The backstory of Death Road to Canada relies upon you accepting a situation in which hordes of evacuees from the US race to the Canadian border to escape the results of some foolish experiment or disaster. So, it’s surprisingly topical all things considered. Heavily inspired by the classic educational title, The Oregon Trail, you must guide a small group of mismatched refugees from a zombie apocalypse, braving both randomly generated ailments and the dungeon exploring scavenging runs necessary to ensure your survival. While this results in yet another rogue-lite, fortunately in this case the setting and the game’s influences are perfectly matched to the form.
The retro-inspired pixel graphics are surprisingly clear and effective for the most part. This lo-fi aesthetic means that vast hordes of shambling brain-eaters can be packed into the procedurally generated locations your ill-fated party must visit along the journey North. The drawback, however, is that many of these locations begin to look and feel the same as you begin the journey again following an almost inevitable calamity. Because the bulk of your scavenging takes place indoors, it is only the occasional shopping mall that breaks the cycle of identikit offices and family homes. Such repetition is perfectly in keeping with the mood and theme of Death Road to Canada but does result in scavenging becoming a bit of a chore.
Unlike the somewhat limited areas to explore, however, the vast range of characters you may find along the way is dizzying. These range from normal American residents to knights in full medieval armour and various four-legged friends. A lucky run can therefore result in a car full of weird and wacky adventurers, all with a series of hidden characteristics and abilities. Even the more everyday recruits can suddenly reveal surprising attitudes, although, unlike a title such as Darkest Dungeon, many of these only really result in different flavour text or optional responses rather than actual gameplay changes.
One area of character customisation that does directly affect gameplay, though, is the combat specialisms. Martial arts, melee weapons, and firearms can all be wielded with a range of success, whilst particularly strong characters can throw large items of furniture to lethal effect. The latter is particularly useful given the fragility of many weapons and the scarcity of ammunition. Having the ability to chuck a sofa at a zombie’s head got me out of many sticky situations, and the early stages of the game are certainly made somewhat easier by creating a muscly character.
In true rogue-lite fashion, Death Road to Canada is brutal and unforgiving. Not only must you manage food, medicine, and fuel for your car, but scavenging expeditions take place through a top down Gauntlet-esque perspective where you control your lead character, with other AI team-mates following you. Fending off the hordes of zombies gets progressively harder as the numbers increase alongside their awareness and aggression. Towards the end of your journey, losing at least one party member becomes almost inevitable. The procedural generation algorithms did seem fairly stable, however, as running out of fuel led to an area with a car for discovery, whilst new party members seemed to be more frequent when you were left alone. Given the number of times you need to repeat your journey in order to make significant progress, such factors are essential to retaining your interest.
As you slowly progress towards the safety of Canada, your party members have the opportunity to level up various skills and personality traits. These are mostly hidden until a situation occurs that reveals them. You won’t know, for example, that Elliott is disloyal and untrustworthy until he runs off and abandons you when faced by bandits, or that Michelle is an expert at medical interventions until you return bleeding to your car after a frantic scavenging hunt goes awry. This uncertainty means that recruiting new members is always a dilemma, particularly as the potential extra firepower means the consumption of more resources. Whilst this item management doesn’t constitute the main gameplay, it successfully lurks in the background and adds a nice strategic touch to what initially seem to be simple decisions.
Aside from individual character development, there’s a system for persistent improvements through the currency of ZP or zombie points. These are earned through particular acts in the game, such as escaping a difficult undead siege, or very occasionally through item pickups in the exploration mode. Visiting the upgrade area from the main menu allows you to spend these ZP to increase the effectiveness of particular perks and talents, or change overall game mechanics such as the number of ZP you can store or the amount of ammunition you might find whilst exploring. Focusing on specific talents should see runs become slightly easier if you create characters with those skills, although the random nature of recruits still means that nothing is certain.
There are a wide variety of different game modes – most of which are locked until you manage to make a successful run all the way to Canada. The main changes – aside from enemy difficulty – are in the makeup of your team and potential recruits. Some modes allow you to create your own team members at the start of the run and, as such, are the most beginner friendly, whilst others may allow for more weird and unique character types. The latter sees the aforementioned knights, dogs and other odd companions and is the most charming and funny mode I’ve been able to play.
Death Road to Canada is a really enjoyable and successful roguelite. The usual conventions and trappings of the genre are well suited to both the setting and the presentation of the game, and the novel adaptations of the old Oregon Trail conventions add a great layer of strategy and randomness to the mix. Whilst the environments can be a little repetitive and the need for replaying numerous times is potentially offputting, there is so much to discover, and so many different game modes to unlock that it’s easy to recommend. While playing this won’t necessarily help with an exit strategy for if your country becomes occupied by rabid and dangerous monsters, it’s certainly a fun entry in the exponentially growing roguelite scene.
Version Tested: PS4 – also available on PC, Xbox One, Switch, and IOS