Remember when the internet lost its mind over the debut trailer for Dead Island? Expectations shot through the roof and a movie deal struck on the spot. All because Techland’s slickly produced CG cinematic about a family attacked by zombies in a posh island resort. None of that reached the game, comically enough, when the true cast of characters were revealed: a rapper, hotel receptionist, an athlete, and a task force officer). The Dead Island trailer did too good of a job setting the tone of the game. People like me expected The Last of Us but instead, Dead Island was a B-grade Romero rehash. It did well enough, I suppose. It was fun to play with friends for no other reason than to have a co-op game in my library. While I found it forgettable after the first play through, it was later wiped from memory in 2015 with Techland’s release of Dying Light, a game that improved the open world zombie killing formula they established in Dead Island in every conceivable way.
Dead Island Retro Revenge feels at odds with itself. Included as a pack-in for the recently released Dead Island: Definitive Edition, it can be seen as a means to hype Dead Island 2. There’s a small problem with that: little has been seen of Dead Island 2 since its debut at E3 in 2014. Yager was handling the development of the game, this time set in sunny California, until publisher Deep SIlver dropped the studio and replaced them with Digital Sumo over claims that neither Yager nor Deep Silver shared the same vision over its design and development. Since the studio change, news about Dead Island 2 was quietly with cancellation rumors mounting after the game was delisted from Steam. GameStop has a 2016 placeholder date listed on their website for Dead Island 2 however it’s possible that Retro Revenge is stuck promoting a game that might never come out.
If Retro Revenge is meant to be a light snack to nibble on before the main course, then it’s a paltry one. Stylized after the video games of the early 1990s, the game is an, ugh, endless runner that combines the limited moveset of the genre with the action driven, combo-friendly brawlers of years past. I developed a love/hate relationship with this game as I played through it. I really don’t care endless runners (I have Infinity Runner to thank for that) because they are just not fun. I played a few on mobile devices and they’re designed to be time wasters, something you do while sitting on the toilet or waiting for a movie to start. What I did like about Retro Revenge was the combat because it reminded me so much of Streets of Rage and Final Fight, two of the greatest games ever made. Using Dead Island 2’s California setting, Retro Revenge features three areas (a beach, a military compound, and the streets of San Francisco) that effortlessly capture the look and feel of the old brawlers. The game scrolls to the left as you encounter zombies and humans alike, with special enemies requiring combos to bypass defenses and unleash secondary attacks.
For an endless runner, Retro Revenge is surprisingly complex to play. The face buttons are mapped to a classic high, medium, and low hit combo system which is essential to taking out certain enemies because of their ability to counter hits. For some of the bigger, high profile enemies, these combos trigger a secondary attack that can clear out obstacles and even an entire lane of on-screen foes. As an example, knocking a riot shield away from a SWAT officer and hitting it with a high attack send it flying to the top most lane, killing whatever is in its path. As another example, knocking off a zombie’s head with three consecutive high attacks will send their head flying to the right. These trigger attacks are useful in managing the growing number of targets that fill the screen as you progress through the stage. There’s an added, reflex-based mechanic that involves hitting the attack button when two icons line up, yielding additional points and a one hit kill against weak zombies. Additionally, there are two special attacks designed to pull you out of a hairy situations. One of them is a screen clearing, one use only magic attack (because this is a 1990s-era game, that’s why) and a limited power weapon that kills in one hit and offers temporary invincibility. For the latter, these weapons are regulated by a power meter that fills only after killing a series of marked enemies. The more I played and grew familiar with the combat, the more I pined for Retro Revenge to be a true, honest brawler because the endless runner mechanic ruins the potential for fun.
Retro Revenge has you juggling combo attacks and non-stop forward momentum. There’s no stopping to heal or take a breather as your character is always moving forward on a three laned path. Zombies and paramilitary humans occupy these lanes, sometimes alone or in groups. While it’s possible to simply avoid them by moving out of their lane, there are situations where fighting is necessary. The limited movement becomes an unnecessary addition that makes the game more complicated than it needs to be. Your character can only sustain three hits before dying and sent back to the beginning of the level to do it all over again. Some levels throw so much at you at once it’s almost impossible not to get hit by an attack that was easy to miss among the chaos. Repeating stages over and over really isn’t fun and the challenge of Retro Revenge feels artificial. If anything, it challenges your memory because nothing is random. Enemy placement is static and they’lll always be in the same place no matter how many times you start over. When I broke through trouble spots, my response was always the same: Thank god that’s over!
If Dead Island Retro Revenge had emulated the old side scrolling brawlers of the 90s, it would have been amazing. All the trappings of fun - combos, special attacks, a great variety of enemy types - are here. But confining the action to the limited movement, memory based gameplay of an endless runner completely kills it for me. Everything about the game works well with the idea that this is some sort of lost classic from the Sega Genesis era. It’s got a great retro vibe and the aesthetic is beautiful. Sadly, the runner mechanics take away the fun and goodwill, leaving it as forgettable as the Dead Island franchise itself.
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.