I’m not a fan roguelikes. There’s something about the fact that the game can just nullify my entire progress on death that I really despise. I want to be able to try again – to be able to redeem myself. (Preferably from where I left off, instead of restarting an entire run.)
Despite that, I’ve been playing a ton of Death Road to Canada. There’s a bunch of things this game does right that make me like it a lot.
First, for me it’s very important that there’s some kind of progression.
Death Road to Canada does this by having “zombo points“. These are collectibles that you gain by simply playing the game. Some are lying around, some you get by surviving long enough. You can then use your gathered zombo points to upgrade your character traits, and buy new ones. You can also buy upgrades so that certain actions in the game (recruiting people, selling weapons to shopkeepers etc.) award you with additional zombo points every time you do them.
Second, is the length. An average run in Death Road to Canada only takes about two to three hours (assuming you make it to the end). That’s not too long. And you can also save your game to continue later.
Third, is the sense of mystery! I already gave some examples in a previous article on what kinds of design choices in games can maintain a sense of mystery. Death Road to Canada is a treasure trove of such design choices!
I also like that you can make your own characters, and that the game doesn’t take itself too seriously. Expect silliness everywhere.
Basics of Death Road to Canada
Before we get to the meat of things (the sense of mystery!), here’s a quick rundown on how Death Road to Canada plays:
The world has ended. Zombies roam the streets. You grab a car and head towards the last remaining civilization in the world: Canada.
Occasionally you’re presented with choices with unknown consequences. Think of your team’s strengths, available resources, cross your fingers, and pick an option.
Other times, you’re thrust into cities or buildings to fight against zombies and scavenge anything useful you may find there. Some of these situations are “sieges”, where you just need to survive for a while.
That’s it. That’s what you do until you eventually end up in Canada. It’s a somewhat simple game.
Now, on to the meat. How does one game handle so much mystery?!
When you start a new game, you don’t usually know any of your characters’ stats aside from their morale (i.e. “happiness”), unless the character has certain traits that reveal a few. Sometimes you’ll never find out. Also, sometimes a stat is revealed in a situation where you no longer need to know it! (A party member steals all your team’s food and leaves – revealing that their loyalty was rock bottom.)
Even when you find out stats, they’re indicated as icons instead of numbers. I really like this as it retains some sense of mystery while at the same time telling you exactly how high or low that stat is. Some stats can also go above their normal maximum, depending on the character.
Your health is indicated by a single heart, but you actually have 3 hit points. The red in that heart will go down a bit when you take damage.
As you play the game, you will notice that some characters have less or more max health than others. Dogs, for example, always have only two health. Characters with BERSERK! trait will only have one health. You may also have more than 3 hit points, in which case the red heart will start to get filled with a lighter color.
To further help you understand that someone is wounded, the heart also blinks. If it doesn’t blink, the character is at full health, even if their heart seems to indicate that it’s not full. (The exception to this is characters that have permanently only one health. Their heart always blinks – probably so that you don’t forget that they’ll be gone if they ever take a hit. Still, it’s a bit confusing.)
The way the game tells you that you took damage is also good. It says “Person is HURT!” That always means the character took one damage. And if that character took more than one damage, you will see that text repeated that many times. So it’s accurate but uses real language instead of something like “You took 1 hit point of damage.”
In combat, the zombies don’t actually swing at you. They try to grab you and start biting. When your character is grabbed and is about to take damage, you will first see a string of red question and exclamation marks. If you don’t manage to pull away or hit them while that’s happening, then you’ll hear a loud crunch and your heart will appear momentarily to show your current health.
When you’re walking around, the game screen is dedicated to the game. There are no minimaps or health/stamina bars or pointing arrows (except when you’re near something to notify that you can interact with it). The only things there are, is the clock (because zombies get more aggressive the later it gets) and an indicator for how many days left until you reach the border of Canada.
(To be honest, you could make due without the clock, because you can sort of see time from how dark it gets – even inside buildings. The music also changes drastically when it gets to 9:00PM, to indicate that you really need to get out of there! And the remaining days indicator is not really necessary here. Only when you’re in your car, actually progressing towards Canada. But I’ll forgive them here because they really don’t take much space, and they’re the only fixed HUD elements.)
