The Walking Dead meets The Oregon Trail in this promising role playing game. An Early Access game for Steam, Dead Age puts the player through the hardships of managing a community of survivors during a zombie apocalypse. It’s a nifty idea that, right now, that has all the trappings of a game in development: frequent patches, fluctuating variables, and lack of polish in different areas. I like Dead Age for its ideas but it’s not quite ready for prime time just yet. There’s a boldness in the game’s design. Most zombie adventures empower the player to butcher legions of the undead for visceral thrills. Dead Age plays more like a pen and paper management sim with some turn based combat thrown in to spice things up. It’s also a roguelike, so it’s totally like The Oregon Trail but with far less dysentery.
The game begins with light character creation, though the player is initially limited to one, “everyman” class. There are others available with varying stats, like Soldier and Hunter, but these are locked out. What’s left is “Jack.” I’m assuming that the other classes can be unlocked by playing the game, though it’s not entirely clear what milestones have to be reached to make them available. I wish I knew what to do, because the other classes are much more viable than Jack, who's weak and makes the game rather difficult to survive because he doesn’t have any useful starter skills.
Survival is the primary focus of Dead Age. It challenges the player to see how many days they can stay alive and maintain a burgeoning human settlement. There’s some plate spinning involved as well as a lot of hard decisions to make because as the settlement grows, the bigger draw it is on your meager supplies. Instead of a fully realized 3D landscape to tromp around in, the action is presented entirely from a journal where you’ll manage your character and party, the settlement, craft gear and supplies, take on quests, and initiate combat. There’s a lot of information, much of it numerical, being conveyed to the player through the journal though I never felt overwhelmed by it. The tutorial does a good enough job of pointing out where everything lives.
Initiating quests can be done from the settlement, which functions as the the game’s central hub. People will approach the players with all sorts of problems, like a missing spouse or various welfare checks on friends and acquaintances. Other quests relate directly to the health of the settlement and task you with collecting X number of rations and material. There’s also the freedom to venture out into the wilds without missions or goals beyond gathering materials or earning experience points. The game runs on a system that tracks the number of days the player survives. The day advances when the player chooses to head back to camp while exploring the zones. At the end of the day, the number of rations used is determined by the amount of people living in the settlement. If the rations are used up, the game is over.
Quests, which yield experience and character skill points, are held in one of four playable zones. These areas will be familiar to first season Walking Dead fans as they include woodland areas, jammed expressways, and city outskirts. These zones contain valuable items that will appear randomly as you progress through the the twenty “levels” that make up the area. In other words, you’re more likely to find food and animal-related random encounters in forests, and complex crafting supplies and weapons in city areas. There are also day and night versions of these locations that have more bearing on quests than items found. Again, all this is presented through the journal and on screen prompts. Notable encounters, those that require a decision, are presented through a stylized snapshot of the area. Decisions can have positive and negative effects that range from a higher yield of supplies to damaging the party. If the negative effects of these choices don’t kill you, the zombies that wander around each zone just might.
Combat in Dead Age is a nice break the game’s norm. While you’ll spend the majority of the time looking through journals, fighting the undead is quite similar to the old turn based RPGs. With humans on one side and zombies on the other, both groups will trade blows using basic and special attacks, special party buffs, and status ailments. There’s a decent bestiary of the undead, complete with goofy names, that are easily identifiable. I give credit to the developers here because they’ve made it easy to understand what sort of fight can be expected. Then again, you’ll know what you’re up against because the journal explicitly states what zombies are around before combat is initiated. This is a sort of point of no return: if you’re not confident in the party’s ability to survive the fight, there is the option to run back to the camp. However, doing so wastes a full day and can jeopardize the success of quests.
Combat is basic and straightforward which means it gets boring pretty quickly. Despite the unpredictability inherent to status ailments from AI opponents, there’s nothing particularly exciting about attacking zombies. The pacing is fairly slow and watching humans and monsters slash and bash each other lacks any sort of visceral entertainment value. It also takes a lot of work to kill zombies, even the low level creatures. I never got the impression that my attacks, buffed or not, were doing significant amounts of damage. It also bothered me that the game was throwing higher level enemies at an alarming rate. Even with guns, melee weapons, and molotovs, I felt like I was constantly under powered. There’s still time for the numbers to be tweaked but I’m not sure fudging the numbers would be enough to make fighting any more engaging. A pen and paper or dice-based combat system would fit the tone of the game’s design much better than a Final Fantasy rehash. Hell, partner with the Zombie Dice folks. That’d be awesome!
Fighting zombies is difficult work but surviving the elements and making healthy advances into the deeper parts of the game is even harder. Generally speaking, Dead Age can be a little unfair in doling out much needed supplies. I have yet been unable to fight through all 20 areas within a zone because first aid items have been nigh-impossible to come by. In my first run, there was a point where I just gave up. The party’s health was low and my previous retreat used up all of the rations. I figured, cut my losses and come back stronger in the next playthrough. Maybe even try out the other classes. While each new playthrough mixes up encounters and quests (which is neat), nothing from the previous play discernibly carried over (which is not quite as cool). Furthermore, I was still stuck using the generic Jack default. I didn’t feel like I gained anything meaningful that would help me in the next game, so it was back to being weak and helpless.
I really like the idea of Dead Age. There have been so many zombie games on the market, be they first person shooters and over the shoulder action games, to see the bulk of the action presented through menus and specialized screens is a novel idea. How many post-apocalyptic management simulators are out there, anyway? The combat feels a little unpolished and at best, it’s a pleasant diversion from staring at menus. That said, Silent Dreams: please, please PLEASE pick one font and stick with it. PLEASE. Dead Age brings some interesting ideas to a post apocalyptic genre that is well past its prime. It might be best, however, to give this game more time to take shape. It is, after all, Early Access and games of that ilk tend to change over the course of its development. I’d much rather play this once it reaches v1.00.
I don't feel right giving the game a score at the moment. Not because it's unplayable or terrible, but because it's likely (hopefully) a different experience by the time this review is published.
Teen Services Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.