Wot I Think – Dead State: Reanimated

I’d been wanting to check out Doublebear’s Dead State – which I’m going to loosely label ‘The Walking Dead does X-COM’ – for a while, but Wot I Thinkery fell to someone else upon its initial release. The free ‘Reanimated’ update is a fancy name for a mega-patch designed to address assorted gripes about the doomy turn-based strategy/RPG zombie survival game, and also my opportunity to finally visit the blighted town of Splendid, Texas.

I should point out that this is my first experience of Dead State, so I’m about as much use as a band-aid on headshot when it comes to identifying whether the new and changed features are improvements or not. I know there are a raft of new difficulty options to keep the hardcore or the over-familiar engaged, but frankly the last thing I’d want to do right now is make Dead State any more punishing. What I’m looking at is whether Dead State: Reanimated is a game fellow first-timers should play or not.

Broadly, the answer to that is ‘yes.’ But I’d stay your hand before you opened your purse, look you in the eyes with infinite solemnity and say ‘wait. There’s something you should know.’ I’ll describe Dead State quickly first, though. You have a base, which is a school in various states of disrepair, and whose rooms can only be built or fixed with resources obtained from the world outside, which is packed with zombies and murderous survivors. So you send your character and up to three allies into the field, where they move in real-time until they get into a fight, at which point the game shifts into X-COM- or Fallout-style turn-based battles. In between this stuff, you try to manage the physical and mental well-being of your growing (and sometimes diminishing, if you’re inept or unlucky in fights) band of survivors.

There are loose goals, but primarily it’s about about discovering (and surviving) locations around you through an ever-widening circle of exploration across a big Texan map (comparable in size and locales to early Fallouts, though don’t expect quests or chats at any of your stop-offs) which becomes more manageable if and when you find faster modes of transport.

The plot is basically ‘survive’, but small story beats offering crises and new characters pop up as time wears on, some of which are scripted and some of which are reactive to the status of your fellow survivors. Because almost anyone can be infected, perma-killed or in some cases sent away, the shape of your group is never certain, so though the essential structure is the same from game to game, the vignettes within it will differ.

There’s a lot going on, and the game is impressively unmerciful too, as befits its scenario. Dead State is an extremely well-observed apocalypse survival RPG, but unfortunately it’s also irritating, both on a structural level and in how its combat works. The former relates to grind, and in fairness it is only thematically appropriate that survivors of an infection-shattered world would have to scrape out a subsistence life, foraging constantly for food and other resources, but is this ‘fun’? We’re in similar territory to This War Of Mine, which is also primarily a scavenger hunt with the purpose of building up and maintaining a safe-ish shelter. But that is a message game, using the grim repetition of its away missions and parts-collection to sell us on the idea that civilian life in wartime is hell. Can Dead State really make similar claims about its fantastical theme?

In any case, the issue for me is more that the grind here is too mechanical rather than that it’s there at all. For instance, to build a science lab or an infirmary requires a fixed number of ‘parts’, which almost always entails multiple trips into the field, from which only a handful of objects specifically labelled ‘parts’ can be used as parts. All those doors and walls and car shells and windows and wooden pallets and metal barrels and light fittings and furniture littering the streets and structures you visit? Not ‘parts’. Don’t touch.

So you repeatedly throw your people into danger on these desperate trips into small Texan city-fragments, filled with zombies and looters, in the name of finding the 40 ‘parts’ which will let you build the infirmary. Until you have that infirmary, no-one will try to heal anyone else’s horrific injuries, despite all the bandages and painkillers you do have kicking about, so survival becomes a war of attrition, taking increasingly near-dead units out into the field and hoping you luck or savescum your way into a relatively clean run. I realise it’s all in the name of being a survival fantasy rather than a power fantasy, but I do feel this could have been presented more believably.

The key problem with Dead State: Reanimated, for me, is that it is a prix fixe menu. You’re supposed to be allocating jobs to the various other survivors who fetch up in the huge school you’re using as a shelter, but until you have exactly 40 parts for this or that room, they can’t even start building it. Despite various dialogue stressing the importance of everyone mucking in, most of your workers idle, waiting for you to get back with more, only to usually find that jobs still can’t get done because the only claw hammers you had are stuck in the inventories of those who joined you on the last mission, and you can’t even look at said inventories until you’re back out in the field.

