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Wot I Think: Dead State

Expire State Of Mind

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Dead State has been shambling toward release for years and we’ve been tracking its progress since Brian Mitsoda announced the project in 2010. It looked like it might be the game that revitalised the zombie genre long before the rotters had reached saturation point. It was also one of the few old-fashioned isometric RPGs in development before Kickstarter helped the likes of Wasteland 2 and Pillars of Eternity to burst onto the scene. Dead State’s own Kickstarter in 2012 allowed Double Bear to move into full-time production and the game was finally released last week. We sent survivalist Cassandra Khaw to Splendid, Texas. Here is her report.

“You need to go to the pharmacy!” demands the soft-spoken brunette in the wheelchair, my self-appointed deputy, the voice-of-almost-reason in this hellhole of town.

“But I just – ” I palmed the sleep from my eyes. My hands still smell like gasoline and leaky bottles of codeine.

“It’s to the north!”

“But!”

“It’s Brady’s – ”

“Yes, I know. I just came back from there with a stack of antibioti – ”

“We need antibiotics – ”

Dead State might be a post-apocalyptic, turn-based RPG in the vein of Fallout and a more sedentary State of Decay, but it certainly isn’t very good at listening to me. I fumble through dialogue options, desperately trying to find a way to remind dear Davis that yes, we do have the goddamned antibiotics so quit telling me what I already know. None arise. Like me, Davis is a marionette tethered to the narrative’s strings. We’re all just puppets here.

Exhausted of options, I’m punted back to the shelter proper — a converted school ringed by a flimsy wire fence — to plan. Just another day in Splendid, small-town bastion of the almost living.

***

Doublebear Productions’ inaugural title is an isometric survival simulator set within a world gone belly up. Dressed in functional graphics, it opens in a traditional fashion, with you being asked to customize the appearance of your avatar and their character stats. The game then introduces you to a plane, a plane crash, and then a short tutorial in rapid succession. Once that is done, your character passes out from blood loss, and you awake in the basement of a school, surrounded by friendly albeit pungent people. (Zombie apocalypse? No hot showers? Hello?)

Here, you’re introduced to the cast, a ragtag conglomeration of survivors made up of a vet-turned-field-medic and her trucker mother, a policeman, a man in a wheelchair, a shellshocked flight stewardess and a dude who may yet be a zombie. Even from the beginning, Dead State makes it clear that it wants to provide as much freedom as humanly possible. In one of the opening conversations, you’ll have the option to mourn over a family member or loved one, with no restriction of gender.

I’m not certain if declaring your marital status or sexuality has any actual in-game effect. Certainly, no one has faulted me for being a queer Asian woman of indeterminate age but it’s a nice touch that allows you to better identify with your character. However, the lack of player-directed prejudice isn’t synonymous for nice. Very quickly, Dead State will imprint on you the understanding that the people in your shelter are a bunch of whiny, self-centred —

***

“Is there anything I can do to improve your mood?”

“Coffee. I miss real coffee beans.” Davis sighs.

“Okay.” I look through my inventory. Gone. Like everything, the blood-stained satchels of powdered coffee that I retrieved from an undead-eaten supermarket are missing, transformed into a number on my supplies list.

Hopeful, I trigger another conversation with Davis. “Is there anything I can do to improve your mood?”

“I miss real coffee beans.” He says, mechanically. I can almost see a glint in his eyes, a note of steel in his voice. The man knows what he wants. Forget the zombie apocalypse, the commercial grounds have nothing on the real thing.

I sigh and leave for another afternoon of zombie-killing.

Three days later, I do come back with actual coffee beans — a unique item stored in an accessible shelf in the first-floor of the shelter — and hand it to him. I ask him again if there was anything, anything at all, I could do to improve his mood, praying to see a change in his speech.

He stares at me. I stare back.

“I miss real coffee — “

Jackass.

