Nov 24 2014

Review of Escape Dead Island

header1.5 Stars

So it turns out that there are plenty of reasons to want to Escape Dead Island. Sure there are the zombies, but no one’s really afraid of them anymore; the real monsters here are bad storytelling, a buggy engine, and gameplay so clunky you’d mistake it for a robot circa 1955. While I’ve never been the biggest fan of the Dead Island series, I actually had a lot of hope for this game going into it. Escape was supposed to be a different take on the franchise, going for a more subtle and stealthy style of gameplay while putting a subversive and cerebral spin on the story. I also had some degree of confidence because of the team developing it; while FatShark certainly isn’t the biggest fish in the sea, they’ve made a couple of games I’ve really enjoyed. Unfortunately though Escape Dead Island dashes all that potential against the rocks of what I can only assume were budgetary and time constraints, delivering a mess of a game that only the most of die-hard of Banoians will want to struggle through.

So we might as well get any praise for this game out-of-the-way quick because I don’t have much of it to give here. Presentation-wise, its fine; the music is inoffensive, the voice acting does the job, and the visuals do the comic book thing pretty well. In fact I’d say that watching onomatopoeias spring up off of everything from hissing steam pipes to massive explosions was probably my favorite part of the game and while the effect is certainly a little over-used here, I still liked seeing it. That said the cell-shaded and overly exposed visual style is clearly there to hide the grunginess of the assets themselves, especially in the environments, and once you look past all the bloom, it’s clear to see how chunky and simply ugly the game looks. Wow, we got away from praise really quick there. Well to try to give EDI at least one more point in its favour, I did like a lot of the effects they used to show how the main character is going nuts. They make decent use of impossible space by changing assets around both on and off-screen to create a good sense of confusion and unreliability. Unfortunately that’s pretty much everything good I have to say about the game, so let’s get into the bad.

For as interesting as these moments look, they ultimately lack substance.

For as cool as these moments look, they lack substance.

The story seems as good a place as any to start, especially because it was something a lot of people were looking forward to about this game. Not only was it supposed to be a more cerebral take on the series and zombie fiction in general, but it was also supposed to be the bridge between Dead Island 1 & 2, finally explaining where all those zombies came from. Well let me just save you the time and give you that little nugget of plot info right now (as it’s learned early on in the game anyways). Basically the Dead Island universe has its own Umbrella Corp called Geo Pharm, except instead of being needlessly evil they’re just hopelessly incompetent. Not exactly the most original origin in the world now is it? But really that’s all just a side story to the real plot of this game, the journey of self avowed douche-bag Cliff Calo and his idiot friends trying to escape the island where Geo Pharm was doing its experiments. If you were wondering why they were there in the first place, it’s because Cliff wanted to break the story of what was behind the Banoi outbreak so that his media mogul dad would love him again. Naturally though Cliff and his friend’s boat sinks within minutes of them landing on the beach, stranding them there. At this point one of them gets predictably bitten and Cliff goes off to try to find a cure, also he starts hallucinating a lot, and he runs into Xian Mei from the other Dead Island games who gives him a couple of missions then disappears from the plot completely.

It becomes clear early on that what you’re seeing and what is actually happening are two different things and the game attempts to make strong use of the unreliable narrator, but unsurprisingly they fuck it up. You see for that trick to have any effect, at one point you need to make a clear indication as to what is real and what is not, generally right at the end, creating a parallel between fantasy and reality and forcing the player to go back and reconsider their interpretation of what has happened. Except Escape Dead Island never does that, even right at the very end when it looks like you’ll get some real answers, it stays coy. In fact, with the addition of the after credits sequence, the game decides to make you question whether anything in the game ever happened at all, which is almost as bad as the old it-was-all-just-a-dream chestnut. Seriously, the entire game might as well have happened in the head of an autistic kid holding a snow-globe. It certainly doesn’t help that the characters are all dull and uninteresting but mercifully the game makes you spend almost no time with any of them except Cliff. Of course that also means you won’t have any reason to care about them, which is something of an issue when you consider that saving them is supposed to be your core motivation and goal.

