Horror-themed games can be a lot of fun, even if they're not horrific or scary in any way. Just being surrounded by classic horror elements and immersing yourself in the Halloween spirit is a good enough experience. Ray's The Dead is one such game. Not a horror-game, but certainly horror-themed. It's filled with trick-or-treating, zombies, and lots of different shades of the color green. It's also more chock-full of references than an episode of Family Guy on steroids.
Ray's The Dead is an action-strategy game that tells the story of Ray, a recently deceased man who suddenly finds himself un-deceased. Awakened in a graveyard with no idea what's going on and a head filled with naught but plot-convenient-amnesia, you must journey through the graveyard and on into your childhood town to discover the mysterious circumstances behind your death and rebirth. On the way, you'll munch brains, command legions of the undead, and generally do the sort of stuff that a recently revived zombie should do.
The main gameplay mechanic of Ray's the Dead is rather unique, at least I haven't ever come across another game that does anything like it. You control Ray directly and have to kill enemies, then raise their corpses to form a horde of zombies. You then use these different types of zombies to solve puzzles and defeat groups of enemies. Each different type of zombie has its strengths and weaknesses, and learning how to best utilize them in combat is the only way to ensure your survival. You do also have an attack of your own, but beyond the first level, it's very rarely used at all.
Ray's The Dead controls acceptably for the most part. You can have quite a larger horde following you at any given time, but they sort of wander around in a loose clump. When you're trying to avoid attacks, stealth your way through various areas, or squeak by flaming piles of leaves or whatever it gets sort of annoying when your horde is being picked off at the edges. You can hold down a specific button to clump everyone together, but only for a limited amount of time, and most of the time that's not going to be long enough.
The other big issue with the gameplay is that it just feels too imprecise. In the early stages of combat, you can reliably control your horde and fling individual members at the right moment to reliably take out your foes. As the game progresses there are more enemy types to deal with and larger groups of enemies at any given time and the whole thing devolves into a total mess. Honestly, being a mess isn't the drawback it may sound like though. You only lose health if Ray himself is hit, so losing zombies is a minor setback most of the time since you can replenish your forces quite easily.
If I could make one suggestion that would improve both combat and puzzle-solving it would be to allow the player to aim your zombies with the right stick. As of right now, you can only aim zombies in the direction you're already moving in, so you have to be heading towards enemies to attack them. You can freeze yourself in place by holding the zombie-launch button, but that's hardly a fitting solution in my eyes. If I could move away from enemies while firing at them, and do the same with puzzles, I might not have ended up getting so frustrated by the combat.
I can't help but think that having a 'group together' button that didn't cost anything to use may have been a better bet. It's already annoying that 90% of the non-combat gameplay is basically that irritating buzz wire game you see at crappy carnivals. Add to that the fact that you have to wait for your meter to recharge between obstacles and the gameplay devolves into the height of tedium and frustration at times. None of this is helped by the fact that as of right now the game happens to be a buggy mess.
The developers have promised that Ray's The Dead will have a day one patch which fixes a lot of the issues, but as I don't have access to it I can only report on what I have played. The camera broke on several occasions, forcing me to either die or restart from the menu. The aiming reticule for where to send your zombies would get stuck frequently, which caused more than one combat death, and worse than all of that were the amount of times bosses would glitch out and force yet another menu restart.
If you think that Ray's The Dead sounds like a bad game so far then I don't blame you, but I've honestly been getting all of the negatives out of the way. I find myself utterly shocked by the fact that this game, as riffled with flaws as it is right now, managed to draw me right on in any way. Every aspect of this game's presentation is utterly amazing, from visuals to sound. Even the narrative, which I honestly didn't have high expectations for, was fun, comedic, and dark in a perfect blend for experiencing over October.
The visuals are a weird mix of 2D art and 3D rendering. All of the characters in the game are rendered in a hand-drawn traditional art style, while the environment and various bosses are produced using 3D graphics. The blend is something I've not seen done this well in a long time, and honestly, it's just nice to see a game trying something that feels so fresh and unique. It's not like this blend hasn't been done before, but rarely are the elements so well composited together. At no point did this feel like Roger Rabbit.
Moving onto the music, Ray's The Dead gets another big tick there. The plot is very reminiscent of 80s and 90s movies and TV, and the music has some very similar vibes to the music of those eras as well. In some levels, you'll find the wandering synth beats that have been made so popular by Stranger Things lately, and in others, the 90s rock and metal cultures rise from the grave (puns are great). The music does a great job of setting the scene and is honestly one of the few game soundtracks I'll intentionally go out of my way to buy.
The final big bonus for Ray's The Dead is the narrative. As I mentioned, you start the game with no memories of who you were or how you died so it does cling a little to the amnesia cliche. The bonus here is that the game doesn't go on about amnesia being a plot point, it just starts up and you get on with things. You do start to recover memories straight away, and from then on the game is half set in the present with zombie-Ray and half set in the past with human-Ray. These flashbacks fill in the plot and help you unlock new abilities.
There's something just compelling about the storyline too, even if it does rely a little heavily on intentionally invoking cliches and references. For instance, in a Halloween flashback, a bunch of practically homicidal bullies terrorizes the kids in very familiar skeleton costumes. Later on, you meet a bouncer who goes by the name Dalton and likes kicking people. My personal favorite is probably the balding man who attacks you with silver balls, and honestly, any game that can make a Phantasm reference work gets points from me.
Overall, Ray's The Dead is almost a tragic case. If the controls were a bit tighter, and the game a little less buggy then it may have been one of my top 5 games of the year. In its current state, it is playable and has some of the best presentation of any 'indie' game I have ever seen. If the day-one patch fixes the bugs then it will have done the game a huge favor, but without some gameplay tweaks even the amazing music, visuals, and storyline won't save this experience for some people. If you can see past its flaws then Ray's The Dead has something wholly unique to offer.
TechRaptor reviewed Ray's The Dead on PlayStation 4 with a code provided by the developer. The game is also available on PC.
- Unique Visual Style
- Genuinely Endearing Story and Characters
- Some Excellent Music
- Buggier Than A Bethesda RPG
- Controls Are A Little Loose
- Occasionally Frustrating Gameplay