The latest Dead Island spin-off takes us on a tropical vacation filled with hallucinations, zombies and homemade weapons. Escape Dead Island shows us what happens when shallow gameplay and lame characters have a dull zombie baby.
Cliff Calo, son of a giant media mogul, and his friends go to the Island of Narapela in order to the scoop behind the cause of the zombie outbreak. Things quickly go sideways when Cliff is forced to find out what really happened with a camera and a blunt object to guide him through. The game’s cast of characters contains almost no one likable or even at all interesting. Escape ditches the open-world first-person RPG mechanics in exchange for a third-person stealth action/adventure romp.
It starts off well enough. We meet a shady fixer looking to find and deal with a mole for A big pharmaceutical company. And by deal, I mean killing the poor slob. The fixer’s job is made a bit harder by a sudden outbreak of zombies on the facility he snuck onto. All the intrigue and bad-assery go away after the prologue once you assume control of dude bro Cliff Calo.
The art style has this neat graphic novel type of cel-shading with hard outlines, which matches well with the onomatopoeia used for sound effects. Escape Dead Island looks good from afar but closer inspection reveal rather muddy textures and some real rough looking character and monster designs.
Escape Dead Island’s biggest flaw lies in his lack of depth in almost every aspect of the game. The combat revolves around using a shove, light and strong attacks. There’s also a dodge that occasionally works. In my first major boss fight against the Butcher zombie with weird arms bone blades, it made short work of me unless I pulled off a very inelegant rope-a-dopes a dozen retries in.
In general, it’s pretty easy to get yourself cornered and quickly murdered. Thankfully each “death” is treated almost like a bad dream where Cliff wakes up (respawns) in an area right before the conflict. The spotty checkpoint system often makes you relive some painfully boring cutscenes, however. The real problem with this system is dying often just results in getting zapped back to a check point and sometimes you’ll spawn with some extra ammo waiting for you. This naturally ruins any and all tension, a big no-no in a survival horror game.
The game does require you to take a stealth approach to properly traverse areas, since ammo conservation is important for boss fights. The stealth angle mainly has you skulk around from cover to cover so you can shank a zombie in the head in a rather gruesome yet painfully overused stealth kill.
Stealth mechanics are mostly broken due to the zombies’ ability (or inability) to properly detect you. All the monsters have an exclamation point above their head that will fill up completely once they are alerted. If that happens that’s when all hell breaks loose and you become a dead person.
The issue is that the enemies will have trouble picking up on you even though you’ve crossed paths right in front of them. More often than not you can run up to a zombie and still manage to get a stealth kill. It’s a pretty fickle system since the same course of attack will lead to two different results.
Inventory for weapons and gadgets are managed through a radial menu. It’s disappointing to see a lack of any item crafting system, and there’s no weapon or character upgrades to speak of. Most of the gadgets like the gas mask or flashlight are automatically equipped in an area when they are needed. In fact the variety of weapons falls on the light side and you end up hording the good stuff like rocket launchers for a boss.
What I did enjoy was the sense of progression felt when you acquire something like a grappling hook that opens up an area you couldn’t have gone to earlier in the game. Again the exploration doesn’t feel great when the game is always telling you where to go in big bright letters.
Since the Narapela is pretty tiny, there’s a fairly high amount of backtracking. You’ll come across a door that needs a keycard or a barricade that needs a certain tool to get past it. Outside of hunting for collectibles there’s no reason to deviate from the path from objective marker to objective marker.
It’s a shame since at a glance the island looks a lot more open than it is. The collectibles you find like news clippings, audio logs and screenshots give you some insight on the nature of the zombie outbreak.
Island‘s only saving grace is its rather surreal story telling approach. Cliff suffers early-on from hallucinations, occasionally loses time and has frequent bouts of deja vu. The more interesting aspect is figuring out what is causing Cliff to lose his mind rather than dealing with the zombie outbreak on this island.
Of course the main problem is that it take a good long while before things really get interesting and kind of bonkers. Chances are the dull combat and linear adventuring will turn most away before the big reveal about Cliff. At the end of the day the payoff isn’t worth the ten hour slog.
Escape Dead Island completely ignores what makes a Dead Island game fun: there’s no sense of dread and the highly enjoyable crafting system is nowhere to be seen. Hell, there’s not even a co-op option. What we do have is a boring linear experience with one-dimensional characters and rickety combat.
I do like seeing a franchise take some risk as far as giving us new ways to explore the canon of the world they built and sometimes you just have to applaud the attempt even when things don’t always work. Too bad there’s there not enough Dead Island in Escape Dead Island here that’s worth your time.