You need all your senses to make sure you don’t miss any valuable loot, or get bitten, or surrounded by zombies, so not having any extra crap to monitor on your screen is really nice.
Whenever you pick up any new supplies, you get to see a quick reminder of how many supplies you’ve already picked up during the current outing. But for everything else (like checking everything your team has in their pockets), you need to open the pause menu.
You’ll also see a little indicator whenever you pick something up or switch to another weapon that you’re holding.
When you’re in the car, the driving is automatic. You can relax for a while and just wait for events to happen. It’s here that the HUD shows you more information: your characters, their health and morale, your supplies, some things the characters say while travelling etc.
My only gripe about the driving is that the text advances automatically, and there’s no separate text log if you want to check what the characters said afterwards. (Sometimes events happen right after characters are done talking, so you may miss what was being said or if there was some effect on someone’s morale etc.)
No weapon in the game tells how much damage they do, or anything else about them. Instead, the game uses multiple indirect ways to give you hints:
Appearance. If a weapon looks or sounds strong, it probably is. If it’s rusty, fragile or made of wood, it’s probably going to break after some use. And if it’s big, it’s also probably heavy and hard to wield.
Trying them out. If you find a weapon, just pick it up and start swinging. You’ll quickly notice if the weapon is effective, how quickly your character gets tired after using it, and if it hits multiple zombies with one swing. If you keep using it, you’ll also find out whether it’ll break easily.
Price. If it’s pricey, then it’s likely better than something that’s cheaper. If a shopkeeper wants to buy it from you, then it’s likely something quite good.
Sales pitches. Sometimes, the trader may give you a sales pitch. This can happen before OR after you buy the weapon. Either way, you’ll learn something about the weapon. There’s also at least one instance where the seller is willing to come with you for one outing to personally show off the weapon.
AI companions. Your companions (if they’re controlled by the AI) will pick up weapons they find on the ground, and they will try to optimize what they’re carrying and wielding. So if you notice that they switched their current weapon for another one that was lying on the ground, then that new weapon is likely better than the one they used before.
Death Road to Canada doesn’t have a visible meter to show your current stamina. Despite that, it’s pretty obvious if your character is running out of energy.
Your character’s face will first start to blink red. Then it will start to blink faster, and more reddish. Then you will start to see massive sweat droplets fall and finally a tired icon. You’ll also notice that it takes quite a while for your character to raise their weapon up. (You have to wait until the weapon is raised before you can swing it again!)
In the heat of combat, being surrounded by a horde of zombies, or when you’re exploring a completely dark sewer, it can be a bit hard to notice these signs. However, the game does a great job letting you experience and understand them before the going gets too rough. That way you get a good feel for them well beforehand, and you develop a rhythm where you take breaks from swinging your weapon to make sure you get enough rest.
There are a ton of events that happen in the game, with many choices that change depending on what kind of members you have in your group. Once you’ve played the game for quite a while, some of these start repeating themselves, but there are still a ton of rarer surprises depending on your teammates personalities and luck. (Your character can even be zapped and turn into something completely different!)
There are also a whole bunch of special characters you can meet. And they don’t just have special stats! Many have their own events that can range from occasionally finding special weapons, to leaving after just one fight, to making your party members disappear one by one…
You’ll also have to balance group integrity. Having more people in your team means better chances of survival in combat, since there’s more people swinging things at zombies. You may also want people in your team early so that you can train them as you travel. Any people you pick up later will have missed out on the training your team received earlier.
But on the other hand, with less people, you can go on with less food (and food is often hard to find!). And what if somebody betrays the team and leaves with all your hard-earned grub? You also can’t reliably throw away team members once you’ve accepted them, so you need to weight your options.
Finally, you can have non-sapient group members, such as dogs. Not only does the game take those into account when you’re interacting with things, but interesting things can happen with them.
The Unlocks Menu is a Town
I already mentioned zombo points at the start of the article. The way you actually use them is by choosing the “Unlocks” option from the start screen. This takes you to a town where you can talk to people to use the zombo points you’ve gathered.