I know it's a tropical island, but you might be overdoing it on the bloom there.

I know it’s a tropical island, but you might be overdoing it on the bloom there.

The gameplay is equally poorly handled; it attempts to mix elements of hack ‘n’ slash and stealth together but doesn’t manage to do either of those things very well. The core combat of the game has you mashing X and Y to do standard and heavy attacks respectively, but your attacks are slow and don’t combo well into one another. It’s also worth noting that you can’t just spam on the attack buttons as Dead Island’s stamina bar returns and you’re only able to get about six swings in before needing a breather. You’ll get some guns later on but they’re somewhat weak, ammo is scarce, and the aiming is floaty and inelegant. This means that dealing with anymore than a couple of zombies at a time is tough and requires you to be quick to dodge and run away; hindering that of course is the fact that the sprint is fairly limited and the dodge is unwieldy. So one would assume that means you’re supposed to fall back on the stealth, with the bad combat acting as a deterrent and causing you to approach situations more carefully.

That would be the case, if it wasn’t for the fact that the stealth is utter shit thanks to a massive lack of feedback. The only indication of enemy awareness you get is from an exclamation mark meter atop their heads, but the correlation between that meter and what you’re actually doing seems nebulous at best. You have no idea how much noise you’re making or at what range enemies can hear you, there’s no indication as to exactly where an enemy is looking, and there’s no mini-map or way to detect zombies that aren’t in your immediate visual range. Of course none of these things apply to the zombies themselves; they can see you through walls and from a mile away, they’ll start to become aware of you no matter what angle you approach them from, and they regularly manage to get the drop on you in combat by attacking from off-screen.

In-world flavour or genuine cries of help from the developer?

In-world flavour or genuine cries of help from the developer?

Lack of information almost seems to be a theme with this game as it affects the collectibles as well. You’ll pick up all sorts of files and photos throughout the game as well as med-kits that increase your max health but there is no menu to actually look at any of those collectibles in-game (you have to go back to the title screen) or way to find them beyond simply stumbling across them in the environment. Also while I appreciate the max health upgrades, there’s no way to actually tell what your health is at any given time; in fact I secretly suspect the med-kits do nothing as I seemed to die just as easily before picking them up as I did afterwards. Oh and just to put one more nail in the gameplay coffin, the game ends with a bunch of combat arenas in which stealth is completely impossible, making for an incredibly frustrating and unpleasant finalé. Wait scratch that, I have another nail, the game is only six hours long and that’s including deaths and mild scavenging about for collectibles, but all things considered that may be a positive note at this point.

Before we wrap up, there is one last thing I want to touch on and that is the technical issues this game has. For one thing, on PC the game is locked at 30 frames per second, not a huge deal for me personally but some people get real huffy about that. On a larger note, the engine seems to have trouble loading into scenes sometimes with things actually running at 10-15 frames for a few moments while the game gets itself together. Of course the game is also rife with good old-fashioned bugs; thankfully it’s mostly simple stuff like models getting grotesquely stretched out after getting caught in the world geometry or hitting the ground weird when dying and getting launched up into the air like Team Rocket. There are some rarer but more unpleasant bugs to be found however, especially with the cut scenes. More than once the game would place my character in the wrong spot during such a moment, which would completely ruin the scene and occasionally result in my death, for an example of this go to 21:40 in the video embedded at the bottom of this review. On the bright side though the game never crashed nor did running it cause my computer to light on fire, so that’s something I suppose.

To put it bluntly, Escape Dead Island is a mess, it’s clunky and unrefined in almost every aspect. The story doesn’t execute well on any of its themes or ideas, the gameplay is poorly built and unsatisfying, and the presentation despite being serviceable and well stylized, lacks overall quality. The fact that Deep Silver is charging $40 for this smoldering train-wreck is laughable and honestly I can’t recommend it to even the most die-hard of Dead Island fans. As such I’m giving Escape Dead Island a 1.5 out of 5 stars. Run, run away and don’t look back.

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