Let’s face it, Escape Dead Island is a rather strange offshoot in comparison to the first two Dead Island games from Techland and even more so when stacked up alongside what we’ve seen from Yager’s Dead Island 2. It completely ditches the co-operative aspect of the series and the wacky weapon customisation that helped it gain its popularity, and instead aims for narrative and something a little more grounded and realistic.
Set after the initial outbreak on Banoi, the intention is that it should act as a stepping stone for the story to branch to the much more global outbreak that we see in play during Dead Island 2. Cliff Calo, the son of a media mogul who desperately wants to make a name for himself, enlists the help of Charlie and Devon to head to the island of Narapela, investigate what’s going on and get the news out to the wider world.
The reason for the shift away from combat is that none of these characters are immune to the disease. Waking up all alone after their yacht is wrecked close to the island, the early stages of the game focus much more on stealthy play than anything else. Coming across his first zombie, who’s happily munching on a corpse, it’s all about going from cover to cover and avoiding its gaze and attention as best you can.
Helping you stay out of harms way, you can see how aware zombies are of your presence thanks to little exclamation marks above their heads. These fill up with colour to give you a meter to track this detail, with one colour to show if they’ve heard you and another to show if they’re seeing you. Duck back into cover and stay still and they’ll gradually lose interest, but as soon as that exclamation mark fills up, you’d best be ready to defend yourself or run away.
It’s not long before you find a handy screwdriver, which can be used for quick and quiet kills – even if the way that Cliff repeatedly stabs away with it is a bit over the top – but still, you need to be careful and once detected, it’s by far better to evade rather than face the zombies head on. However, over the course of the game, better weapons will naturally make themselves available to you, whether its guns or big fire axes, and it’s here that the full body dismemberment from the main series will rear its head once more. Even so, you’ll have to be careful not to get overwhelmed.
Another aspect that’s really going to stand out is the quite drastic shift in graphical style. Rather than the attempts at something fairly realistic looking – albeit with outlandish weaponry kit-bashed together – or the exaggerated hyper-realistic look that will creep in with Dead Island 2, this takes its visual cues from comic books, with black outlines to everything and often very simple and plain textures. There’s some rather vibrant colours at play too, with reds and blood really popping and grabbing your attention.
Especially considering that it’s a more linear game than before, with a semi-open world design, the environments were really quite spartan, but it’s all in the aid of allowing them to really play with the creeping insanity that Cliff goes through over the game. After one of the first major zombie encounters, where I was able to stealthily make my way through, suddenly he freaks out, seeing a huge number of shipping containers coming falling out of the sky. It’s a fantastic effect, and a moment which is quickly brings everything thus far into doubt.
For one thing, Cliff then blacks out and comes to inside a shipping container, but then Charlie sticks her head round the door and Devon is stood just outside too, both eager to get into the heart of the island. “Did anything that I just played really happen?” I ask myself, as I read between the lines that Cliff had just been blacked out this entire time as Charlie and Devon look after him. If that’s the case, though, how come he’s got the rope and screwdriver from before?
This creeping insanity, backed up by some fancy visual effects, is something that could really be played on to great effect during the game’s story, though I was a little disappointed to have it confirmed to me that it’s tied directly into the narrative and doesn’t track against your actions within the game. More disappointing is the general lack of facial animation to sync with any dialogue between characters, which in this day and age is a fairly major omission.
That point underscores the general feeling that I got from the game as a whole. It’s a decent if unremarkable aperitif or a side dish to the main meal that Dead Island 2 will be, trying to take the “Hell in paradise” motif and push it in a different direction. I’m just not sure that a stealth game with a focus on the narrative is going to grab the same kind of audience as those that want to wade through zombies, rending limb from limb with an axe that’s somehow being heated by blowtorches.