Dead Island was a surprise hit a few years back, the first person melee focus coupled with an open world to explore gave us a pretty unforgettable experience. The well known teaser trailer didn’t harm its chances either. The follow up, Dead Island Riptide, wasn’t quite as successful, but controversy in terms of the statue that came with the special edition ensured that it got noticed. Now we’ve got Escape Dead Island to fill the gap until Dead Island 2 arrives next year, and it’s taken a different approach to zombie survival.
The first thing you’ll notice with Escape Dead Island is that it’s all from third person perspective, and the second is that it’s cell shaded, both significant departures from the previous games. This makes sense because this isn’t about replicating what’s gone before, this is about telling a different story and bringing us the origins of the virus that caused the Banoi Island outbreak. Developed by Fatshark instead of Techland, but still published by Deep Silver, there’s opportunity here to try something different that gives us, the players a unique experience, which it mostly succeeds at, even if things are a little ropey at times.
Playing as Cliff Calo, an egotistical rich kid with daddy issues, you set out with two friends to investigate reports that there’s something interesting to look at on Narapela – a small island in the Banoi pennisula, and about the closest anyone can get to Banoi some 6 months after the original outbreak. It comes as no surprise to anyone that the island is infested with zombies, and that the virus causing the destruction was created and released here. Cliff, with support from Linda and Devan, must traverse the island unravelling the mystery of what happened whilst keeping his sanity in check. Cliff suffers from severe hallucinations that leave him and you increasingly disoriented as events progress, and it never really fails to throw up a WTF moment.
Escape Dead Island’s story is definitely something that keeps you engaged, where elements of conspiracy, secret labs and psychological trauma combine; and it’s revealed in nicely realised animated sections that don’t follow the game style, but don’t feel at odds with it either. However, the gameplay linking these snippets of the tale leaves a lot to be desired. Initially you’re only exploring the island which means controls are simply look and move. When zombies come into the frame and combat is required you find yourself wishing for more. Attacking is based on two buttons and a lock-on function and is good enough for one-on-one situations. Get into fights with three or more zombies and you’re likely to be restarting the section again. Stealth is an option though, so isolating and taking out targets becomes the preferred method of playing, it’s a shame that the game doesn’t think you should be playing like this all the time and does its utmost to stop you from being stealthy.
Any actions outside walking in a straight line (like climbing a ladder) stops you from being sneaky. Switching weapons makes you stand up. Stealth attacks aren’t possible if enemies are near a wall or too close to an object because you can’t stand up. Pressing the button to cancel an on-screen message from a collectible causes you to dodge and come out of stealth. It’s not very well designed. It would be alright if the melee combat made up for it, but that’s perfunctory with a 3-hit combo or heavy attack the only real options. Weapons are upgraded as you find better ones, and they do get quicker though don’t seem to do any more damage. Ranged weapons come in the form of guns, and are next to useless. For example, a shotgun at point blank range still takes at least two shots to takedown a zombie, more than enough time to get hit by them. Oh, and don’t forget the stamina meter that makes sure you can’t go on running or swinging indefinitely – that’s conveniently not explained at any point.
Whilst we’re talking about damage, Cliff cannot take much at all. At the start it’s only a couple of hits, and as medkits are collected there are max health boosts, the game just doesn’t tell you what your max health is (or show it on screen), and it generally feels like there’s no difference most of the time. Face off against some of the tougher foes and it becomes a battle of attrition using dodge, attack, back off, then repeat to wear them down. Just hope that there’s not another enemy in the mix because it’ll be your death. At least when you restart it’s pretty instantaneous and the game will chuck bonus ammo for you to waste. Running away like Dead Island encouraged isn’t an option either because everything can move faster than you, or hit you perfectly with a distance attack. It can be seriously frustrating at times.
At least the island is pretty open with each area becoming accessible with a new piece of kit or a new mission becoming available. It’s not a massive world, and considering the amount of backtracking required it’s good that it’s quite compact. This translates into a relatively short game too, with the first few chapters flying past. Things lengthen as the fetch quests start, and the points where Cliff’s mind snaps loose give some much needed variety to proceedings – mainly because they break up the time spent waiting for your health to recover after the last zombie encounter. Zombies come in a few flavours too so there’s a need to develop different tactics to deal with them (attack then dodge instead of dodge then attack), however there’s the same desire to avoid each because you know your odds of survival are slim.
Beyond the story and getting from point A to B there are the obligatory collectibles that come in the form of files, discs, postcards and snapshots that you have to take. Each provides some background, with the spoken ones being delivered in the most unenthusiastic way, which is strange given that the rest of the voice cast do at least make an effort with their woefully scripted lines. It’s not the best example of videogame dialogue, but then it’s not the worst either. There are bugs too, the review copy came with a large list, the majority of which have been patched out – I did end up several times where it crashed and locked up the system as the game tried to stream in sections of the island.
Escape Dead Island is an odd title to sum up. There are some good ideas and a decent approach to adding a different style of game to the series. It isn’t a big budget title and it doesn’t pretend to be, though it could really benefit from some gameplay mechanic tightening to get the best out of what it’s trying to deliver. It’s worth a punt because no doubt it’ll be going cheap very soon, if it doesn’t come to other platforms first (the trophy listing has it also available on PS4 and PS Vita). Just be aware that you’re likely to end up frustrated before reaching the end.
A copy of Escape Dead Island on PlayStation 3 was provided by the Deep Silver PR team for this review. The game is available now on PS3 and Xbox 360 from the usual outlets.