This leads to a whole lot of inventory Tetris, manually shuffling specific items from your crew to yourself, and then from yourself to the shared storage in the base, and all the while you’re thinking “man, wouldn’t they have at least tried to build a rudimentary infirmary to try and do something about all these wounds, even though they only have 38/40 parts and no hammer?”

I don’t have a proposal for what would make this system better, but all the time I played Dead State I struggled to reconcile a fantasy about carving out a makeshift existence on a fatal new frontier with this mechanical pursuit of construction material numbers. Both in its favour and against it is how harrowing the away missions required to obtain these resources are. Heading to a picnic site to grab some wood and fuel isn’t a straightforward matter of ‘walk over, shoot zombies, win’. It’s this teeth-grinding exercise in fear, trying to grab resources without being seen or heard, then trying to pick enemies off one-by-one rather than getting swarmed once you are inevitably spotted. There were areas I just cut and ran from, because I knew I’d be doomed if I ventured too far in.

A couple of zombies are manageable; four are generally not. More than one human ‘looter’, meanwhile, means serious trouble – they know how to use weapons, they can move further, they can summon their allies and they haven’t been beaten down by raid after raid like your guys have. To borrow a well-worn metaphor, you are the walking dead here. Simply getting around a zone is gloriously tense, a delicate balancing act of greed and caution. Once a fight does begin, strict limits on your characters’ action points, scarcity of ammo, unreliability of weapons, and risk of infection as well as death keeps it a fraught, scrappy brawl for survival rather than a coldly tactical war.

Dead State does desperation very well: at any moment, I felt a hair’s breadth from tragedy. I heard some gripes about enemy AI in the original version of the game, but apart from a couple of instances of multiple foes getting bunched up in doorways, they seemed as relentless and deadly as I would need or expect them to be.

Due to your gang’s fragility, this is not a game in which you are expected or even encouraged to kill everything – in fact, if you get into a fight at all, you might just have done the stupidest thing you possibly could. Sadly, the noise detection system is far too rudimentary and there’s a total lack of any stealth option. Fair enough, it’s not Invisible, Inc, but the option to quietly grab something from a shelf when a guard is looking the other way is conspicuous by its absence from a game which repeatedly advises quiet. As is – and oh God, I’m doing If Only You Could Talk To The Monsters – the option to engage most other humans in dialogue.

Dead State posits that, come the post-apocalypse, whatever’s left of humanity will immediately turn aggressively tribal – a familiar trope, and one which asks you to perform your own moral balancing act about the lives you’re taking rather than being preachy about it. But…straight-up murdering half a dozen guys because it’s the only way to see what’s in their picnic hamper feels monstrous when you’ve not even had a chance to ask first. That the enemy always gets to move (and attack, if they can get within range) first once you’re spotted makes it feel unfair too, especially as a rigid character turn order will see control of whichever survivor you were controlling in real-time ripped away in favour of someone who’s six steps away from the gun-toting maniac you’d just engaged.

Almost all dialogue happens back at base, where your gang of survivors – the majority of whom can be perma-killed in the field – primarily offered looped requests or setpiece panics. There are little human dramas to make decisions about, and a slow-burn of managing a team with different motivations – the pragmatic mechanic, the TV preacher who may or may not be more interested in converting the survivors than he is keeping them alive, the student vet who isn’t comfortable with becoming the shelter’s de facto doctor – and these are appropriately agonising.

The writing’s sharp, the decisions nuanced, the scenarios less contrived and violence-inclined than assorted mediums of The Walking Dead tend to be, the slow growth and improvement of your ant’s nest of a shelter satisfying to see. There’s so much going on, slowly, with a trickle of new survivors helping keep status quo at bay and changing how you feel about your group. Little people, their lives in your hand.

Unfortunately, having to (for example) supply Joel with an endless supply of hot sauce to help keep his spirits up kicks this humanity back into roboticism. Every character has a luxury item they will ask for again and again – you wonder why, after four consecutive bottles of hot sauce, Joel doesn’t feel in the mood for mayo instead. Meanwhile, Morale itself is a global statistic, affected by a huge grid of factors – everything from food availability to if the toilets work and if the cupboards are stocked with antibiotics. Everything is a drain on it, including if a character is merely feeling ‘OK’, and the mathematical breakdown of exactly what’s contributing to it at the end of each in-game day does reveal a statistical Oz behind the curtain of humanity.

