Death Road to Canada is a randomly generated zombie action-RPG developed by Rocketcat Games, their first major PC release.
The primary objective of DRtC is simple: the player, controlling a character with a random skill specialization (from dog lover to shotgunner) and personality quirk (will they be paranoid or calm?), along with a potential partner character go on a road trip from Florida to Canada. Along the way, the player has the option to loot buildings for food and supplies, trade food for supplies at outposts, run out of food and supplies on the trip thus creating more tensions in an already strained group dynamic, pick up other survivors of the zombie apocalypse who will use up the food and supplies, and get eaten by zombies. Let me repeat that last part: the player character will get eaten by zombies quite a lot. But getting eaten by zombies has never been this enjoyable in a long time.
Playing DRtC is a simple concept to grasp and astoundingly difficult to execute.
The controls feel very thick, as if the characters are walking through the North End of Boston during the Great Molasses Flood. At times, this feels organic in the context of the widespread doomsday scenario: ordinary people who, in the face of certain death, are suddenly thrown into intense physical situations. It makes sense that the former actor would be sluggish and hard to maneuver in a combat situation. Other characters, such as laborers or athletes, have a harder justification with the movement system. Overall, though, it does create dread and panic as the player tries to sneak around a horde of undead, hoping that their characters’ tiny pixel legs can take them to safety. Past the movement, the combat controls are surprisingly realistic for such a stylized game. Swinging a sledgehammer more than three or four times in a row will cause the player to fatigue, weakening their blows and slowing them down. Firing a gun, however, does not have the same tiring effects. The guns are harder to control, unless the character has improved their skill in gun handling or had their randomized skill gun-related. This all means that the zombies are difficult to kill in large numbers. There will be no Left 4 Dead style mowing down hundreds of ghouls with a chainsaw.
These mechanics make the game’s difficulty curve feel like a brick wall sometimes. It took me quite a few tries to actually make it to Canada. This brings up the game’s major fault in my eyes: the RNG is stacked too often against the player. Of course, in a randomly generated game such as this, it is expected that the player will have the odd game which is almost totally unwinnable.
Sometimes with DRtC, however, I would find myself stuck in a Siege level, where the player characters are trapped in an enclosed area for at least an hour of in game time, with little mobility and lots of baddies. This would inevitably end in either squirming and running around the level hoping that the door would free up, or death. While this is narratively justified in zombie stories, and the game goes to great lengths to tell the player that combat isn’t always the best option over just trying to get the hell out of the situation, it just puts unnecessary and far too much pressure on the player.
With that being said, the gameplay is fun when it works. There is a great joy to find in sneaking around a city street trying to find a survivor hiding in an apartment building, or running through a superstore parking lot to try and forage for food and supplies inside. When the hordes are manageable and bullets are plentiful, the game is an excellent display of design and execution.
A minor sticking point is in the aesthetics of the game; specifically, the music used in the levels like the hectic ones. All of the songs are typical chiptune but with other instruments included that you’d expect from a game that looks like DRtC. But, it feels like for most of the levels the soundtrack was skipped around a little. The tempo of the music will match the mood onscreen, but the darkness and gore of the level is mixed with a score that sounds more in place in a Final Fantasy battle. It is high-energy, but it almost feels like the wrong kind of high-energy.
All said, Death Road to Canada is a fantastic game to have available in a Steam library.
Throughout the review process, I found myself jumping in and playing a round or two just to see more of what it had to offer. Even now, I’m probably going to play at least a couple more times after finishing the review. Despite its faults in difficulty scaling, the game is very good at scratching a jump-in-and-play itch. It joins the ranks of Binding of Isaac, as a game that I wouldn't play for 8 hours straight on a day off, but that I would certainly hop into for a couple hours and kick some undead tail.