"There are 15 days worth of driving to Canada, we've got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark and we're wearing sunglasses."
With that said, we fired up the Switch and teamed up with GR Norway's EIC Suzanne Berget, buckled up and prepared to take on the best road trip since Final Fantasy XV.
Death Road to Canada is an indie game developed by way of cooperation between Rocketcat Games and Madgarden, with Publisher Ukiyo joining them to help bring the zombiecide-game to consoles. The devs describe the game as a "Permadeath Randomized Road Trip Simulator", which we found to be rather fitting - and except for that first part, it sounds kinda neat.
Your goal is simple: Get from Florida in the USA all the way up to Ontario, Canada, in approximately one piece. Along for the ride are whatever weirdos you choose to pick up along the way, and while that might be more draining on your resources you might find some safety in those numbers. Because there's always a catch... Or in this case, several hundred thousand brain-hungry catches that will do their utmost to sample that sweet sweet grey matter you keep tucked inside your skull.
While Death Road to Canada has been available on PC and iOS for some time already, we still think that a lot of people will find this console release appealing. Especially, perhaps, because setting up a couch co-op session is that much easier for Joe Average III.
We tested the game on the Nintendo Switch, and we might be beating a dead horse here (hey, it's a zombie game after all!) but let's give it a few more good whacks: the console is an absolutely amazing platform for indie games, and especially co-op games like this where you need only pull out the Switch when bored on a trip and hand the other half of the Joy-Con to the Player 2 of your choice.
Since we've only got one Joy-Con in this household it was a relief to find out that the devs have thought of this, as they've enabled split-con control schemes (as well as Pro Controller support), letting us slaughter zombies together while postponing the purchase of an extra controller for a bit longer.
All that remains is to choose a character, load up the shotgun, and hit the roa- Oooh! Is that a "Custom Characters" menu down there in the corner? A look is exchanged, an unspoken agreement - and at the same time an acknowledgement that this could end badly. Skyrim or Bioware-levels of badly, where time spent making your character might in some cases match the time playing the actual game! Dauntlessly, we enter the character creation screen to make our own personal zombie-killer.
Fortunately there are no options to adjust eyebrow follicle density or nostril airflow capacity, but we still found the create-a-survivor wholly entertaining (and user-friendly, with randomisation-capabilities, as well as the options to store or load presets), and managed to create our survivors - each with their own personality traits and skill sets, and sporting a badass look to boot. Give a warm welcome to Slagathor (Player 1 / Suzanne) and Otharien (Player 2 / Odd)!
What's pretty neat is that you can unlock more traits and perks as you play the game, so there's a sense of progress even though you should fail to get to Canada the first time around.
After a short tutorial we hit the road and discovered quickly that resources are both few and far between. So in an effort to bolster our meagre supplies, we stopped at a supermarket in the hopes of finding something to eat. Using our anti-zombie martial arts and Player 1's improvised spine-mace we manage to keep our brains bitemark-free as we scampered around the generic brand mart. Unfortunately, it seems like other looters got here before we did, and while finding gasoline and a can of baked beans does help a bit, it doesn't keep two adults fed for long. No use crying over no milk though, the road trip must go on!
Day turns into night, and we are given the "opportunity" to spend the night in a dodgy motel, which is run by a person that gives off vibes akin to Dexter, Hannibal Lecter, and all the characters in Deliverance combined. We offer up a polite "no thank you" and drive all through the night instead. And as a result we're both grumpy and tired the next day. Our characters, that is.
Sluggish from the lack of sleep, we grit our teeth and make our next stop in a small suburban area. While it doesn't go exactly as planned, Player 1 does get her hands on a fire axe and puts it to good use - making short work of any approaching zombies as we loot what little we can find. A few bullets and some gasoline is all we can scrape together, and our stomachs start to growl as we turn the ignition and head out in the hope of finding some food.
As you play Death Road to Canada, you progressively find out more about the character you're playing. Things like firearm skills, loyalty, mechanical aptitude and so on. Oftentimes, these stats are discovered after making certain choices during the driving intermissions between looting stops.
In our case, we managed to misplace the car keys into the maw of an alligator. The task of fixing this mess falls to Slagathor, and channelling the spirit of Steve Irwin she throws herself at the gator, managing to get the keys back so our trip may continue. Her wrestling skills, however, are revealed as less than sub-par. So while she's grinning wildly after the relative success of her endeavours, the bite marks do raise some concern. Nevertheless, we can continue our journey, and her new career as a human colander is nothing but an added bonus.
Fortunately, Otharien is there to try his hand as a medic, and after a brief display of incompetence, we've determined that we need more bandages to help stop Slagathor from bleeding everywhere. Our next stop is therefore at a survivor camp to see if we can get our hands on some medical supplies.
But in doing so we quickly discover that when rigor mortis became "in" so too did money become "out" - bartering is the name of the game and food is the currency of choice in most cases. The group we encountered didn't have any medical supplies for sale, but we give an (alleged) mechanic five food-units to persuade him to join our grumpy band of misfits - because in the end, aren't humans really just machines with blood?
And in a surprise move it turns out that some of the knowledge is transferable! Jamey is a bit better at suturing up wounds, so he can make do with what little we have to patch Slagathor back up with.
As you may have gathered, we've only been travelling for a few days and already we've got quite a fun story unfolding. And that is one of Death Road to Canada's strengths. The game is a "story generator" of sorts, akin to Dwarf Fortress and Stellaris, that uses amusing dialogue combined with randomised events to create an interesting narrative for you and the personalities you pick up as you travel. Comments and remarks are made while driving or smacking zombies upside the head, and their tone is affected by the character's mood and morale. This makes each road trip their own unique experience, and we think that's where a lot of the appeal in these kinds of games rests. You explore the road laid out for you based on what's available to you until you die - and then you do it all over again, only a bit differently.
Your characters improve as you fight your way to Canada as well; shoot a lot and you get shootier, train a lot and you'll become more trainy - or maybe just take a break and play some video games.
And to keep the ordeal from becoming TOO frustrating when you inevitably die and lose all your progress, or when you end up bashing your head against the same obstacle for the umpteenth time, you have the option to spend Zombo Points.
These points - earned during normal gameplay or after certain feats of strength - can be used to unlock or upgrade perks and traits, as well as purchase other permanent upgrades for your character, including the overly specific upgrade to improve loot quality received from toilets and many more.
One thing that bothered both of us and needs pointing out is that when you play with someone, one player is designated as "Leader" and the other as "Buddy". Fair enough. But only the leading player can enter and exit rooms and buildings, so you have to be fairly coordinated to prevent your buddy from feeling like they are simply being dragged along for the ride. Added to this, and more annoying, is the fact that changing rooms makes the buddy disappear until they move their character. While it might not sound like a big deal, it often led to scenarios where we went buddy-less for more than a few seconds, and in the zombie apocalypse, the line separating chew toy and surly survivor is quite thin. Arguably these are minor issues, but we still hope that Rocketcat Games/Madgarden can fix this in a future patch.
So if you enjoy games like The Binding of Isaac (and the dark humour that comes with it) or FTL we've got no qualms about recommending this game to you. We've personally put quite a lot of hours into both of those games, and we'll most likely sink just as many into Death Road to Canada. Not just because the game is fun and easy to pick up, if only for a few in-game days' worth of gaming, but also because we found out you can encounter and recruit a Super-Kawaii Anime Magical Girl! And we refuse to put the Switch down until we can yell "Heeeaaaart Beeeaaaam!" alongside our character - cutting through hordes of zombies while our Player 1 looks on in befuddlement from the other side of the sofa!