I think that’s the fundamental issue holding Dead State back from the greatness it often threatens: it’s trying to be a management game and a roleplaying game and a strategy game, and (perhaps because its origins are fairly humble) it winds up compromising on each of those. I wish it felt more organic, that those terrifying forays into a hostile world had more pay-off than an incremental number adjustment, that not having exactly the right amount of parts didn’t result in a half a dozen people sat around the last refuge at the end of the world with nothing to do.

I do like it, though. Quite a lot more so than this piece probably suggests, and that’s because it’s a game which is far more successful in theme and tone (harder to convey in text) than it is in features. Getting through another day feels meaningful despite the barrage of numbers and the parroted lines. Fights are chilling, flexible and unpredictable rather than perfunctory. Error is a result of your choices rather than an enforced event. The wider world is a sinister, uncharted mystery, with your never quite knowing what’s out there until you encounter it. Decisions are painful. People are problematic. Murder feels bad. The downbeat prettiness of its world is littered with small details, hints of the communities that once were and the fearful squatters that have replaced them.

In terms of recreating the second act of an … of the Dead or 28 x Later film, that point where the world has fallen, scattered survivors have found shared refuge and now they need to take risks to maintain it, Dead State is probably as close as we get. I would say that Dead State probably has too many parts and doesn’t quite know how to fit them all together cleanly, but it just about manages to be more than the sum of them.

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31 Comments

  1. XhomeB says:

    Very underappreciated cRPG, enjoyed it a lot. A bit less than the upcoming Age of Decadence or Underrail (which will absolutely ROCK, if their Early Access quality is anything to go by) for the reasons AM stated (wish some areas were a bit fleshed out), but considering the shoestring budget they had to work with, it’s really great – pretty much my dream “The Walking Dead” kind of RPG I always wanted to play.

    • Le blaireau says:

      Underrail is too good. The systems, crafting and cc depth, combat encounters, atmosphere, level design… Everything is just so well thought out. Can’t wait for him to finish. I just want to dive into this game hardcore.

    • inf says:

      Also pitching in to say how amazing Underrail is. Mechanically, it’s almost damn perfect. You guys know it’s made by one guy right?

      It’s gonna be downright funny to see one guy finally bring a classic CRPG as it should be (mechanically), while the output of all these other devs (including big Obsidian), has been mediocre to say the least.

    • noom says:

      Glad to hear positive things about Underrail. Looks fantastic but I’m one of those that would rather wait til it’s gone gold to play it. Any idea how long that may be?

    • Jp1138 says:

      Well, you made me finally buying it. Now waiting for it to be completed…

  2. padger says:

    I’ve enjoyed this enormously, and would recommend it to all RPSers who enjoy RPGs. Yes, it’s a bit clunky. If that puts you off, well… that’d be a shame.

    • Guzzleguts says:

      I, on the other hand, would not recommend it. (Based on the old version). I was a K.S. backer, but personally prefer free flash game ‘Last stand: Dead zone.’
      True, dead state had NPCs with conversations, but I found them to be so lacking in charisma that they actually count as a negative point in my eyes.
      The game trumps Wasteland 2 in the pathetically ugly graphics stakes, and even in the shallow tactical combat stakes.
      In other words, if you hated Wasteland 2, this is just as crap.

      • inf says:

        ^^ I agree with this man. The combat of almost all these so called CRPGs last year hasn’t been up to standard at all. Wasteland 2 might have been the biggest disappointment for me in 5 years. Didn’t finish it, replayed JA2 v1.13 instead.

  3. Alsier72712 says:

    You can access all your character inventories without going into the field by clicking on the shelter storage. There’s a pull-down to select the current character inventory on the upper left of the storage area screen. You do have to walk from the job board to the storage area and back if you need a hammer for a shelter project, but much better than going into the field (also very handy for moving weapons from one character to another before going into the field).