***

Morale is a slippery beast in Dead State. No fuel to power the generator? Minus fifty points. People with okay moods? Another ten point deduction! You can bring luxury items in by the pound but that will only nominally dent that river of unhappiness. Even bringing people what they specifically want seems to be mostly an exercise in futility, as they will do nothing but demand more of the same.

Most infuriatingly, perhaps, the survivors in the shelter appear to be firm advocates of worker’s rights. They have set work hours. That wooden fence you’re desperately trying to build to keep out roving meth-heads and undead hordes? They’ll only work on it for eight hours a day. There is no way — at least, from what I’ve seen — to coerce them into working the graveyard shift in a bid to prevent the shelter from turning into a bloody graveyard.

Maybe that’s because the task of turning this school-turned-refugee-centre into a viable habitat is your responsibility. You’re the one who has to pick up the slack. It is up to you to acquire enough material to repair broken fences and put together a gym. It is your job to create watchtowers and infirmaries and chicken coops too, the same way it is your job to assign responsibilities to other survivors in the shelter. (NPCs can be told to build things, create items, or sweep the ground to boost morale somehow)

Weirdly, for a game that focuses much on socio-political interaction, the RPG elements in Dead State are oddly lacking .Your allies stand like statues in various locations in the shelter. No one wanders about. No one strikes up a conversation with an ally. No one goes to the bathroom. They just hang around, waiting for you to open channels of communication. Frustratingly, there’s not much reason to do so. Conversation is invariably the same selection of questions and answers, over and over and over again.

To be fair, the game does provide more than just static chitchat. Each day is generally heralded by a batch of random scenarios. Sometimes, you’ll be called upon to resolve a problematic situation. Other times, you’ll be an eavesdropper slinking past a mother-daughter argument, or an Agony Aunt for someone with gas. In your travels, you’ll also meet a menagerie of recruitable NPCs. You’ll find them hunkered in boarded-up houses, in pharmacies with their sick spouses, at your front fence dripping blood and gibberish. These encounters tend to be the most interesting scenarios, offering a window into the post-apocalyptic mind.

***

“Splendid PD!”

“Please. Please stop, Joel.”

Catch phrases annoy me. They always have. However, my loathing for them recently achieved new heights. Everyone knows that the zombies in Dead State are visually impaired, relying on sound to track their prey. Everyone. Especially Joel, the last cop in town. I mean, he was the one who warned me about making too much noise in the first place.

But that doesn’t stop him from screaming all the damn time, albeit in the form of hovering text rather than audio barks.

“SPLENDID PD!” He hoots, as we throw ourselves at another batch of zombies, their intestines trailing behind them like leashed puppies.

Of course, there is no mechanical disadvantage to the ululated catch phrases. Your characters’ blathering do nothing to raise the criminally sensitive noise meter on the top-left of your screen. Still, after the twentieth time, it can get old.

“SPLENDID – “

“Right. You’re staying home tomorrow, mister.”

***

Combat is … finicky. Everything in the world of Dead State operates in real-time, up till the point you hit the spacebar or something aggressive comes within range. Then, the map switches into a grid-based layout where everything plays out in neat little turns. The amount of action points a character has dictates how much they can achieve in a round, naturally. If you’ve played Fallout or XCOM or Wasteland, you’ll find yourself at home here. The system in Dead State is reminiscent of the ones used in the aforementioned games, although greatly simplified in comparison, with no option to crouch or provide cover.

The one twist here is the usage of noise. Pretty much everything you do will generate sound. If you create enough of a clamour (aka: shoot lots of stuff), enemies will begin converging upon you. Produce even more sound, and you’ll have zombies spawning helter-skelter.

On a less positive note, camera angles leave much to be desired for. I quickly found myself dreading the notion of fighting inside tight quarters or in tree lines, for fear of a) the omnipresent dangers brought about by the fog of war mechanic and b) not being able to see where I’m bloody clicking. Similarly, I found the lack of visual cues frustrating. Dead State expects you to know how many AP those steps forward will cost you, and what will happen if you fire from out-of-range. But it’s remarkably easy to make a lethal mistake when you’re in the thick of a zombie horde.

