Review: 'Death Road to Canada' (Switch)

Screenshot from 'Death Road to Canada'. Screenshot from 'Death Road to Canada'. ROCKETCAT GAMES

If I ever found myself in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, I would die pretty much immediately. I didn't need to play Death Road to Canada to learn this about myself, but the game certainly drove the point home. This survival game has a great aesthetic to it, making the zombie apocalypse more radical than it's ever been, and the game's attitude really does make the game less frustrating and more fun. If you pick this up, though, be prepared to die a lot.

You play as a random character in Florida, which sucks because Florida is full of zombies, along with the rest of the United States. You hear that Canada is a zombie-free wonderland and decide to hit the road, driving up the highway and picking up supplies wherever you can. You'll find other survivors along the way, and your original character may die, leaving you to play as whoever else you may have picked up. Being more of an arcade-style game, it's not a big deal that the story isn't complex or anything. You don't need a strong motivation to go killing a bunch of zombies.

Functionally, the game is pretty similar to other survival games like Organ Trail, at least from a bird's-eye view. You have to keep your characters healthy and fed, which means that you'll need to manage what supplies you have. Whenever you run low on food, gas or ammo, you'll need to track some more down by wandering into zombie-infested regions; if you run out of any of them, you're going to have a harder time on the way to Canada. For example, if you can't keep your car in good shape and full of gas, you'll have to run along the freeway, which means a greater chance of being set upon by bandits. You can also use food as currency to trade for other items if you get to a trading post, which could be worth it if you're desperately low on something else.

Most of the time, though, you're going to find yourself someplace like a neighborhood or a department store, which is absolutely swarming with zombies. You always get a zombie forecast before you enter a region, telling you how many zombies there are and how aggressive they are, but even in the lightest of zombie conditions, they are absolutely everywhere. This is not the kind of game where you can kill every zombie you see; you'll run out of ammo pretty much immediately and end up as brunch. You'll have to do your best to navigate around them, only attacking when it's absolutely necessary. This is a lesson that took me a long time to learn, and I had a number of painful deaths in the interim.

You can pick up a number of weapons to try and fight off zombies if things get too dire. You can find guns (which require ammo), physical weapons, or even furniture that's lying around, which you can lift up and throw into a group of zombies for a lot of damage. You can also occasionally attack gas canisters, which will fly around a bit before exploding, but be careful as they will do severe damage to you if you're not careful. You can't keep furniture or gas containers, so you're free to use them as you come across them, and it will make your exploration a lot easier. Other weapons you hold onto, at least as long as their durability lasts. You can find yourself without a weapon if you're not careful, which usually means you have to hightail it back to your car or face certain death.

The gameplay mechanics are solid, for the most part. You are a bit slow, and a bit weak, and you'll run out of stamina after too many swings, but this is all by design. It might be off-putting initially, since the game's music makes you feel like this is going to be an action game, but it does a good job of teaching you that you aren't Superman. The game strikes a good balance with your character's strength, where you can't do anything you want, but you're capable of getting out of most rough situations if you know what you're doing. What really annoyed me, though, was having the weapon button on Y, while switching weapons was on A. The two should have been swapped, and I couldn't find how to do it in-game. Otherwise, everything worked pretty well.

While most exploration isn't a big deal, you sometimes will be forced into a really bad situation, like exploring infested sewers, or a siege. These encounters are absolutely vicious, and they are designed to drain your weapons and ammo; when I died in a run, it was usually in one of these. The sewers I found particularly punishing, because they're extremely dark and I occasionally died just because I couldn't find the door, which was not something I am happy about. If you survive, though, you get Zombie Points, which can be used outside of a run to upgrade custom characters that you build. The next time you play the game with those created characters, they'll have whatever bonuses/upgrades you assigned to them, to make your journey easier.

Speaking of, character selection is kind of a thing. The normal way of playing the game is with random characters, and you'll know absolutely nothing about their skills or demeanor. As you progress through the game, you'll slowly learn more about these characters as their stats are unveiled. Stats are very important to know, as they determine not only how well you fight off zombies, but how well a character handles some of the random decision points that show up in the game. If you have the opportunity to repair a highly fuel-efficient car, it's best to try it with a character that has lots of mechanical skills, for example. Otherwise you could find yourself in a bigger hole than you were in before. While I think this system is kind of neat, this is also a huge amount of information to hide from the player. You're going to have to play this game many times in order to get lots of useful information on characters, which is standard for a roguelike, but it still feels like a big investment to me.

Sometimes during a run, you'll come across a character you've seen in a previous playthrough, or ones that you've created. These characters may have upgrades you gave them using Zombie Points, making them very valuable finds as they can make the game easier; you'll also know more of their stats than random characters, so you can know what they're good at. You can also choose alternate game modes where most characters are familiar, or where all the characters you meet are rare ones with special abilities. It seems kind of weird that purchased upgrades can either come into use or not, depending on how lucky you are; I guess that's the benefit of using custom characters, though. It's an odd system, but not one I'm that bothered by.

One last note about characters: if you find a dog, bring it along. The dog is the best character. Trust me on this.

If there's one thing to make this game really stand out, it's the irreverent attitude and writing. This is the least serious zombie survival game you'll ever play, and that includes Organ Trail. The writing is absolutely delightful whenever it pops up, and there are many, many moments that I ended up capturing with a screenshot because they were too great to forget. (Again: bring the dog along. You'll thank me later.) Solid presentation and story can often take a good game to new heights, and while the story isn't exactly complex, the writing really is enjoyable enough to take this game up a notch.

The game's presentation is one of its best elements. The pixel art is pretty solid; it's nothing exceptional, but everything is pleasant and/or funny to look at. The biggest problem is that when the screen is swarmed with zombies, it can be difficult to spot items on the ground amidst the shambling bodies. The sound, though, is excellent. The game's soundtrack is wonderfully over-the-top rock and roll mixed with upbeat chiptunes; the surprisingly high-energy music makes the game more relaxing and fun, when it might otherwise be extremely stressful. Performance is usually good, but it is possible that the game will start lagging horrendously if you go too long without restarting your Switch (think weeks, not hours). In my experience, restarting the Switch clears this right up.

If you pick up this game with the intention of completing it, you'll be getting your money's worth. Like any roguelike, this game is designed to be played through many times, and it will take you a number of attempts just to beat it once. The more you play, the more rewards and upgrades you'll be able to unlock, which gets you farther through the game next time, which in turn increases your rewards. Once you beat the game normally, you'll have the option of playing a shorter game, a longer game, or a much harder game as well. If you plan on revealing everything about all the characters, or maximizing your custom character upgrades, you'll be at this a long time.

Death Road to Canada is nowhere near a walk in the park, and you'll have to tread cautiously and think carefully if you're going to survive the trip. At the same time, the great but ridiculous writing, paired with the absurd rock soundtrack, make this a much more silly and enjoyable survival game than most. If you want something difficult but not serious, or if you want to laugh while you destroy zombies, this game deserves your attention. And don't forget to bring the dog.

Final score: 8 out of 10

A copy of this game was provided for review purposes.

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