  4. montorsi says:

    Thanks for this writeup. I’ve been curious about Dead State for what seems like ages now but I’ve not yet plunked down the cash. I’ll have to do so when I’ve got a little more free time.

  5. PegasusOrgans says:

    Nice to hear! I was a KS backer, so I played it in all its forms and, personally, had fairly few bug issues, so my experiences were quite nice. The game feels like an indie game, in that it’s missing a lot of the little details that 50 million tends to fill in, but the essential parts, the guts and soul it had in full. It made me care, it made me worry about my choices and it had the “one more turn” feel that made so many games addictive.

    What this game could do with a bigger budget, more emphasis on quests/trading and even more base-building, drives me crazy with game-desire. Here’s hoping a Dead State 2 is a reality!

  6. WiggumEsquilax says:

    Incremental construction using project specific components. Morale side quests that can be completed rather than repeated. The possibility of trade with other groups.

    There really isn’t very much that needs fixing. Was this the final patch?

  7. Guzzleguts says:

    It’s good to see that despite the apocalypse someone has been keeping the church in the first screenshot nice and clean. Also nice that the zombies are queuing politely to chomp on your brains.

    Why are these 90s revival games also bringing back the ugly 3d models? That was a limitation of the time not a feature. If you can’t make something good with the tech you have go back further to something simpler that allows you to create an internally consistent aesthetic.
    I even prefer the weird cartoony style used in games such as the Rebuild series (by Sarah Northway) because it is clear, consistent, and most importantly does not jar.

  8. Michael Fogg says:

    I’m thinking the trope Alec mentions – societal breakdown = instant team deathmatch – really tells us more about our atomized society of today than about any actual scenario of societal breakdown. Modern society’s weak social bonds (people hardly know anybody outside the nuclear family and a small circle of friends) makes the scenario of ‘my small group against the world’ a plausible one to many.

    But in reality I believe there’s plenty of evidence and historical precedents of quite the opposite happening – in times of strife people band together into a single massive tribe, make decisions collectively and generally eschew individualism. That’s why the constant ‘war against looters’ in This War of Mine was such a historically inaccurate scenario, as actual survivors of the siege of Sarajevo pointed out on many occasions. The theme of ‘looters coming to steal your stuff!’ is so prominent in post-apoc fiction that it can’t be a coincidence in our alienating, capitalist society.

    All this makes it actually more scary to just look in the mirror than all the fictional disasters, zombies, Shit-hitting-the-fan etc. you can think of.

    • stiffkittin says:

      Excellent comment. Good food for thought, thanks for contributing this!

    • KenTWOu says:

      That’s why the constant ‘war against looters’ in This War of Mine was such a historically inaccurate scenario, as actual survivors of the siege of Sarajevo pointed out on many occasions.

      The game wasn’t based on the siege of Sarajevo alone. There were other survivors from other cities who pointed out that the game was somewhat accurate. Just an example.

      • Michael Fogg says:

        Sorry, but that’s an article from a ‘doomer’ website, is not verifiable and a seems to be taylor-made solely to cover the typical talking points of preppers.

  9. Kitsunin says:

    Oh! I had been so confused for a while, I had been wondering since when State of Decay wasn’t a top-down tactical game, but the focus on management had made me think it was the game with state in the name i had read about on RPS. I knew something was off, but here it is, the game I was actually thinking of.

  10. Tharoz says:

    Hmm, Alec, did you actually play this for more than 5 minutes before commenting?

    I refer you to your following comment.

    ‘only to usually find that jobs still can’t get done because the only claw hammers you had are stuck in the inventories of those who joined you on the last mission, and you can’t even look at said inventories until you’re back out in the field.’

    Inventory management is handled from the shelter storage screen, and is pretty straight-forward.

    I also think you kind of miss the point of what this game is about. Yes the part chasing can become a little wearing, but I think the constant search for more food/parts/antibiotics/fuel to enable you to survive another day is precisely the point of the game. If you don’t find that to your taste, perhaps this game isn’t for you or you should try a less taxing difficulty setting.

    • wu wei says:

      The important thing is that you expressed your point without sounding like an insufferable ass.

      • Premium User Badge

        Harlander says:

        Nothing tells me I’m in for a comment totally lacking in unearned condescension like it starting with “did you even play this for $SHORT_TIME_PERIOD?”

