Deathgarden Preview

Deathgarden is an asymmetric team shooter with a lot of interesting ideas and a pretty steep learning curve. Although its heavy metalish title doesn't give you much of a clue, the game is a sci-fi, Hunger Games meets Evolve futuristic competition set on procedurally generally stages, where the roles are Runners or Hunter and the stakes are life or death. Fast moving and full of hide-and-seek tension, Deathrunner is a tossed salad of ideas and mechanics now in Early Access. But which ingredients need to be picked out of the bowl?

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It's hard to reduce a game as complex as Deathgarden to the basics, but there are five Runners - played in third person - and one Hunter, played in first person. The goal of the Hunter is to kill the Runners before they can escape, and the goal of the Runners is to escape the stage alive and defend against the Hunter. The Hunter cannot be killed but can be slowed down, trapped, stunned or drained of stamina. While the Runners can be killed, they also have speed, parkour-type mobility and an arsenal of weapons to use against the Hunter and to heal other Runners and aid their escape. A match ends when either the Runners escape or are killed. On the whole, the balance between the two sides is pretty good.

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There is much more to Deathgarden than the simple scenario and each side has multiple objectives to complete, such as holding capture points, marking the map, collecting various ammo, upgrade and healing items, or freeing fellow Runners from bleeding out or going to the Blood Post. The Blood Post is where Runners go to die after being mortally wounded by the Hunter, and Runners can free their peers at the risk of potentially encountering the Hunter standing guard. FPS veterans are used to making quick tactical decisions on the fly, and team-based fans know how to strategize, but Deathgarden demands both be done at lightning speed. Matches rarely last much more than ten minutes. 

Given the premise, one would expect that Runners would either try to lone wolf their way to a hasty escape or possibly gang up on the Hunter but in practice, neither strategy is successful. Deathgarden demands a fair amount of teamwork and cooperative coordination from the Runners, and the Hunter needs a quarterback's talent for reading the battlefield and flow of the match. 

Because there is no mini-map and the levels and their important features and loot drops are procedurally generated, there is no way to achieve victory by simple rote memorization. This gives each map a bit of built-in tension, as Hunter and Runners must simultaneously explore, discover and avoid detection. The downside is that the maps tend towards a bland, featureless sameness. Generally, Deathgarden is tuned for speed over eye candy and while it looks sharp and characters move fluidly, models and environments also lack a distinctive visual aesthetic and a level of detail. It would be unfair to call it generic sci-fi but it was hard to care much about the player character in the same way one has affection for, say, Overwatch heroes. It doesn't help that Runner faces are obscured by masks and that armor sets don't have much appeal for the completionist collector.

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Although there is an orientation level of sorts that explain some of the basic concepts, learning the game is a sink or swim proposition and it takes many matches to become even slightly comfortable with either the Hunter or Runner roles. Hopefully, the developer will add features down the line, like bot matches or a slightly more robust tutorial. A relative lack of online players meant some long wait times for matches. 

Just recently moving from a soft launch to Early Access, Deathgarden's unique take on asymmetric shooters has a lot of interesting gameplay ideas. The procedural generation hook is equally disorienting to both sides and the moment-to-moment action is both challenging to the intellect and muscle memory. It will be interesting to see if and how player feedback helps shape the game but anyone who is a fan of the asymmetric shooter genre - and the choices are pretty limited - should check it out and be part of the community as the game evolves.