This isn’t necessarily a great design choice, since it means you’ll have to spend time walking between NPCs instead of choosing what you want to unlock from a menu. But it’s not that bad here since there’s only one building for unlocks and you start right next to it.
I do feel it adds to the game’s silliness and mystery, since the NPCs have a bunch more dialogue to entertain you with. And it’s a great example on how a “high sense of mystery” doesn’t necessarily have to correlate with “being serious” or “being realistic.”
You set the tone for your world, and if that tone remains intact, then your world remains believable.
There’s something really satisfying about how this game handles whacking zombies with weapons and seeing them get burst to bits. Even if it’s all pixelated graphics.
You can also pick up furniture and throw it at zombies. The more strength your character has, the bigger furniture you can pick up. It feels great to grab an entire shelf and hurl it into a group of zombies, then pick it up and do it again until the shelf itself is smashed!
Furniture is just one thing you can interact with. You can also open and close doors to slow the zombies down. Bits and pieces of zombies will be left on the ground, and they’ll get squished and kicked around as you walk over them.
Most items are found on the ground, but you may have to go out of your way to open closets and check shelves (so look around carefully!). You may also find safe boxes, arcade cabinets, new cars or even gym equipment to train with. All this variety adds to the sense of mystery and excitement to finding new things!
One last thing I’d like to mention is leaving an area. You’re usually traveling by car, so if you want to leave, you need to run back to the the car, start it up and then go. There’s an added sense of mystery in that the car doesn’t start up immediately: you need to rev it up a little. If the engine is damaged, this may take quite a while, and nearby zombies can start battering down your car while you’re doing it. Also, if a group member fails to enter the car before you drive away, they’ll be left behind. So be careful!
Additionally, you can leave by walking outside the town’s bounds, but that makes you abandon your car. (Which puts you at bigger risk for bandit attacks and other accidents.) If you’re getting swarmed, it may still be a better choice than risk getting killed while trying to reach your car.
If you’ve looked at the screenshots here carefully, you may have noticed that there are also some things in the game that don’t necessarily add to the sense of mystery:
- All houses and buildings have an uncharasteristic “Exit” sign in their outmost doorway (this feels somewhat unnecessary since the doors leading outside already have a light shining from them)
- When starting up your car, you see an unnecessary increasing number and “CAR START!” exclamation (instead of just hearing start-up sounds)
- There’s a big hovering “EXIT” sign when you walk near the edge of a town (you can see it in the previous gif with the car start-up)
- Doors and cabinets you haven’t checked yet have a small shining effect
I’m not sure if these are remnants from early development or if they were added later because players had trouble understanding those specific gameplay features.
Either way, they’re a small price to pay for every bit of mystery the game has to offer.
Also note that there are some situations that don’t necessarily make sense. When you abandon your car by walking out of a city, you will still mysteriously have all your supplies with you (even though they were supposed to be in your car, which you never got back to). This isn’t exactly realistic, but it’s convenient and you hardly realize it while playing.
The Downside of Mystery
Death Road to Canada is also a good example on some negatives that can happen when a game relies very heavily on the sense of mystery.
Uncertainty vs Survival
This game is a roguelike. With choices. That means any decision you make may doom your team, and thus your entire run.
So if you just want to survive, the easy way is to keep the wiki open and check for what kind of results each decision will yield, and whether some weapon is really worth buying or not.
This is especially true when you’re just starting with the game and often finding yourself unfairly thrust into seemingly hopeless situations. But also when you get far enough into the game and want to start trying the harder difficulty modes – which require more than just good luck if you want to maximize your chances at survival.
I’ve seen some games try to prevent players from looking at wikis or guides by adding a timer and disabling pausing the game when you’re presented with decisions. While that does enforce the mystery, I personally despise it. It already takes quite a while to read out the situation and look through available choices. Depending on your reading skills, you may not even be able to read all the available text before the timer runs out!
And… that’s the only bad thing I could come up with
For the last week I’ve kept trying to think if there’s ANY other downside to employing this much designed mystery into this game.
…And I can’t come up with anything.
So if you’re a developer and you’re afraid of using designed mystery for any reason – don’t.
As long as you don’t completely botch it, adding to the sense of mystery is only going to enhance your game further.