I have mixed feelings about Kickstarter RPGs. Sometimes, as was the case with Wasteland 2 and Shadowrun Returns, crowd funded development is a great way to get old-school inspired games into a market where they normally wouldn’t do very well. If Kickstarter didn’t exist, I would never have been able to experience such gems.
Other times, it doesn’t go so well. What begins as a fantastic idea simply runs out of steam. A fairly lackluster Early Access release follows, and then a buggy, half finished shell of an RPG finally limps its way onto the shelves. After months — sometimes years — of hype, some Kickstarter games end up as disappointments.
While Dead State doesn’t exactly fall into either of these camps, it definitely doesn’t live up to its hype. I enjoyed playing it, but I couldn’t help feeling that there was so much untapped potential — and that is a disappointment. It’s a decent enough old-school style RPG that should interest anyone who loves either George Romero or the old Fallout games, but it doesn’t do either of these inspirations justice.
At its core, Dead State is nothing more or less than a turn based isometric RPG similar to the classics of the late 90s. The best way to summarise it in a sentence would be “Fallout 1 & 2 with zombies.” It hits all the notes of a classical style RPG. You begin by creating a character, spending a meager pool of EXP on attributes and skills. A short tutorial walks you though the basic controls and familiarises you with the combat system. You arrive at a hub, pick up some introductory party members and engage in some dialogue tree based characterisation. After all this, the meat of the game begins – you are placed in charge of the day to day running of a shelter during the first weeks of the zombie apocalypse and — in true Fallout fashion — you spend most of the game simply exploring a huge open map, unlocking new locations and getting bits and pieces of story along the way.
Dead State‘s non-linearity is addicting, in a way. There is no “main quest” or critical path to follow. The only goal in the game is to survive and make sure your shelter has enough supplies and power to keep running. You’re free to go wherever you like and do whatever you like, as long as you get back home before 3 am. In the first half of the game, the exploration is fantastic. Zombies are a real threat and there’s a constant sense of urgency and desperation as you try to scavenge whatever you can just to live another day. Occasionally, a conflict or crisis will arise back home and, as leader of the shelter, it’s up to you to mediate and keep the peace, which provides a much needed break from the looting and combat aspects of the game.
Unfortunately, it all falls apart in the second half of the game, where any feeling of danger completely disappears . Your character becomes so powerful that he’s able to cap out 5 of the game’s 8 skills about halfway through. You find armor so powerful that zombie bites and enemy bullets deal no damage at all. You stockpile enough food, medicine and fuel that you can comfortably sit inside your shelter for weeks on end — not ever stepping foot outside — and still have manage to keep everyone happy. At this point, the only incentive to keep playing the game is the characterisation; even though there’s no more shelter upgrades to build and no thrill left in the exploration, waiting for the next big drama among your allies is still quite fun. It’s sad that the game basically devolves into endlessly skipping forward to the next day just to see these scenes, however.
Ultimately, there’s quite a lot to do in Dead State, but none of it is terribly well designed. There are 70+ unique locations to explore, but you’ll have found all of them by the half way point in the storyline. There’s a complex backstory to uncover with 150 pieces of data to find and decrypt, but in the end it’s a fairly standard Romero-esque zombie apocalypse tale. There are more than 50 characters to find and recruit, but very few of them have a memorable personality and it’s hard to get emotionally connected to them. There’s a robust character progression system, but since you’ll have mastered everything by the end your choices are mostly meaningless. The whole game is full of things that could have been better if they were more fleshed out, but unfortunately they never were.
Dead State could have been the RPG that every zombie fan has been waiting for. Instead, it’s a momentary distraction, something to play in between two much better games.
What a shame.