Interestingly, the undead, even when appearing en masse, aren’t actually that much of a threat. Unless summoned by gunshots, most seem content to remain standing in place, silent and patient. It is only when you venture a little too close that will they pounce, leaving you room to plot strategic attacks. Other human beings, however? That’s different. From looters to well-armed gang members, sapient beings are your worst enemies here. Though most won’t engage until you’ve wandered within a certain distance, each encounter with another living being is a nerve-wrecking one. Antagonistic humans seem exempt from your own characters’ action points restrictions, and are invariably great shots.

But there are ways to counter it, of course.

I took down my first squad of Coyote Enforcers by lobbing nerve gas into their midst, before pummelling them to death with sledgehammers and bats. Another group, I dealt with by luring zombies into their midst. (The end result was more zombies, but at least those can’t shoot you.) Nothing in Dead State is impenetrable, especially not you.

***

“Honey! I’m home with the gasoline!”

“Great. Have any deodorant?”

“Hot sauce?”

“I miss real coffee “

“ .. screw you guys, I’m going to bed.”

***

Despite these issues, do I like Dead State? I think so.

The mountainous list of responsibilities quickly becomes a second heartbeat. It flows with you. It orders your steps, your decisions, becomes central to all your major decisions. And when you’re least careful, it swallows you whole, dragging you into the heart of the experience. Dead State, like any good simulator, makes it easy to forget that you’re just a tourist, a visitor to this terrible land. Its ability to cultivate a suspension of disbelief even makes the game’s banal locations — supermarkets, pharmacies, and sleazy bars are everywhere on the map, just waiting to be unearthed — interesting. Dead State might well be the first game to have me excited at the discovery of an abandoned picnic.

As the world opens up and various crises occur, flavour is added to the functional processes that underpin the existence of the shelter and its inhabitants. The Crisis Events are especially important, and involve you being dragged centerstage into a community-based conflagration, where your opinion may make or break how the others view you. My first was disastrous. I opted to let the placid Davis experiment with a better water source and it caused a missionary and a sheriff to disapprove heavily of my “wishy-washy” behaviour. Whether by accident or not, this then led to the disappearance of my best melee fighter, and another bevy of complaints and requests. Problematic? Certainly, but also appealingly nail-biting as the Crisis Events make it clear that you can’t please everyone and that there is no right or wrong to anything in this game, only different shades of reality.

There are also many new allies to discover, providing an escape from the repetitive banter of those initial companions. But even as the game opens up, it is not without its problems. Technical issues arise from time to time – characters will occasionally glide, instead of walk, and they will clip through walls like part-time magicians.

Dead State is also a slow burn. Fences take hundreds of hours to build. Events unfold slowly over days, rather than at your whim. And resources? Resources are definitely scarce. Much of Dead State involves figuring out how to maintain a steady flow of food and fuel and luxury items and parts and whatever else your little commune needs, because they evaporate as quickly as water in the Sahara. The game will make you grit your teeth in frustration.

But it is also very good at making you feel triumphant.

I caught myself crowing in delight today, after cleaning out a supermarket of its goods. I killed twenty zombies, all without losing a single ally to infection or sudden death. My haul? About fifty pounds of food, ten gallons of fuel, and a pocketful of fresh berries. A pittance, really, given how quickly my survivors eat through their rations, and how rapidly the generator drains our fuel supplies. But it was more than anything I had acquired in the last three game days. Enough for me to last one night without going onto the field. (Which I will still do, but hey. The luxury of choice is a luxury indeed.)

And if that isn’t a success in this dead-eat-not-dead world, I don’t know what is.

Edit: some clarifications regarding features have been made in the text of this article.

Dead State is out now.

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Cassandra Khaw

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