        • Tharoz says:

          If you set yourself up as a professional game reviewer, you are saying that your words have value. To then fall at the first hurdle of not actually knowing what you are talking about is asking for ridicule.

          It took me about 1 minute to find the drop down menu to select other characters, but even if you didn’t see this, there is always the manual. I know a lot of people don’t like reading manuals, but again, professional? Read the manual.

          As to the convenience factor, build the portable radio upgrade. Increasing your personal convenience in managing your shelter is a perfectly valid task for the game to present you. Why should it give you everything on a platter?

    • Andrew says:

      It’s not particularly obvious that you can access survivor’s inventory from the stash. Indeed, you can, but the game should make that more apparent.

      Likewise, I find it frustrating that I can’t access inventory and character stats and skills at the same time – a lot of bouncing between the jobs board and the stash to properly allocate gear.

      I did find the combat too simplistic (for example: no cover, that I’m aware of). Survivors constantly asking for the same thing, even though I’ve gotten it for them multiple times. I have some minor issues with the way stuff looks – the watchtower is ridiculous, as is the wooden fence. Who would build something like that? It looks like it would fall over in a minute. Use some scaffolding instead. But as I say, that’s pretty minor. But on the whole, it really scratched an itch of mine. So I’m happy with it overall.

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      cpt_freakout says:

      Also, the hunt for parts settles down after a while (around mid-game, I’d say), especially after you build a recycling machine. Guns and armor, which are really not that hard to find, give you lots and lots of spare parts. I felt that once the pressure for parts and food is gone (which it is if you manage the time spent travelling right) you can really concentrate on the story and on location discovery. That’s what was most exciting to me, in the end – going out into the map and seeing what (and who) I could find.

      I do agree, however, that the combat is… well, it works, but there’s not a lot of tactical depth to it (if any). All in all, I thought it was an interesting game, well worth trying out if you like the zombie genre and/or RPGs. It won’t blow your mind or replace that special RPG in your heart, but it’s certainly a good one.

  11. Core says:

    I wish the combat was more like JA2 but otherwise it’s a great game. I loved that it got really desperate towards the end and survival was not guaranteed, and you have to make hard choices in few parts.

    • klops says:

      That desperate part sounds good! It seems the game has improved a lot then and the gear rebalancing and AI upgrade has done the trick. When I played Dead State it was a walk in the park once you got heavier armor.

  12. bsadzewicz says:

    Boo … Normally i love RPS articles… but if you’re going to BASH MECHANICS of a game like saying you can’t access inventory for characters at the shelter don’t you think you should make sure that you aren’t lying and actually check drop down menus/the game manual? You’re doing a journalistic piece actually spending time and making sure you have facts should be integral to writing it.

    anyways enough griping about this article keep on writing and i’ll keep on reading.

  13. denizsi says:

    Almost stopped reading at the part about inventories and idling allies at the shelter. Just plain factually wrong.

    Interaction within the shelter itself is not the most convenient thing indeed, as it is basically a glorified menu that exists in a vacuum from the outside game world with pretty much nothing happening and it still requires you to run between allies and places inside it just to interact with them, which is quite very annoying. That’s no reason to stop paying attention to the game, however.

    While at the shelter, you can access the shelter storage (the little storage room on the ground level, right by the stairs to the basement. The game even gives you a floating text to remind you of the fact the first time you leave the basement) where you can see and manage the inventories of all allies. Apart from that, all supplies on your allies are automatically transferred to the storage upon returning to the shelter.

    As for idling; it’s more likely to have more parts than time and allies permit you to build anything to completion as upgrade takes so much time, so as long as you manage and assign tasks properly and make good scavenging runs, you shouldn’t have anyone idling for shortage of supplies or for no reason at all.

    We expect better than an RPS article at figuring out a game than to misleading readers with false information.

  14. Goral says:

    You know what’s even better than Underrail? Age of Decadence. One of the reasons I love Age of Decadence so much is because it’s unlike any other game that I know and it brings freshness to the RPG genre.

    • king0zymandias says:

      I actually had to let a bunch of rapists carry on with there raping. Because I knew they would kill me if I tried to stop them. That was a first for me in an RPG. Powerful feeling.