Dead State took a long time to grace the virtual PC shelves on a five year development cycle and eventually went to Kickstarter to charm us with promises of building an outpost amidst a zombie apocalypse while tackling all the complex choices such an endeavour brings. When the game officially released at the end of 2014, it was a sadly underwhelming experience that felt unfinished. Now a big update has been released called Dead State Reanimated, and while there’s still a lot of work to do, I dare say Dead State is well on the way to becoming a great RPG.
As the survivor of a plane crash, the player awakens to find themselves in a Texas school surrounded by a disorganized group of individuals struggling to cope with the gravity of their dire situation. They need a leader, someone to take charge, make the hard decisions, and do whatever it takes to ensure their survival. In short they need Liam Neeson, but you’ll have to do.
Dead State is set across in-game months and a typical day involves spending time at the school shelter to assign tasks before popping outside to raid local areas for anything edible. Yes, even ramen. The shelter can be upgraded in many ways such as building a workshop to craft weapons, a gym to make characters stronger, or a better fence to hold back intruders. There’s a hefty requirement for the most basic material, parts, and almost every item in the game can be recycled to create them. Seemingly useless junk like rotten fruit turns out to be a key ingredient in manufacturing home-made antibiotics, so loot everything.
The shelter offers access to a radio and a computer library. This is where Dead State’s wonderful world-building comes in. An isolated DJ trying to maintain his sanity sends out a quirky radio broadcast every day, and the computer library offers the opportunity to hack data from salvaged hard drives. Both serve to flesh out the world, and unlike dry codex entries from big budget games, are presented in an engaging way. I can’t help being fascinated by stuff like the Internet chat logs full of people trying to figure out what’s going on (if the worst should happen we’ll convene at the TechRaptor forums). There are even communication logs from the international space station where astronauts panic as the lights from Earth’s cities shut down.
Of course being low budget has its drawbacks. Visually Dead State looks unpleasant. Characters stand like mannequins and if assigned a job, walk back and forth aimlessly without any related animation to accompany their task. They rarely have something new and interesting to say outside of character events. “What do you think of me?” I said to my medic, wondering if it would lead to a romance option. “I don’t know you” she says for the twelfth time, even when we’ve been together for months. This lack of detail is somewhat offset by the sheer quantity of recruitable characters.
The problem is there are so many characters; events eventually trip up over themselves trying to adjust to the logistical nightmare of every death and choice. Storyline bugs are rampant throughout, the consequences made a mockery of when a scientist tells me he’s worried about his wife’s aborted baby, or we’re having a meeting about a guy who left under violent circumstances weeks ago as if he were still here.
Leaving the confines of the shelter brings up the region map where players are let loose to freely explore, with travel distance limited by the mode of transportation—horses and cars can be sought out later. Map locations must be uncovered and are always in the same place, but there are well over a hundred of them excluding foraging spots, and each has a little story to tell. Unfortunately, unlike the war-torn survival game This War Of Mine, Dead State gives no indication of what resources are left at each location, meaning it may be prudent to grab a pen & paper and jot down heavy items and unexplored buildings. Also, for some reason, the player character is expected to personally lead every single expedition like a frontline general from the middle ages, so take skills to compliment that and don’t count on playing a pacifist negotiator.
Areas are typically comprised of a few buildings, the contents of which can be hinted at to the observant eye from blood trails and spray-painted messages. This is especially useful because enemies appear by line of sight. At the top left-hand corner of the screen a decibel counter measures how much noise the group makes. Noise draws notice from the surroundings, and a lot of noise can spawn curious zombies from the edges of the area. Using certain weapons such as crossbows or silenced pistols obviously makes a lot less noise than a chainsaw.
When combat begins, the game goes from real-time to turn-based combat. Characters take their turn in the order their stats dictate, and hit percentages are modified based on equipment and combat skills. Zombies aren’t much of a challenge on normal difficulty unless packed into a large building where too much noise quickly forms a zombie avalanche; however, I fear more for the safety of my computer than the group when a large horde causes major slowdown, threatening to crash the game. Hostile humans wielding weapons are a greater challenge and create a kind of Mexican stand-off where zombies are drawn to whoever fires first. It’s extremely satisfying to comprehend the game’s rules and use them to let loose a pack of zombies on human foes. The humans have greater attack power but each one that dies creates another zombie. A rewarding strategy is to manage both sides so neither has the advantage over the other and the winner is easy pickings.
At the end of each day a stat screen brings up morale and resources gained/lost. Morale plays a prominent part of the shelter, the consequences of losing survivors and not coming back with enough supplies at worst can inspire full-on mutiny. It was here my game sadly ended; roughly 40 hours in with me stupidly not producing saves that went far back enough to avoid the calamity. Yes, 40 hours. If value were measured in playtime, Dead State would be a bargain reportedly clocking in at a total number of hours comparable to The Witcher 3! Whether the game is worth buying now is hard to say; any PC RPG veteran knows about gems rougher than sandpaper bedsheets such as Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines that are nonetheless beloved. If you aren’t already totally exhausted from bug-ridden game releases this year, consider taking the plunge.
Rough but charming, an apocalyptic treat if you know what you’re getting into.