountain face to this lethargic champion.
This ensures that you're constantly, laboriously taking the long way around to wherever you need to go, as the linear plot drags you to the next waypoint. There are a few locations you can only access later in the story, as you acquire a grappling hook, crowbar and a gas mask to allow you past previously inaccessible doors and hazards, but don't go thinking this is some Metroidvania wonderland of hidden depths. At best, you'll find a room with a couple of extra collectables.
The map is also sort of openworld, in the sense that you're free to return to the small number of areas at any time, but the world is so flat and lifeless that there's absolutely zero reason to do so, unless you want to collect the dozens of diary entries, postcards, science logs and other ephemera that make up Escape Dead Island's perfunctory supplementary content.
The island isn't exactly swarming with zombies either. At most you'll face four or five at a time, and apart from a couple of special undead mutant types none of them are tough to take down. For the most part, it's actually a stealth game, as you creep up on gut-munching zombies and stab them in the head before they've even grunted at your presence. Enjoyable stealth gameplay requires you to feel like you've outsmarted a reasonably intelligent foe and, needless to say, taking down creatures that are happy to stand facing a wall, pawing at thin air, hardly feels like a victory worth celebrating.
When you do go toe to toe with the undead, control is too soft and gluey to really satisfy. There's a sluggish dodge move that vaguely shunts you out of swiping range, and a basic lock-on system, but mostly you just mash wildly and the common variety zombies are splattered with minimal effort. It's really only the Butcher zombies that prove problematic - able to cover long distances fast, and armed as they are with bone-spiked arms that can kill you in a few hits as well as block your strikes - but once the game arms you with a shotgun, even these formidable foes fail to provide a meaningful challenge.
So progress is slow but inevitable, but somewhere around three quarters of the way through, you start to sense the shape of a game that could actually be quite good fun. By that stage you've picked up the best weapons, the plot is at its daft B-movie peak, and you can almost see past the clumsy, scruffy production values. It doesn't last, sadly, as crude difficulty spikes and a few too many bone-headed plot twists conspire to smother whatever limited potential was glimpsed.
For fans of Dead Island, the experience will be particularly disappointing, as none of the features you enjoyed in Techland's games appear here. The arsenal of weapons is bland and limited, ranging from a club to an axe to a sword, and even those are only made available at specific points in the story. All those inventive elemental weapons you crafted back on Banoi? The electrified machetes and exploding throwing knives? Not a sign of that goofy excess here.
Similarly, there's no loot or crafting since the only objects you can find are meaningless collectables found in corners, sparkling attractively. Every location is devoid of purpose - those drawers, boxes, crates and cases are merely window dressing. The only useful things you'll find are medkits, but as you have instantly recharging health these only serve to provide +1 or +3 to your health. Except, since the game has no visible health gauge and portrays damage only through a vague bloodying of the screen, there's absolutely nothing to tell you what +1 or +3 health means in tangible gameplay terms.
And, inevitably, there's no co-op. This is a single player only game, and one that can't even maintain a basic level of entertainment for its own scant playing time, let alone offer any sort of replay value. Technically, it's a mess as well, with frequent pauses and a stuttering frame rate, textures that pop in and out, and a generally smeared, characterless look.
The only way Escape Dead Island could be reasonably enjoyed is if it were actually a game from 1999, and in terms of both visuals and gameplay there's no reason it couldn't have been. As an also-ran from the first flush of the survival horror genre, it would at least have some residual nostalgic charm, like long-forgotten monster-hacking efforts such as Nightmare Creatures.
But this isn't 1999, and even where third rate franchise filler is concerned, standards are now higher than a game of Escape Dead Island's shoddy construction could ever reach. With a dash more ambition, and a lot more technical coherence, at best it would only have been a middling distraction before next year's Dead Island 2. In its current form, the kindest thing would be a short, sharp stab with a screwdriver behind the ear.